For as long as he can remember, Carson Wentz has hated idleness. Sitting still, without a plan or a purpose, feels like torture. He has trouble relaxing and gets anxious when the structure of his day breaks down. An island vacation, without a watch on his wrist or schedule to stick to, would make him miserable.
In recent years, however, hunting has evolved into the one exception, the lone antidote to his restlessness. It wasn't always that way. Wentz hated hunting as a kid, a quirk that made him a bit of an oddity growing up in Bismarck, North Dakota. The first few times his father dragged him to a pond or an empty field outside the city to go duck hunting, the misery couldn't end soon enough.
But gradually, over time, he realized it was the one place where his brain would slow down. To crouch down in the mud and the straw with a gun in his hand, just listening for a bird to emerge, became a spiritual experience. It was an escape from football and the pressures of his budding fame. He liked it so much, he vowed to continue hunting whenever possible when he was drafted by the Eagles. That's how he found himself with a 12-gauge shotgun by his side, lying down in a goose blind in the middle of a New Jersey cornfield in late August, on the day everything about his 2016 and his life changed.
"It was funny to find out while lying in the middle of a cornfield. Not many people would understand how perfect that is for me." Carson Wentz, on how he found out he'd be starting for the Eagles
Up to that point, Wentz's rookie year with the Eagles was off to an uneventful start. He'd been told, more or less, to view it like a redshirt season. The team -- initially concerned about the steep learning curve he faced in coming to the NFL from North Dakota State -- hinted that he might sit the entire season, a third-stringer behind Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel. Wentz had played in Philadelphia's first preseason game but then missed the next two with a rib injury.
The idea he might suddenly be looked upon as the savior was such an unlikely possibility the day after the Eagles' fourth preseason game that Wentz spent all morning and some of the afternoon with his father, brother and a few friends hunting geese. "It was the first time I'd gotten out all year," Wentz said. "I was loving the fact that I was out in the middle of nowhere again, taking me back to how I like to relax."
It was a slow day. They'd bagged only one goose, and even then, it was difficult to discern who could even lay claim to the kill. "We all shot at it," Wentz said. "But I'm pretty sure I'm the one who hit him." In a quiet moment, Wentz checked his phone, which had been on silent for several hours.
There was a text message from Eagles coach Doug Pederson. The team had just traded Bradford to the Vikings. They were expecting Wentz to take over as the starter. When he saw this, would he mind giving his head coach a call?
"I was just shocked," Wentz said. "I don't think there was single player on the team who was thinking that might be possible. I had a mix of emotions. It was funny to find out while lying in the middle of a cornfield. Not many people would understand how perfect that is for me."
What the Eagles were asking of Wentz, in that moment, seemed like a Herculean task. A rookie quarterback, one who'd barely played in the preseason, taking over a veteran team with playoff aspirations, and the season was starting in nine days? He didn't even have veterans at the skill positions to lean on. His top wide receivers, Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor, only had three previous seasons of experience combined. Would anyone respect him? Would the locker room revolt? It looked like the perfect recipe for an enormous mess.
Yet what the Eagles understood, perhaps even better than their confident rookie quarterback, was that Wentz was ready, and not just as a player. They'd been watching closely. Intuitively, at times without even realizing it, Wentz had been planting the seeds for his successful ascension almost from the moment he arrived.
It's arguably the NFL's greatest conundrum: In the search to find the next Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, you first have to rule out the next Ryan Leaf or Johnny Manziel, a bad locker room fit who might sabotage his career -- and the franchise with it -- before it even begins to bloom. A rookie quarterback thrust into action doesn't have the hardest job in the NFL; he might have the hardest job in all of sports. The reasons are both complicated and simple: The physical and mental bar you have to clear to be successful is gargantuan, and if you can clear it, you'll likely survive. But if you want to thrive, there are other pitfalls -- egos, locker room hierarchy, culture clashes, wealth resentment -- that are specific to quarterbacks in ways that aren't true of other players. Those pitfalls are often just as tricky to navigate.
"I think it's a culmination of being humble and understanding there are guys in your locker room who have been in the league for a long time, so don't act like you know everything," Eagles center Jason Kelce said. "At the same time, you also want to exude confidence so the guys understand they can't pick on you, that you're a strong individual. Combining those two isn't the easiest thing."
