It was an odd sight for this time of year.
On a steamy morning at Eagles training camp, safety Malcolm Jenkins and other veteran starters took part in a full-contact punt coverage drill more than two hours into a long practice.
Now, I've traveled to many training camps over the years and have seen a lot of things, from robotic tackling dummies to Tim Tebow throwing a pass that rotated on three different axes and landed in a shrub. But I have never seen important veteran defenders drilling as punt gunners in Hour 3 of a practice. I even triple-checked uniform numbers to make sure I wasn't hallucinating.
Punt-coverage drills are traditionally Gatorade time for important veterans. To understand why, let's perform a quick cost-benefit analysis of making a Pro Bowler sprint downfield against double-team blocking in Minute 140 of a sweaty practice.
Potential benefits: The Pro Bowler will be extra-ready in the unlikely event he is asked to cover a punt.
Potential risks: The Pro Bowler will suffer an injury that ruins his team's season.
So most teams don't expose important players to unnecessary risks just to squeeze a few extra reps out of a practice session.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson is proving he is not a cost-benefit analysis kind of guy. That became obvious in the fourth quarter of the Eagles' preseason opener against the Buccaneers on Thursday night.
Carson Wentz, the second overall pick in the draft, a player the Eagles traded five picks to obtain, took the field with 7:57 to play. Wentz had taken several direct hits from defenders in the second and third quarters. The previous Eagles drive ended with Wentz tumbling helmet-over-tea-cups over a defender and landing hard after a read-option keeper.
Wentz's offensive line at the 7:57 mark in the fourth quarter consisted of:
Left tackle: Dillon Gordon, undrafted rookie;
Left guard: Malcolm Bunche, practice-squader and 2015 undrafted free agent;
Center: Bruce Johnson, undrafted rookie;
Right guard: Darrell Greene, undrafted rookie;
Right tackle: Halapoulivaati Vaitai, fifth-round pick.
Wentz's skill-position weapons were:
Receiver: David Watford, undrafted rookie;
Receiver: Paul Turner, undrafted rookie;
Receiver: T.J. Graham, journeyman—the only player in the Eagles huddle with any NFL game experience.
Tight end: M.J. McFarland, undrafted rookie lined up at wide receiver, making him unavailable for pass protection;
Running back: Byron Marshall; undrafted rookie.
In total, the future of the franchise took the field with seven undrafted rookies, one third-day draft pick, an inexperienced practice-squader (who would soon be cut) and one journeyman. Calling this the "third string" is being charitable. Gordon and Johnson are fourth-stringers, according to the official Eagles depth chart. McFarland and Marshall are listed fifth.
Lo and behold, Wentz took two more hits on that final drive. The second, a brutal shot from unblocked Buccaneers linebacker Micah Awe, resulted in a hairline rib fracture. Wentz is expected to miss several weeks of practice and preseason action.
Let's do a little cost-benefit analysis of the decision to leave a blue-chip quarterback prospect who represents a massive organizational investment in the game behind a line with a guy from Maine (Johnson) and a converted LSU tight end (Gordon).
Potential benefits: Wentz gets a few more snaps of "game experience" with teammates he will never, ever see again after Labor Day.
Also, Wentz undergoes some esoteric "baptism under fire," which will make him "pay his dues" and keep him humble or something.
Potential risks: Wentz suffers a serious injury that sets his development back and throws the Eagles' future into doubt.
Sticking Wentz on the field with sub-scout team-level support wasn't just a terrible decision. It was unprecedented and self-contradictory.
The table below shows when each of Wentz's peers of the last decade—rookie quarterbacks drafted among the top 10 picks—entered and left their preseason debuts. As you can see, no top prospect was still on the field with 7:57 to play in the fourth quarter of the first preseason game of his career. Only two other top prospects were still on the field to start the fourth quarter, and in both of those cases it was to finish a third-quarter drive with the help of some backups with NFL experience. Wentz walked onto the field for that ill-fated drive after every other prospect like him in recent history would have already left.
|Start and End Times for Top QBs in Preseason Opener|
|Quarterback||Entered Preseason Debut||Left Preseason Debut|
|Carson Wentz, 2016||2nd Quarter, 1:19||4th Quarter, 4:42|
|Jared Goff, 2016||2nd Quarter, 9:45||Halftime|
|Jameis Winston, 2015||Starter||Halftime|
|Marcus Mariota, 2015||Starter||2nd Quarter, 13:11|
|Blake Bortles, 2014||1st Quarter, 9:51||3rd Quarter, 4:07|
|Andrew Luck, 2012||Starter||2nd Quarter, 3:16|
|Robert Griffin III, 2012||Starter||1st Quarter, 3:40|
|Ryan Tannehill, 2012||2nd Quarter, 11:54||3rd Quarter, 0:00|
|Cam Newton, 2011||2nd Quarter, 14:21||4th Quarter, 13:40|
|Jake Locker, 2011||1st Quarter, 4:52||3rd Quarter, 8:07|
|Blaine Gabbert, 2011||Starter||Halftime|
|Sam Bradford, 2010||1st Quarter, 12:09||3rd Quarter, 12:30|
|Matthew Stafford, 2009||2nd Quarter, 6:31||3rd Quarter, 8:51|
|Mark Sanchez, 2009||1st Quarter, 0:28||2nd Quarter, 7:57|
|Matt Ryan, 2008||1st Quarter, 6:41||Halftime|
|JaMarcus Russell, 2007||Did not play||Did not play|
|Vince Young, 2006||2nd Quarter, 8:57||4th Quarter, 9:29|
|Matt Leinart, 2006||Did not play||Did not play|
But Wentz is a third-stringer, you assert, and the fourth quarter is when third-stringers play, as if depth charts come down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets and preseason games are not full of well-regarded "third-stringers" getting early game tryouts (and late game refreshments).
