PHILADELPHIA — The kid made it look so damn easy for seven weeks, he had some nerve Sunday making it look hard. When Carson Wentz had finally finished up a long and rainy day at the office, he had an awful lot of explaining to do.
How could he throw for only 211 yards, two touchdowns and a lousy two-point conversion? How dare he misfire on one sure touchdown, and maybe another, before beating the 0-7 San Francisco 49ers by a mere 23 points in his own backyard?
Wentz and his Philadelphia Eagles spent most of their postgame time with the news media willingly dissecting everything that went wrong in victory. The overriding narrative? The offense was slow and sluggish (Wentz’s words), the quarterback was rattled by the early San Francisco pressure, and he took too many hits behind an offensive line that sorely missed Jason Peters.
These were the sounds of elevated standards and heightened expectations, all good stuff for Philly fans wondering if they’ve been gifted the magical player who will lead them to the forbidden place. For Eagles fans wanting to believe Wentz will deliver the franchise’s first Super Bowl title, this 33-10 dismissal of the Niners was a hopeful development. The franchise player brought his C-plus game, and that was still plenty good enough to protect his status as the NFL’s first-half MVP.
Wentz’s job isn’t to win the heavyweight QBR championship. His job is to win the game, and today he stands as the only quarterback in the 2017 season to have won seven of them. For good statistical measure, Wentz is also tied with Deshaun Watson for a league-leading 19 touchdown passes — three more than Wentz had his entire rookie year.
Meanwhile, as the Eagles improved to a league-best 7-1 in their own ballpark, the Cleveland Browns were busy in London losing for the eighth time in eight tries. Call it a tale of two continents. These are the same Cleveland Browns who traded out of the No. 2 spot in the 2016 draft because they were afraid to put their future in Wentz’s hands. The same Cleveland Browns who employ poor Paul DePodesta, a Harvard man and chief strategy officer who indicated in an ESPN Cleveland radio interview that the team didn’t see Wentz developing into a top-20 quarterback.
Sunday’s Wentz probably looked a little more like the Wentz the Browns envisioned. The Wentz who grew from a 5-foot-6 high school freshman into a 6-foot-5 senior, and still didn’t land any major scholarship offers. The Wentz who broke his wrist as a North Dakota State senior and threw only 612 total college passes.
But after watching the Eagles quarterback play for a season and a half, it’s hard to believe any Moneyball metrics would instruct an analytics-based franchise to pass on him. Good football men in Fargo swore by Wentz’s worthiness as a top-two pick, never mind as a future top-20 passer, including one who knew how impossibly cruel the quarterback position could be to a small-college kid from North Dakota who wasn’t properly prepared.
Randy Hedberg helped coach Carson Wentz into the pros, and he has a story to tell. He joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1977, the year after the expansion Bucs introduced themselves to the NFL with an ungodly 0-14 season. Hedberg had played his ball at Minot State, where he was a quarterback and three-sport star. He was an eighth-round draft choice of the Bucs, the 196th pick overall, and preseason injuries elevated him from a fourth-string unknown to something of a first-string sensation heading into opening day.
Hedberg had made the mistake of leading John McKay’s Buccaneers to a 14-0 victory over one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, the Baltimore Colts, in the final preseason game. Tampa Bay had lost 23 of 25 games, preseason included, and its fans were desperate for any sign of hope. Some wore T-shirts that carried Hedberg’s picture and the words, “RH Positive, a Bucs Transfusion.” Some called him “Randy Iceberg,” and some wore buttons that read, “Why Not Minot?” KCJB Radio in Minot scrambled to join the Bucs’ radio network.
Randy Hedberg, 22-year-old son of a wheat farmer from Parshall, North Dakota — a town with a population of 1,264 — was then planted behind a dreadful offensive line as he pieced together perhaps the worst small-sample career boxscore in league history. He went 0-4 as a starter, and threw 10 interceptions and no touchdown passes in 90 attempts. He was sacked 15 times and concussed once. He posted a quarterback rating of 0.0, spent 1978 on injured reserve, and landed briefly with the Oakland Raiders, who released him.
As it turned out, the Bucs had ruined the rookie’s shot at long-term NFL sustainability by rushing him into an overwhelmingly dire situation. “With the team just starting up and me coming from a small-school background, I wish I’d sat and learned,” Hedberg said. “I wasn’t ready for that at that point.” In sudden need of a less hazardous profession, Hedberg moved back to North Dakota and got into coaching.