"I think it's a culmination of being humble and understanding there are guys in your locker room who have been in the league for a long time, so don't act like you know everything." Eagles center Jason Kelce
Even quarterbacks with the best intentions can find themselves making unexpected mistakes. When the Los Angeles Rams showed up for training camp this year and found that the college dorms the players were staying in didn't have air conditioning, rookie quarterback Jared Goff (the No. 1 overall pick, ahead of Wentz at No. 2) thought he was making a good first impression by buying electric fans for his teammates. The problem? He bought them only for the offense. Head coach Jeff Fisher's exasperation, captured by HBO's "Hard Knocks" documentary crew, illustrated the tightrope a rookie quarterback has to walk. "So the offense has fans and the defense doesn't?" Fisher sarcastically scoffed in a staff meeting. "That's a great way to start off the year."
One of Wentz's strengths, in contrast to Goff, is his self-awareness. He understood, even early on, that one false step might alienate a teammate, a potential ally. He knew he was coming into a locker room where Bradford was popular and that Bradford wasn't thrilled by the Eagles' decision to draft him. "When you come in as the second overall pick, the last thing you want is for guys to think you believe you've made it," Wentz said. "Because that's the farthest thing from the truth. I realize this is the beginning. I just tried to keep my head down and shut up." In huddles with the third-string offense, he barked out the plays and beamed with confidence, but around the veterans, he was quiet. "He was really soft-spoken," Eagles tight end Trey Burton said. "You could tell he was from a small town in a small state." His first few weeks of training camp, no one knew much about him.
In practice, Wentz would sling the ball into tight spots with fearlessness and authority, make throws Bradford and Daniel wouldn't even try, and then he'd flutter passes that made him look mortal. The Eagles tweaked his mechanics. They made him square his shoulders and taught him to hold the ball higher, and his consistency improved. One day he spun out of the pocket, reversed direction, rolled to his left and uncorked a laser toward the sideline. The Eagles' veterans began whispering to one another: "Damn, this kid has some juice!" But even after his best plays, he seemed subdued. Muted, almost.
Subtle signs of his attitude and work ethic, though, began to emerge. Malcolm Jenkins, arguably the most important veteran in the Eagles' locker room, prides himself on being the last man out of the building every Friday. Most players are done by 1 p.m., freed from the grind for a few fleeting hours, but Jenkins has made a habit of using that time to get in extra lifting, a cold tub, a massage and additional film study. One Friday, Jenkins came back from a massage and there was Wentz, five hours after everyone else had gone home, sitting at his locker and studying film.
"Hey, man, go home!" Wentz teased.
"Nah, man, you go home," Jenkins joked in return.
It was a small moment that stuck with Jenkins. This kid gets it, the cornerback told teammates. He understands the value of routine, of fussing over the details long after the building has gone quiet.
The tattoos were hard to miss. Although his locker was not close to Wentz's, Burton noticed them early: a large blue cross tattooed between his shoulder blades and, above them, a reference to Bible verse Isaiah 41:10: "So do not fear, for I am with you; Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."
They had little in common -- one of them white, the other black; one from Florida, the other North Dakota -- but Burton approached Wentz anyway. Would he like to come to Bible study with Burton and several other Eagles? Would he be interested in having daily conversations about his Christian faith? Wentz was touched and relieved. One of his biggest worries about joining an NFL team was whether he'd have other "God-fearing men around me." He'd heard stories about how different one NFL locker room could be from the next.
"We don't have anything in common except our faith, but that's what brought us together." Eagles tight end Trey Burton
"I know he was worried," Burton said. "You hear all the stories about the craziness that goes on in some locker rooms. We don't have anything in common except our faith, but that's what brought us together. I could tell he was kind of trying to find himself, to figure out who likes him for who he is and not for what he can do on the field. Once he figured out you were someone he could trust, he was a really good guy to hang with."
Burton, Matthews and safety Chris Maragos invited Wentz to their church, Connect Church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, confident it might make him feel more at home. Their pastor, Kyle Horner, is a former college quarterback, and they guessed correctly that he and Wentz would hit it off. As the weeks passed and Wentz began to confide in his teammates, they sensed the weight being lifted from his shoulders. "He has a million people who are tugging and pulling and want his attention," Maragos said. "There are not really safe places anymore. I just wanted to give him a guy he could talk to and be real with. And we could keep growing together."
Matthews had been studying Wentz since he showed up for rookie camp. "When I watch rookies, I'm just trying to see if they're fearless," Matthews said. "In the first practice, if you go out and you're nervous, if you're stiff, if you're worried about what the coaches think, what's going to happen in the first game? The first game against a good team? How are you going to do against immense pressure? Well, the first minicamp, Carson was dicing it up. He was throwing dimes, zipping it across the field, throwing passes we hadn't even tried before he got there. I'm like, 'This guy is not worried about what anyone is thinking. He's playing to his own standard.'"
