By Jason Keidel
If we’ve learned anything about the NFL, it’s that it’s silly to assume any team will beat another, despite the odds. Even when the Philadelphia Eagles (7-1) host the Denver Broncos (3-4) this Sunday.
But it’s pretty safe to say the Eagles are pro football’s best club at halftime of the NFL season. And, if we had to crown a league MVP after eight games, Eagles QB Carson Wentz would get the most votes, or at least finish in a dead heat with Tom Brady. (We’ll never know if Deshaun Watson was going to continue the surreal start to his NFL career after he tore his ACL this week.)
It’s not uncommon for the best player on the best team to get serious MVP consideration. What is uncommon is for that player, Wentz, to be a second-year player who’s still adjusting to the speed, savagery, and schedule of professional football. Wentz is making the physical and emotional crucible of pro football look like Club Med. He’s passing with uncanny accuracy, showing advanced pocket awareness, and taking heavyweight hits to his burly frame from defenders that seem to follow almost every pass he makes.
If you need numbers to be satisfied, Wentz is first in touchdown passes (19), third in passing yardage (2,063), fourth in first downs (97), and seventh in yards per attempt (7.8). And first in wins.
It felt like there was a valley in premium quarterbacks entering the NFL for a few years. But over the last two or three seasons, we’ve seen a mass migration of NFL-ready studs who aren’t intimidated by the jump from Saturday to Sunday. Watson is this year’s breakout star, but before Watson we had Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariotta play with a wisdom beyond their years. And last year Wentz and Jared Goff were the first two picks in the NFL draft. And while Goff had a rough rookie season, he’s now passing with a aplomb for the suddenly resurgent Los Angeles Rams (5-2), who are tied with the Seattle Seahawks for first place in the NFC West. Of course, there was also an overlooked fourth-round pick named Dak Prescott, who took the league by storm in 2016.
But so far, this year clearly belongs to Wentz, who is shredding defenses with his arm and legs, bouncing off pass rushers, and playing with a veteran’s calm and clarity. It’s easy for folks to say they saw this coming. But for a young man who grew up in the relative wilderness of North Dakota, played for a relatively obscure college (North Dakota State), and whose hobbies (hunting & fishing) seem a little out of place in 2017, no one outside of draft geeks had a binder on Carson Wentz.
And Wentz, who’s already landed two local, fictional regions bearing his name — Wentzylvania and Carson City — is doing this before perhaps the most rancorous fan base in America. If Boston and New York City are the most rabid fan bases, then Philadelphia is the most caustic. Stories of locals throwing batteries and angrily running celebrated players and coaches out of town, despite their success, make for a healthy fear of the City of Brotherly Love.
But Wentz could likely run for mayor and win. Perhaps the most beloved Eagle this side of Dick Vermeil, Wentz is the kind of football geek that coaches love, fans adore, and opponents respect. And it’s not as if Wentz is flanked by a phalanx of Hall-of-Famers.
Alshon Jeffrey, a gifted enigma on his best day, may be the best skill player on the outside. Yet their leading receiver is TE Zach Ertz, who leads the team in targets (64), yards (528), and TD catches (6). Their running game is led by NFL gypsy LeGarrette Blount, who got booted from player-friendly Pittsburgh and only seems to prosper in Foxborough. (Blount has just two rushing touchdowns through eight games.) And with the recent injury to all-world left tackle Jason Peters, Wentz will be on the run more than ever over the final eight games.
In the NFL, you are what your record says you are. The Eagles can ascribe their NFL-best record to a few things, but largely to their quarterback. And if Wentz keeps improving, there’s no telling how high they can soar.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.