Thirty-five years later, he ended up coaching another North Dakota prospect, Wentz. As an assistant at Southern Illinois, Hedberg had unsuccessfully recruited Wentz, a late bloomer at Century High School in Bismarck. They reunited at North Dakota State in 2014, Wentz’s first year as the Bisons’ starter and Hedberg’s first year as their quarterbacks coach. It was clear early that Wentz would have a chance to do things in the pros that his position coach couldn’t fathom.
Hedberg had seen Wentz’s athleticism and playmaking ability in high school. On the practice field at North Dakota State, where the offense often huddled up and placed its quarterback under center (imagine that), the coach was struck by the quarterback’s ability to quickly process pre-snap information at the line and to call out the proper protections. “A lot of players will tell you they watched two hours of film, but did they really know what they were looking for?” Hedberg said. “Carson always knew what he was looking for.”
Wentz constantly offered suggestions to his coaches on passing concepts he thought would work against certain opponents. On his own, he came up with a term that signaled a route adjustment to his tight ends. “The first time he did it in practice, we didn’t know what he was doing,” Hedberg said. “It was a concept that changed the whole scenario for the defense.” Two years deep into Wentz’s career in Philadelphia, Hedberg still refuses to identify the term. “The word hasn’t changed for us,” he said.
Wentz remains as big a hero across the valleys and plains of his home state as he is on Broad Street in Philly, and Hedberg is uniquely qualified to explain why.
“It’s the way North Dakota is,” Hedberg said. “The people can identify with Carson. He’s just like they are, and the one thing he’s done is he’s given back to the Fargo and Bismarck communities. I think that’s why people admire him so much, and why they’re so proud of what he’s done.”
Hedberg rejects any attempt to assign him credit for Wentz’s development. The kid has the requisite talent and work ethic, after all, and just needed the opportunity Philadelphia gave him. But you don’t have to be a member of the Cleveland front office to be surprised at how quickly Wentz has taken the league by storm. The demands on quarterbacks have grown exponentially over time, in part because of the ever-escalating size and speed of the men rushing them.
“The biggest attribute for a quarterback,” Hedberg said, “is having the courage to stand in there when you know you’re going to get hit and still throw an accurate ball. Carson has always shown that.”
Wentz has always shown an eagerness, not just a willingness, to take a hit. If he can stay healthy, he will likely be a dominant player for who knows how long. Randy Hedberg was asked if the unleashing of Wentz on the NFL was his way of paying back a league that was so hard on his 22-year-old self. The coach laughed. “No,” he said. “It’s probably more of ‘Do what I say, not what I do.'”
More than two hours before Sunday’s kickoff, Wentz was wearing silver headphones, a long-sleeve shirt and white gloves as he threw footballs and practiced his dropbacks and rollouts in a steady rain. Even with a winless opponent in the house, it didn’t look like this would be an easy day of football.
And it wasn’t. Wentz was unnerved by the Niners’ blitz. He was sacked three times and took a lot of hits, some necessary and some not. Wentz ducked under some sure tackles and spun out of others, but he was not the escape artist against San Francisco that he was against Washington. Wentz also missed Alshon Jeffery high on what should’ve been a first-quarter touchdown, and while holding a 20-0 third-quarter lead he threw a brutal interception that led to the Niners’ first score.
Wentz immediately answered his mistake with a 53-yard touchdown pass to Jeffery down the right sideline. As they say in showbiz, that’s what the great ones do.
“Offensively, I know we have to be better,” Wentz said. “We just never got in a rhythm.”
No son of North Dakota would ever blame the weather for a substandard performance, and on cue, Wentz called the rain a nonfactor. It was OK either way. Wentz grew up idolizing a quarterback, Brett Favre, who had his share of days like this one, and he ended up with a nice little career for himself.
“Good teams find a way to win ballgames even when they play sluggish like we did offensively,” Wentz said.
Coach Doug Pederson said he expects opponents to keep blitzing Wentz as much as any quarterback in the game. “If Carson can stand back there and make rhythm throws,” Pederson said, “you’ve seen what he can do down the field. So I think we’ll continue to see pressure.”
The kid can handle pressure. Wentz just had a bad hair day, by his standards, and won a game by 23 points in an everyone-can-beat-everyone hodgepodge of a league. Everyone, that is, except the Cleveland Browns, who might’ve just elevated Wentz into their personal top 20.
Of greater consequence, Wentz is the NFL’s first franchise player to seven victories this year. Go ahead and give him half a trophy for the halfway MVP.