Matthews decided late in the preseason that he wanted to understand Wentz as much as possible. He asked him who his favorite recording artist was, and when Wentz said he liked Jason Aldean, Matthews listened to "The Dirt Road Anthem" and then asked Wentz, in return, if he'd listen to Kanye West's "Graduation." Matthews also determined that they needed their own celebratory handshake. It had to be something that suited each of their personalities, and it had to be clever. After mulling it over, a light bulb went on: They'd run at each other like they were about to perform a flying chest bump, then pause at the last second and pretend to adjust their ties before shaking hands.
"It fit both of our demeanors," Matthews said. "We like to go out there and have fun, but at the same time, we're all business."
It took a few awkward rehearsals to get it down. Neither of them knew, at the time, just how close they were to debuting it in front of the country.
If you play in the NFL long enough, nothing surprises you. Players who seem invincible one minute can see their careers end the next. The most popular player in the locker room, a guy who has spent a decade seemingly embodying the team's ethos, can be cast aside without ceremony or sentiment. You learn, as an NFL player, to crave stability while staying wary of the unexpected. Still, the morning that Bradford was traded to the Vikings, the Eagles' locker room was in a state of shock. Trade away your quarterback this close to the season? What the hell was management thinking? "We didn't even think we'd see Carson as the backup all year," Jenkins said.
The day of the trade, Kelce looked at his phone and saw a text from Wentz. Would it be cool if he came to the next offensive line meeting to hear them talk about blitz protections? Kelce laughed. In his six years in the NFL, that was a first. "I think the best quarterbacks are always guys you naturally gravitate toward," Kelce said. "Carson's work ethic, the confidence he shows, his competitiveness, all that leads to you wanting to fight for him that much harder."
Wentz was under immense pressure in the season opener against the Cleveland Browns. He's not ashamed to admit he felt it. He'd barely had any reps with the first-team offense, and he just so happened to be playing the team that passed on the chance to pick him at No. 2 in the draft. Browns chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta even went so far as to explain the decision in a radio interview by saying the Browns didn't believe Wentz would ever be one of the 20 best quarterbacks in the NFL. If he struggled, the narrative of his rookie season would be established right away: This small-town kid from a small college might not be good enough to play with the big boys.
Zach Ertz plucked his first pass, a back-shoulder fade toward the sideline, out of the air with one hand and tumbled to the ground. A first down and a chance to breathe. What happened next will stick with Wentz forever: He zipped passes into tight spots, carved up the Browns' defense with stoic precision and marched down the field. On the ninth play of the drive, he lofted a perfect corner route to Matthews in the back of the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown. "It set in," Wentz said. "It's just football. I'm over it. There's no nerves. I was kind of like, 'Hey, you can do this.'"
Wentz and Matthews ran at each other, looking for all intents and purposes like an epic flying chest bump was in order. Instead, they screeched to a halt, then nailed the perfect execution of the "All Business" handshake. Social media ate it up.
When Kelce thinks about the moment Wentz truly won over the veterans, however, he points instead to a mostly forgotten play in the third quarter that should have been a disaster. It was fourth-and-6 from the 40, and Pederson decided to gamble and go for it. The Browns came at Wentz with an all-out blitz, and linebacker Demario Davis came tearing through the A-gap essentially untouched, looking like a van driving downhill with no brakes. This was the first true test. "We didn't have it picked up," Kelce said. "We had it blocked wrong. And he delivered a strike right on the money, got the first down, but he got crushed. He bounced up like nothing happened." On the very next play, Wentz threw a touchdown to Agholor, a 35-yard laser that helped put the game away. The Eagles cruised to a 29-10 victory.
"I'm not an idiot. I know we're not going undefeated. I know I'm not going to throw a touchdown every game." Carson Wentz
Wentz vowed during his hot start to not get overconfident. He knew there would be many humbling moments to come. In his postgame comments, he often looked every bit the part of the nervous rookie, never quite certain what to do with his hands, gesturing and fidgeting, frequently tugging on his shaggy red beard. But Eagles fans couldn't help but feel like they'd seen the future of the franchise. The team went 3-0 to open the season, and Pro Football Focus -- a website that studies film and grades every single NFL play -- gave Wentz the highest grades of any rookie in the 11 years of the site's existence. His jersey was the top-selling jersey in the NFL. Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime Eagles fan, was so excited that he supposedly told President Obama to "get on the Wentz wagon." When a member of the Eagles' media relations department showed Wentz a clip of Obama sharing the anecdote in a campaign speech, the quarterback didn't know what to say. It was too surreal to appreciate.
"It was weird and cool," Wentz said. "We were 3-0, and everyone was hyped. But ... I'm not an idiot. I know we're not going undefeated. I know I'm not going to throw a touchdown every game."
