PHILADELPHIA — We came to Eagles headquarters seeking political intrigue, the kind that sparks national debate and gets top billing at the big-time news networks.
But for a few beautiful moments on a cool Wednesday afternoon, we were distracted by a bouncing ball.
That's Carson Wentz in the video above: ducking, planting, escaping a pair of big rover balls tossed by his teammates and delivering a crisp little pass, six months after suffering an ACL tear and three months to the day before he will be asked to avoid defenders instead of backyard toys and throw passes in an NFL game that matters.
Later in practice, Wentz would go on to take a sparse handful of reps in seven-on-seven drills, completing a pair of soft tosses to tight end Zach Ertz and a short crosser to new receiver Mike Wallace. For a few brief moments, it was easy to forget about the literal and metaphorical clouds hanging over the practice facility and daydream instead of glorious Sundays to come.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen indicated earlier in the week that the Eagles' starting quarterback was well ahead of schedule in his rehab. But seeing is believing. There's a real chance that Wentz will be back, and operating at full capacity, for the Eagles-Falcons season opener Sept. 6.
"The arm is alive, I'll tell you that much," Ertz said Wednesday of Wentz. "He throws the ball just like he did last year. Obviously, he's in a brace. That's pretty much the only way you can tell that something's going on."
President who? White House what? Who cares about politics?
It was a brief respite from reality. But it promised hope.
Which was missing earlier in Wednesday. The first officially scheduled Eagles practice day after this week's Great White House Disinvitation Scandal did not begin auspiciously. Poor Doug Pederson took the podium to try to explain—or try not to explain—a political maelstrom taking place several levels above his pay grade.
Pederson issued what he called a "blanket statement" that he had been looking forward to the White House visit but was now focused on football and didn't want to say any more about it. "What you've seen and what you've heard is enough," Pederson added.
The man who masterminded a Super Bowl win then spent the better part of eight minutes addressing and deflecting White House-related questions with the pursed-lipped patience of a harried middle manager tasked with explaining to the office why the higher-ups slashed the medical plan.
And let's be real: This is what most of us in the media were there to hear, not about Wentz. Few thought we were going to see for ourselves something as football-relevant as evidence of Wentz's progress, even when Pederson hinted in the morning press conference that Wentz had been participating in seven-on-sevens.
Player locker room interviews occurred later in the afternoon. There were 75 media members in attendance, according to an unofficial headcount: almost one reporter/photographer for every player on the Eagles' 90-man roster. A three-deep throng surrounded Malcolm Jenkins' locker, even though he had not arrived yet. (Eagles players took video of us circling an empty locker.)
Jenkins eventually arrived and used a series of handwritten signs, like Bob Dylan in an ancient song video, to make sure his message of social justice remained clear. The rest of the Eagles waded into a quagmire of presidential allegations: that the Eagles somehow disrespect the flag or military, that they let their own fans down, that they were purposely trying to embarrass the White House by sending a skeleton contingent at the last second, and so on.
It would have been great if team owner Jeffrey Lurie appeared to provide an organizational perspective on what happened, but if we learned anything in the last few weeks, it's that courageous leadership is in short supply at the top of the NFL.
Most players dodged questions about whether they had planned to attend the White House visit before it was cancelled and stated that they had no idea how the widely reported attendance numbers (80 individuals on the original list; one SUV-load of players and Swoop the mascot at the end) were arrived at. But that doesn't mean the players had nothing to say.
Players affirmed that the Eagles remain united, despite the political fracas. "We were 100 percent unified going into this week," defensive end Chris Long quipped. "So I think it's mathematically impossible for us to be any more unified."
"I don't think this is a locker room that's going to let anyone take away from the unity and character of this team," added Ertz, who found himself in the middle of a controversy within a controversy. "We weren't going to let someone try to formulate an agenda."
Players delivered political messages that put the less eloquent governmental leaders who attack them to shame.
"The NFL is this beautiful microcosm of a melting pot," said center Jason Kelce, last seen by Eagles fans delivering brimstone oratory in a sequined Mummers costume during the Super Bowl parade. "You've got guys from all over the country, from different walks of life. And we all try to put those differences aside, get on the field and do something greater than yourself.
"We come together to develop empathy and sympathy for each other. To develop the ability to work together. Quite frankly, I think our country could follow that a little more."
And players debunked any notion that the Eagles were somehow trying to stick it to the White House as a way to get attention.
"Does it look like we want attention?" wide receiver Nelson Agholor asked. "We're here to play football."
Oh yeah: football. The Eagles needed a distraction from the distractions.
And Wentz delivered.
Wentz's brief appearance was a reminder that the Eagles and NFL will still be here long after this presidential brouhaha has been added to the heap of brouhahas that pass for politics these days.
Politics used to be important; sports were trivial. But what the Eagles have dealt with over the past two days is not politics. It's grandstanding mixed with a you-didn't-come-to-my-party toddler tantrum that has no impact whatsoever on everyday life except to further divide the populace and give some of us splitting headaches.
Football, on the other hand, entertains and inspires.
Seeing Wentz on the field, taking meaningful reps, felt like an apparition of a patron saint—one who will soon walk among us again.
"He looks like a guy who is taking the right steps forward," Agholor added. "I'm not a doctor, but I know Carson. I know him as a friend, I've watched him as my quarterback and I know what kind of guy he is. When he lines up, he's out there trying to shred the defense."
"The guy's the best, in my opinion," Ertz said. "It's great seeing him."
It sure is. In Philadelphia, Wentz is much more popular than the president. And he sure looks like he's poised to once again have a better year than him, too.