Football

Marcus Hayes: Reassessment: Eagles will be NFC’s best team; Carson Wentz, league MVP

Two weeks ago, our Eagles beat writers and columnists were asked to predict how the NFL season would unfold. I predicted that the Eagles would reach the NFC championship game, where they would lose to the Saints – if only to balance karma in the universe – who would then lose to the Chiefs, so we could finally stop rooting for Andy Reid.

I would like to amend that prediction. Not the Chiefs part, even in light of Antonio Brown's suspicious journey to the Evil Empire in Foxborough, Mass. No, it's the part about the Eagles that needs to change.

Not only are the Eagles much better than I anticipated, they will improve, and markedly, as the weeks progress. They will be the best team in the conference, mainly because Carson Wentz will be the Most Valuable Player in the NFL.

"Sky is truly the limit right now, man," said right guard Brandon Brooks, who was picked for his first Pro Bowl in 2017, when the Eagles won the Super Bowl.

"This is probably going to be the worst game we play all season," said linebacker Nigel Bradham, who arrived with Brooks in 2016. "Our potential is there, man. On paper, we've got everything you need in a football team."

They believed this months ago. I did not. Because, even on paper, Wentz had not become what he is today: Elite. MVP elite. Brees, Brady, Rodgers elite.

So elite that even the Cult of Nick Foles will jump back on the Wentz Wagon.

To be fair (to me), there was no way to know that Wentz's understanding of the game, his maturity as a leader, his polished mechanics and footwork, and his expanded repertoire of passes would coalesce into the 32-27, 17-point comeback win over the Redskins in one of the better quarterback performances in Eagles history. He was bubble-wrapped for the entire preseason, but, from Snap 1, he was brilliant; seeing blitzes, delivering pinpoint passes with perfect trajectories and pace, aborting plays, protecting himself.

No ... he was beyond brilliant. He was transcendent, better even than his 28-for-39, 313-yard, three-touchdown, 121.0-rated statistics. It was the fifth-highest passer rating of his 41 starts, but in three of those games the Eagles never trailed, and in the other game they didn't trail by more than a touchdown, and that was in the second quarter. Wentz connected on 51- and 53-yard touchdowns in DeSean Jackson's homecoming, which distracted from the greater, more significant reality: Carson Wentz, burdened with an overstuffed playbook and ungodly pressure, has arrived.

"He had a lot on his plate on Sunday," said right tackle Lane Johnson, who in 2013 preceded Wentz by three years as the Eagles' first-round pick and has been his principal bodyguard. "He was awesome."

You couldn't see "awesome" coming. Not with certainty. There was no real evidence. He hadn't played since December.

Similarly, there was no way to predict the immediate effectiveness of defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, Bradham, or Brooks, who, like Wentz, took the preseason off, though all due to injury. All of them will play better, and will make their respective units better, and their units were very good by the second quarter Sunday.

Other areas will grow, too. Defensive end Derek Barnett and his repaired shoulder won't remain invisible; dynamic all-purpose back Corey Clement won't go touchless in every game; and the two tight ends are good for twice their seven combined catches on any given Sunday.

Once defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz commits to slick cornerback Sidney Jones over future safety Rasul Douglas, the team will have completed its identity and take its rightful place.

"Scary, man," said defensive end Brandon Graham.

Downright terrifying for the rest of the league if Carson Wentz really is what he seems to be.

He unveiled the new Wentz on his first play: With none of his five targets open and Ryan Kerrigan in his face, he didn't force a pass to Zach Ertz or try to break Kerrigan's impending tackle. He just threw the ball out of bounds. Next play: a spear thrown high to the sideline, to Jackson, to a point in space where only Jackson could catch it, 11 yards, first down.

As the game progressed, he proved, again and again, that it was no fluke. He recognized blitzes and hit Jackson twice and Alshon Jeffery another time.

He wasn't perfect. He botched a third-quarter handoff; missed Ertz and Nelson Agholor; and he nearly killed his backup tight end when he floated a pass that let the safety clobber Dallas Goedert. But on the next play, Wentz stepped into the 51-yard bomb to Jackson that turned the game around. The other bomb was even better: As Jackson streaked down the right side, Wentz shifted his eyes and shoulders to the middle of the field and faked the safety into covering Agholor, then made his throw high, soft, and elegant. Both times, he stepped up in the pocket; no back-foot heaves this season.

He blithely slipped under the pressure from his right and hit Jeffery for a 5-yard touchdown on third-and-goal. He dumped a pass at the feet of a running back instead of holding on and forcing something with his feet. He hit Jackson with a 19-yard third-down pass, when Jackson was his third read. He converted third-and-15 early in the fourth quarter when he escaped the rush, rolled left, directed Ertz to mirror him, and hit him for 16. He did nearly the same thing on third-and-7, this time for 16 to Jeffery.

Kerrigan – the four-time Pro Bowl edge rusher whose 11 1/2 sacks against the Eagles matches his best against any opponent in his nine seasons – understands what he witnessed, and it made him uneasy. He'd seen Wentz, the 2017 MVP favorite before he was injured, score 32 points in just over 32 minutes with an appreciably better supporting cast. He brushed back his long, black hair, stretched his spasming back and observed:

"Their offense got better as the game went on."

He ain't seen nothin' yet.

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