He didn't like feeling bigger than the team and started making small, subtle gestures to make it clear that what he most wanted was to be one of the boys. One week, on the Eagles' day off, he invited a small group of teammates over to his house for dinner. He talked about his love of hunting and fishing and admitted that when he decided to buy a boat in the offseason, he intentionally bought a big one -- more boat than he needed, really -- so he could take a big group of teammates out on the water. He ordered pizzas, put Aldean on the speakers, and staged a mini-tournament of cornhole, darts and pool. They spent hours laughing, bonding and competing.
Bit by bit, one small gesture at a time, the kid from flyover country was opening up, letting others in.
The drive from the Eagles' practice facility to Wentz's home in southern New Jersey takes at least 30 minutes, without traffic. At first, Wentz thought he'd made a mistake, that he'd bought a home too far from work. But as the season unfolded, those 30 minutes became his sanctuary, the only place life slowed down.
Occasionally he put on faith music, or a Christian-themed podcast, but most often, he used that time to decompress; to talk on the phone with his longtime girlfriend, Melissa Uhrich, a nurse who still lives and works in Fargo. He hoped she could eventually move to Philadelphia, but at the moment, their lives were too busy to contemplate such a dramatic step. He often took solace in Hebrews 12, a New Testament verse that reminded him of a simple lesson: When running the hectic race of life, never forget to keep his eyes fixed on Jesus. Football was a blessing, and while he worked hard every day to be great, faith was what mattered. He and Matthews began having long conversations about the kind of Christians they wanted to be. "At first, he probably thought, 'OK, this guy just wants to get to know me because he wants the ball,'" Matthews said. "I think now he knows without me telling him, 'If you never throw me another ball, we're still brothers in Christ.'"
As the season went on, Wentz would rely heavily on that faith to help him feel grounded. Just as he predicted, the Eagles' impressive start was too good to continue. Defenses realized Wentz was actually great against the blitz -- at one point, he was the highest-rated quarterback in the league against pressure -- so they sat back and tried to make him fit the ball into tight windows. Wentz grew tentative with some of his throws and started settling for underneath routes instead of pushing the ball downfield. He looked mortal in close losses to the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys. Entering Week 12, Wentz ranked 28th in the league in yards per attempt at 6.57. His Total QBR was 45.1, next-to-last in the league.
"You'd like to see him get a little bit sharper, specifically in situational football." Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich
Against the New York Giants in Week 9, he had a chance to win the game late (despite two early interceptions), but he threw a pass that Matthews couldn't snag in the end zone with 1:23 to play in the fourth quarter. He made the right read, seeing that Matthews had single coverage and that he'd beat his man, but Wentz threw the ball to the outside, and Matthews thought he had an opening inside.
"You'd like to see him get a little bit sharper," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "Specifically in situational football. We as an offense need to make improvements, but he's our quarterback. He needs to lead the way."
When the Eagles lost 26-15 to Seattle in Week 11, the team's fifth defeat in seven games, a new media narrative began to emerge: Were Wentz's teammates holding back his progress? The rookie quarterback wasn't great against the Seattle Seahawks, getting baited into bonehead interceptions by Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, but there were also stretches when he threw darts against the best defense in football and his wide receivers (particularly Agholor) let him down. Agholor lined up incorrectly on a first-half screen pass, negating a 57-yard touchdown to Ertz, and then on the very next play, Agholor dropped a pass from Wentz that would have resulted in a 30-yard gain. On that pass, Wentz used his eyes to fool Earl Thomas -- maybe the best free safety in football -- helping Agholor break free over the middle.
Wentz had every right to be livid, to rip into Agholor for his series of costly errors. It was a prime example of the thin margin between failure and success in the NFL, and a potential moment of truth for the Eagles' entire season. All that chemistry Wentz had worked to establish, all that locker room loyalty he'd engendered, could easily disappear with one harsh word. Eagles fans were howling for Agholor's release, and Wentz had to take a position in front of the cameras. In the postgame news conference, Wentz walked in wearing his navy blue suit and powder blue tie -- looking more like a polished Brooklyn hipster than a Bismarck bumpkin -- and sternly defended Agholor.
"We have not lost confidence in him," Wentz said. "I have not lost confidence in him. We've just got to keep encouraging him. He works his tail off. A lot of things he does, you guys don't see. After practice, before practice, he wants to be great. We're just going to keep working with him."
Wentz even followed up with Agholor later in the week, encouraging him, then promising he would help Agholor regain his confidence. The message, in sense, was a reflection of both Proverbs 27:17 and Wentz's entire belief system: "Just as iron sharpens iron, so does one man sharpen another."
Whatever happens the rest of the season, one thing became clear: The quiet, redheaded rookie, the man once viewed as little more than a 2016 footnote, would be their leader going forward.