By Thomas George
After the 2015 season, the Eagles realized that Dallas was still banking on veteran quarterback Tony Romo, the Giants still enjoyed the mature hand of Eli Manning, and Washington was enjoying the emergence of Kirk Cousins.
The Eagles’ owner, Jeffrey Lurie, was not happy with his quarterback quandary.
Lurie bought the Eagles in 1994. He paid $185 million for them to then-owner Norman Braman, who had lost his zest for ownership, unhappy with free agency and soaring player salaries, and unmoved in his belief that the rocketing cost of franchise quarterbacks helped split a division among most locker rooms that was unmanageable.
It took Lurie five years to find a franchise quarterback when Donovan McNabb was nabbed with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1999 draft. It took six years after that for the Eagles to reach Super Bowl XXXIX, a 24-21 loss to the New England Patriots.
Lurie has not had a whiff of the Super Bowl since that game in 2005.
Nor a franchise quarterback.
“We looked at the crop of future 2017 quarterbacks and we thought the 2016 group showed us we’d better act now.”
He fired head coach Andy Reid after the 2012 season, courted college coaching whiz Chip Kelly from Oregon, and fetched veteran quarterback (and former No. 1 draft pick) Sam Bradford among a series of futile moves in recent years. In November 2015, he began hearing whispers about this wunderkind quarterback from tiny North Dakota State. Lurie heard chatter about the 2016 draft presenting two highly projected franchise quarterbacks.
So, in December 2015, Lurie set out on an old mission in a new way.
“I define a franchise quarterback as someone who has the physical talent, the mental leadership qualities, and mental toughness to be a consistently winning quarterback that puts you in contention to win a championship,” Lurie said. “He has to have that ‘it’ factor. The single most important trait is the mental fortitude to handle the challenges that face a young quarterback. He has to be a smart quarterback — in today’s NFL, quarterbacks have to routinely make intricate decisions in 2.5 seconds or less.
“We looked at the crop of future 2017 quarterbacks and we thought the 2016 group showed us we’d better act now. Was there a franchise quarterback we could move up in the draft to get? Was this the year to get what we have been looking for, searching for such a long, long time?”
Those early whispers from November 2015 came from Eagles personnel executive Tom Donahue. He told Lurie there was this small conference quarterback from North Dakota State who looked bright and talented. Who looked interesting. His name was Carson Wentz. Cal quarterback Jared Goff was also beginning to create buzz. Lurie listened. Lurie was intrigued.
A month later, Lurie fired Kelly as his head coach. In January 2016, he replaced him with Doug Pederson, in part because of Pederson’s offensive, quarterbacking acumen. And Lurie made sure that Pederson had other equipped offensive-minded coaches around him, including offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterback coach John DeFilippo.
Then Lurie hit the road with his new head coach, general manager Howie Roseman, and a contingent of Eagles coaches and staff, all on a franchise quarterback expedition. “I first saw Carson at the Senior Bowl in 2016,” Lurie said.
“Our scouts were there. Then we all went on this quarterbacking tour in late March where we met the quarterbacks in their environments. We visited Carson in North Dakota. We visited Goff at Cal. We went to Paxton Lynch at Memphis and to Kevin Hogan at Stanford. We saw some others. It wasn’t just to say hello. I wanted to spend time with them. We had a strategy in place.”
It was find the right guy.
The right rookie quarterback.
A franchise quarterback.
Then to move up to the top of the draft from their No. 13 spot in the first round and swipe him.
Decidedly, mercilessly, take a bolder shot at solving their lingering franchise quarterback enigma.
Wentz wowed the Eagles at the Senior Bowl. He wowed them on their tour visit. He wowed them at the combine. He continued to wow them when he visited Philadelphia afterward.
It was his size. His arm. His intelligence. His command. His personality. His skill.
Wentz thinks he understands the connection, now saying about his new town, his new team, his new home: “They love hard work and they love winning. That’s the biggest thing, and I’m the same way. I hate to lose. If you’re not working hard, I don’t really tolerate it either. So, I think it’s a great fit for me.”
Wentz sure looked like the missing puzzle piece
“We were quite focused on Carson and we decided we wanted the No. 1 pick for the 2016 draft.
Lurie said his pre-draft work showed him that Wentz was remarkable in his poise, confidence, and humility. He considered Wentz a quick thinker. Lurie describes Wentz’s confidence as strong but not arrogant, “an impressive air for what he was then, a 23-year-old.” He said Wentz was “hungry” and that the quarterback’s pre-draft trip to Philadelphia was a reconfirmation of the Eagles’ earlier assessments.
“We were quite focused on Carson and we decided we wanted the No. 1 pick for the 2016 draft,” Lurie said. “But we were at No. 13. How would we get there? The first move was getting from 13 to No. 8, and I give Howie credit for creating a deal with the Miami Dolphins to achieve that. We learned the St. Louis Rams were very aggressive in getting to No. 1, and our intel said they wanted Goff. We got to No. 2 and took our chances that the Rams were not bluffing.”