In fact, top rookies play ahead of journeyman backups all the time in preseason games. Cam Newton, for example, played between Jimmy Clausen and Derek Anderson in his preseason debut. One reason those journeyman backups are valuable is because they don't need meaningful reps to be ready; the top prospect can play with the second string because the journeyman doesn't need much work. The Eagles even signed fourth-string quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who has made a career out of soaking up meaningless August reps, at the start of training camp.
But let's follow this "third string" logic to its conclusion. Wentz is third string because the Eagles spent $56 million on Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel in the offseason. The justification for Daniel's $12 million guaranteed contract was that it ensured Wentz wouldn't be put into bad situations that might hinder his development (e.g., playing with a bunch of future Toronto Argonauts in garbage time).
So the Eagles invested heavily in Daniel specifically to protect Wentz. Then Wentz took the field with the guys from the Eagles Fantasy Experience because, well, that's what "third-stringers" do. One unorthodox decision directly contradicted the other. It's like leaving jewelry on the front porch so you can lock your homeowners insurance policy in the wall safe. Pederson got caught in the mental equivalent of one of those finger traps and just started yanking in both directions.
The good news is that Wentz's injury is minor. He didn't tear his ACL or suffer a concussion. None of the veteran defenders got injured gunning for punts early in camp, either. And when a series of full-tackling practices resulted in injuries to Jordan Matthews and Marcus Smith and complaints from Zach Ertz, Pederson scaled back.
None of Pederson's unusual decisions have caused any permanent damage, which is a heck of a thing to say about a new head coach four weeks before his first meaningful game.
The problem is not that Pederson has already ruined Wentz or is beating players up with his training camp and preseason policies. It's that there does not seem to be any reasoning or logic behind his training camp and preseason policies.
Former Eagles head coach Chip Kelly had vision. Sometimes he had so much vision that his visions had vision, which was part of Kelly's problem: Mere mortals couldn't comprehend and adapt to his methods. But everything was done for a reason, and the reasons all meshed with one another.
So far, Pederson appears to do some things because Andy Reid did them that way and other things because Kelly did them the opposite way. It's hard to tell what value the Eagles have assigned to Wentz, Bradford, tackling in practice, sports science (the team retained Kelly's strength and conditioning experts but jettisoned most of their innovations) or anything else because their decisions line up with neither conventional wisdom nor some Kelly-like next-gen initiative.
Pederson's explanations aren't much help, either. His rationale for ending full-tackling practices after Matthews' injury was vintage double-speak.
"It's not about getting somebody hurt, but it's about protecting the guys out here," he said, noting that he "wanted it to be tough on them."
When asked after the game about Wentz's somersault into the Buccaneers defense—when Wentz's injury was only identified as "sore ribs"—Pederson said he "kind of loved it. Wish he would have hurdled the guy instead of taking one in the legs." Those sound like random passages from a collection of tough-guy coaching aphorisms, not the thoughts of an innovator (Kelly) or a meticulous-if-deliberately-vague franchise builder (Reid).
Pederson's most confusing remarks have come when an Eagles player gets into trouble, such as after Nelson Agholor's alleged strip-club assault in the offseason or Lane Johnson's pending 10-game suspension for PEDs. Pederson doesn't exactly take a strong stand. In fact, he doesn't even go out of his way to address the transgression, alleged or otherwise.
"Listen, these guys are professionals," Pederson said last week after acknowledging he had not spoken to Johnson about the possible suspension. "They're grown men, and I've got to treat them like grown men. If something like this happens, it is unfortunate. Sometimes you learn the hard way. We'll cross that bridge when that time comes."
Perhaps we should perform a cost-benefit analysis on not communicating your expectations to core players. On second thought, let's not. Communication was Kelly's biggest problem and may be Reid's greatest strength. If Pederson is more like his predecessor than his mentor in all the wrong ways, the Eagles will have problems that go far beyond some preseason injuries and unusual practice schedules.
Speaking of Reid, he drafted a quarterback with a second overall pick, too, a guy named Donovan McNabb in 1999. Reid also signed a caretaker journeyman named Doug Pederson. In addition, the Eagles started camp with a pair of incumbent quarterbacks in 1999 named Koy Detmer and Bobby Hoying, the latter a former top prospect who flunked his face-of-the-franchise test. It wasn't quite the Bradford-Daniel-Wentz equation, but it was close, and the young Pederson was in the thick of it.
In McNabb's first preseason game, he played the second quarter behind Pederson and was gone by halftime. Reid had a plan for developing and protecting his franchise quarterback. Maybe Pederson has a plan, or has two or three contradictory plans, or a blurry photocopy of Reid's plan.
Maybe in three years Wentz will be an All-Pro, the Eagles will be 12-4 and all of this August hand-wringing will be long forgotten.
Or maybe Pederson is one unnecessary, counterintuitive risk away from making the whole organization learn the hard way.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.