If you asked an Eagles fan for the best Carson Wentz play they remembered, I think you’d get one of three picks. You could get the Washington first down scramble, the vanishing act, that taut, rich moment of uncertainty before explosive disbelief. You might get the Washington touchdown to Nelson Agholor, an off-platform flick from the ground which once was the pocket, through which Wentz had darted in and out, defensive linemen had tumbled and dove. You may still get the the Seattle heave to Agholor, born of the desperation of a 3rd and 14, a two-score deficit in the fourth; the genius only inspired by the utter lack of anything to lose. And maybe there’s a fourth: the impossible throw against Atlanta that’s pictured above.
Four third down miracles. Four heart-stoppers, then heart-starters. Four plays that are immortal, frozen in the time of their making — even though their creator is not.
Carson Wentz again made such plays on Sunday night in a losing effort to the Atlanta Falcons, 24-20. He wore Vic Beasley on his back and welcomed a steamrolling Adrian Clayborn into his ribcage. Cameras tracked his walks to the sideline, his climbs up from the ground, his trip into the infamous blue tent. The box score remembers these plays as late-down conversions at key moments in the fight, but that is somehow not enough. It is not enough, and we all knew that as we watched Wentz peel himself off the turf, the cost of his valor exacted from his body, but not his will. Wentz’s heart dazzled the crowds as he braced it onto his sleeve, but the price of admission for the clinic on competitive toughness wasn’t paid by the people. It was paid by the quarterback.
This is the shadow that hangs, and with it comes a cold wind. How many more times can Wentz turn in a performance as he did last night? Not a performance characterized by endurance, which Wentz showed in spades as the team fought back; nor characterized by self-reliance and creativity, which the situation required, given the lack of offensive weapons at his disposal; but characterized by the lack of self-preservation, the regardlessness with which only a man possessed could offer himself to the game.
On that horizon, the cold wind that blows is Cam Newton, or rather the fraction of him that takes snaps for Carolina today. Large and fast and strong and adamantine, Newton heard the opening bell in 2011 and came out swinging; the league didn’t have an answer. He took the NFL three rounds and two Pro Bowls before he lost even a game to injury, and was back in Round 5 for a league MVP and Super Bowl berth. He broke 10 tackles for every rushing record he set, christened the QB sneak as the QB “there’s nothing sneaky about this, you just can’t stop it anyway.”
But they could stop it — not any one defense, but defenses as a whole. With every hit — several of them late, several of them on slides, many of them uncalled — the giant wheel of NFL misfortune spun, and eventually, Newton landed on red. His 2016 season was one of his worst as a passer, and in the offseason, he had surgery on his throwing shoulder. Two years later, and out routes flutter in the air before dying into the sideline; deep balls are cast like javelins and land with just as much accuracy. Newton took on the NFL, and attrition won.
Newton is not a cautionary tale — that title implies an alternative route, an avoidable danger. Attrition is the maw to which all paths lead. Some take a slower and tedious fall: Ben Roethlisberger has only played 16 regular season games four times in a now-16 year career, yet this will be his first year without at least 11 starts. Others still lose a swift and sudden fight, as did Andrew Luck not one month ago, the Comeback Player of the Year in 2018 who could not come back at all in 2019.
Large and fast and strong and adamantine, they were — maybe not so much fast for Roethlisberger, but that’s okay. It was their strength that broke them against the unflinching punishment of professional football: contact, enacted at high speeds and wielded by large men. Other quarterbacks might have thrown the ball away, ducked into the sack, moved to the checkdown, trusted the receiver — but the extended plays are the magical plays, and these gifted and cursed few could buy that time, surviving the first blow, even at the cost of another knockdown. Because they could withstand, they withstood.
And as they withstood, they summoned greatness. They threw touchdowns, scrambled for first downs, kept hopeless games in reach. Cameras ripped across green and white to the fruit of their labors, to the team celebrations they could not make it downfield to share in. They were left as heroes are: invariably victorious and barely alive.
This is the duality of rooting for the quarterback that withstands; the other end of the stick of his great escapes and impossible throws. As he crashes into the ground, his pass errant and effort hopeless, we pray that he’s alright; we wish he’d just get rid of the dang thing and protect himself. But in the next moment, when the pass is true, we forget that fleeting concern — because the play was made, the price was enough to pay, and always will be. That’s why we return once again, breathless on our seats, as he lines up for another fourth and forever: because he, and only he, has a real shot of converting here. We know that because we’ve seen him do it, and that means he must be willing to do it again.
That negligence of body and devotion to team for which we love him is, inarguably, shortening his career. Every time we ask it of him, we consign him to a harder and more dangerous ask the next time around. His magic is crystalline, preserved in YouTube videos and mental recollections alike; his capacity for it is not.
And what is the league to do, to protect the bruised and browbeaten? Legislation stops at the water’s edge of quarterback play, and what these quarterbacks invite, in their determination to extend and endure, falls outside of the scope of protecting a passer. They are the exceptions to the rule, and perhaps one day, their cumulative injuries will prove it as well — but we are not yet there.
Instead, we are watching a Carson Wentz so desperate to show that he’s healthy that he’s going to get hurt again; a Cam Newton who cannot throw deep; a Mason Rudolph-led Steelers and a Jacoby Brissett-led Colts. And while we are watching, we might know what we see, but we aren’t sure how to react to it. How acceptable of a cost is another scramble, another potential hit, for another chance at the impossible? Can we root for the greatest plays if they come at the greatest risk to the health of our quarterbacks?
The Eagles have a question at quarterback, and it isn’t how good the player is or how much money they should pay him. Those ships have left the harbor. The question is: for how long can he be this good? And — when his clock runs out — how much of him will be left to keep going? Attrition knocks ever louder, and ignoring it only invites its arrival.