In his return, Wentz says it 'felt like riding a bike'
PHILADELPHIA—He led a touchdown drive to start the game. He led a touchdown drive to win it.
It had been 9½ months, but Carson Wentz was finally back from injury, just in time to save the Philadelphia Eagles' season. First step: Beat the Colts. He did, 20-16. He passed for 255 yards and a touchdown. He ran three times for 10 yards and, most important, he suffered no injuries.
There wasn't a hint of rust. There wasn't a whiff of a hindrance.
"Felt like riding a bike," Wentz said afterward.
He looked like a 6-foot-5, red-haired, blue-eyed leprechaun in his startling Kelly green jacket at the postgame news conference, but Eagles players and their fans don't care what he wears.
The fans roared at 12:15 p.m., when he led the team out of the tunnel at Lincoln Financial Field for warmups. They roared again at 1:07, when he led the offense onto the turf for its first possession, which ended with a touchdown pass. They roared like maniacs when he converted a long third-down in the fourth quarter that set up the winning touchdown.
The red-headed messiah from North Dakota State had returned.
"He's Ginger Jesus!" said Erin Barton, a 16-year-old from Elizabethtown, Pa., whose own red hair settled just above the No. 11 on her Wentz jersey. It was her first game, and she picked a good one. "It was electric. It was nuts. I feel honored to have been here."
She's not alone.
"He's got a magic to him," said linebacker Jordan Hicks. "You see it. The first drive. The last drive. That's what quarterbacks are supposed to do."
That's what great quarterbacks are supposed to do.
"He's an electric player. He does some things that are flat-out special," said Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles' Pro Bowl safety who has two Super Bowl rings. "He gives us juice."
It's more than that.
He gives them hope.
In 2016, after five years of mismanagement and moribund results from Andy Reid and Chip Kelly, the Eagles hired Doug Pederson and mortgaged their future in that year's draft to secure Wentz with the No. 2 overall pick. He has been better than anyone dreamed.
He was supposed to sit and learn for a year but, he was simply too good. He was a rookie-of-the-year candidate, then, last year, he was the MVP favorite. He intoxicated the city and brought the league to its knees with his strong arm and his quick feet until he shredded his left knee in Game 13. That put the franchise in the hands of Nick Foles, who replaced Wentz for the next six games, played out of his mind and became the Super Bowl MVP.
As Wentz neared his return, Foles won the opener against Atlanta but fizzled in a loss at Tampa Bay last week. Two games into 2018 were enough to remind people why he's a backup.
One game from Carson Wentz was enough to remind people why he's a superstar. A devout young man, he couldn't wait.
"Obviously, emotions were running high from the moment I woke up this morning," he said, "but for me, it's always putting on worship music and getting in the zone."
Twitter was part of the ritual Sunday: "My God has been faithful & my source of strength through all the highs and lows. What a journey these past 9 months have been. Finally getting back on that field and I can't thank the Lord enough! I know the Linc is gonna be rockin so let's have some fun today! 41.6K"
Like Randall Cunningham and Donovan McNabb, the Eagles quarterbacks he will surpass, Wentz's performance always outstrips his numbers. On Sunday he went 25-for-37 for 255 yards with one touchdown pass, one interception, one lost fumble, and five sacks.
But there was so much more. Playing on two surgically repaired knee ligaments and wearing a bulky composite brace, we weren't quite sure that would be the case. We needn't have worried.
Late in the first quarter, he scrambled right, then left, then stepped up and hit tight end Dallas Goedert for a short gain just as a 250-pound defensive end brought him to the ground so ferociously it drew a penalty. The Linc held its breath. Wentz popped right back up.
Late in the second quarter, he ran for 6 yards and dived at the first-down marker. "It was just a normal scramble for me," he said. The Linc held its breath. Wentz popped right back up.
Then, the big play: trailing by a field goal, third-and-9 at the Colts' 36, a whisper shy of 5 minutes to play. The Colts blitzed, and a defensive end and a defensive back shot into the backfield. Suddenly it was all arms and legs and helmets around Wentz's precious knee. The Linc held its breath.
Wentz ignored the chaos at his feet, stepped up and hit Nelson Agholor, who surged for a first down. Four snaps later, running back Wendell Smallwood pushed through for the game-winning touchdown.
Wentz faced no further peril, but that's not how Pederson prepared.
"I don't want to put restraints on him at all and put him in bubble wrap," Pederson said. "That's not how we play the game."
That said, Pederson didn't mind that Wentz protected himself. He slid and dived and frequently opted to his outlet receiver rather than run downfield. That didn't come from a place of fear, Pederson said: "I think it's just the maturity of playing the position and seeing the field."
The Ginger Jesus wasn't perfect. He threw an awful interception deep in Eagles territory early in the third quarter, then was strip-sacked late in the third. Both times the Colts took a three-point lead.
None of that mattered after his fourth-quarter performance. He led a 17-play drive that took 11 minutes, 18 seconds, and seemed doomed after the fifth snap made it second-and-26 at the Eagles' 20. He convened a huddle and hollered, "Let's just get half of this! Just stay together."
Staying together won them a Super Bowl last year. Staying together won them a game Sunday.
A penalty on the Colts revived the drive, which became the third fourth-quarter, game-winning drive of Wentz's career.
Erin Barton was there to see it.
So was her dad, Rusty, 49. He drove her the 101 miles from Elizabethtown to Philadelphia. He has been coming to games for decades, and he wore a Brian Dawkins jersey, so he understands what it's like to witness greatness and goodness in the same person. He knows that a player can represent values beyond their talent. That's why Philadelphia — both the team and the town — adores Wentz beyond football.
"He's more than just a player. He's got his AO1 Foundation. He's a huge part of the community," she said. "He's just ... different."
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