The Eagles traded three top-100 picks in the 2016 draft: their first-round pick in 2017 and a second-round pick in 2018 to the Cleveland Browns for the No. 2 draft slot. A lofty price they appreciated when the Rams, indeed, selected Goff at No. 1 and Wentz fell to them at No. 2.
“It was a relief,” Lurie said. “Our plan came to fruition. I was just very excited for us. It was a ton of research. A study of quarterbacks. We believe we found a young man who has all the ingredients of a franchise quarterback — and, yet, we still don’t know. I’ve been at this long enough to know it really takes a few years to know. It takes every ingredient possible, particularly staying healthy and improving. Surviving the mental part of that first year is the hardest and most valuable.”
The Eagles faced that itchy riddle . . .
Or sit him?
The plan was for Wentz to sit and learn behind Sam Bradford. McNabb had done that as a rookie behind Doug Pederson, thus further defining Pederson’s Philadelphia connection. Lurie and Pederson agreed that Wentz would be best served to watch, wait, and be groomed behind Bradford.
But that began to steadily and then quickly change.
From the earliest camp workouts, Wentz rapidly ascended. Reich, in an early June camp interview, raved about how Wentz’s “aptitude was off the charts.”
Lurie expounded: “Both Frank [Reich] and John [DeFilippo] began telling me very early in the process that this guy is ready if we need him, that if he had to play he could play. They described it as almost ‘unprecedented.'”
That readiness factor was cemented by this one: the Minnesota Vikings had lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to injury and called the Eagles in early September requesting a trade for Bradford.
“We were going to play Sam, we had signed him to a two-year contract before the season, but we also knew he was a tradeable asset. And this was a way to get our assets back from the trade to move to No. 2. We determined it was the best of both worlds — not in the short term, but the long term. Carson gets to play right now. We get draft picks back.
“Do you play your rookie franchise quarterback right away, or do you sit him? There is no perfect way. It is a matter of your strategy in how you develop quarterbacks. What are his strengths and weaknesses? Where does he come from and from what system? Peyton Manning and Troy Aikman started as rookies and took their lumps; they had the mental toughness to not only survive it but grow from it. We felt the same way about Carson.
“We determined it was the best of both worlds … Carson gets to play right now. We get draft picks back.
Wentz had orchestrated a pro-style offense at North Dakota State and was granted tremendous liberty in audibles and in his decision-making based on his progressions and analysis of defensive tactics.
The Eagles were aligning Wentz with other rookie quarterbacks in NFL history who were resilient and surprisingly effective as rookie starters.
Among the most recent were Jameis Winston with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2015, who threw 22 touchdown passes as a rookie. Andrew Luck in 2012 with theIndianapolis Colts helped push his team into the playoffs as a rookie, throwing for 4,374 yards. Russell Wilson in 2012 (26 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions) led theSeattle Seahawks into the playoffs. Matt Ryan in 2008 produced a rookie season that included his first NFL pass — 62 yards for a touchdown — one of 15 more touchdown passes that season and nearly 3,500 passing yards. Ben Roethlisbergerin 2004 won 13 straight games as a rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers and helped ignite his team into the AFC Championship game.
For most rookie quarterbacks — even potential franchise quarterbacks — starting an entire season can be a pit worth avoiding; especially if a proven, valuable veteran can lead.
Pederson countered, as Wentz took the starting role: “Everyone feels like this kid is ready to go and we drafted him to take on the reigns — it’s something we’re prepared to do.”
The Eagles saw a nimble mind, a big arm, maturity beyond his years, and let Wentz sling it.
In fact, Pederson literally made the call a week before the Philadelphia 2016 season opener against the Cleveland Browns at home. Wentz took the actual phone call that he would be the team’s starter while lying on the ground geese hunting in New Jersey. Lurie was certain the Eagles were making the right call well before that.
“I invited all of the quarterbacks during training camp to my box for a concert that was in our stadium, Sam, Carson, and Chase Daniel,” Lurie said. “Carson didn’t want to come. He graciously declined. He said he had done nothing in the NFL as yet and did not want his teammates to think he deserved such a privilege. He said he believed the veteran players wanted to see young quarterbacks working extra hard, not being treated in exceptional ways in the owner’s box. I respected his feelings. I was not surprised. I told him the hopes I had in him. I told him there would be a time it would be OK. This was not only the type of quarterback, but the type of person we were turning to as our franchise quarterback.”
Blitzed: Why NFL Teams Gamble on Starting Rookie Quarterbacks by Thomas George, with a foreword by Warren Moon and an afterword by Tony Dungy, will be published on Sept. 5, 2017, by Sports Publishing an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing. The book is available for preorder at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and IndieBound.