Two years ago, the Eagles had a big question at quarterback, and it wasn't about Carson Wentz's future or Carson Wentz's accomplishments or Carson Wentz's health or anything related to Carson Wentz at all. It was about their backup quarterback. It was about Nick Foles, who had a sore elbow and, because of it, didn't take a snap during any of the Eagles' four preseason games. This, of course, was the same Nick Foles who had missed eight games in 2014, his final season with the Eagles, because of a broken collarbone. Who had lost his starting job with the St. Louis Rams after playing terribly for them in 2015. Who had contemplated retiring from football. How short our memories are these days.
The point of hearkening to that 2017 training camp/preseason is not to diminish Foles' achievements since then or to argue that he is overrated or to do anything of the sort. It is to offer a reminder, ahead of the Eagles' preseason game Thursday night against Foles' Jacksonville Jaguars, just how much the perception of a player, particularly a quarterback, can change over time. And it is to note how much of the public perception of Wentz – what he has done and might yet do as the Eagles' quarterback – has been shaped and colored by Foles' background, presence, and performance.
If there was one unfortunate by-product of Foles' stepping in for Wentz late in the 2017 season, playing as marvelously as he did over his final 2 1/2 games that season, and leading the Eagles to their first Super Bowl victory, it was that Wentz would forevermore be measured against that incredible and unlikely story. The events of last season only intensified that compare-and-contrast game, because the Eagles went 5-6 in the games Wentz started and 5-2 in the games that Foles started, including three victories to close the regular season and one in the NFC playoffs.
Now Foles is down there, in northern Florida, and Wentz is up here, and at the risk of raising a field of straw men just to burn them down, the primary concerns about Wentz all either overtly or vaguely juxtapose him against Foles: Will the Eagles respond to him, as a leader, as a starting quarterback, in the same way they did to his backup? He hasn't won a Super Bowl yet. He hasn't even won a playoff game yet. Can he? And above all, can he get through a full season without suffering another significant injury? First the torn knee ligament in '17, then the stress fracture in his back last year. He's the injury-prone QB now, whether he likes the label or not.
"I get it," Wentz said Tuesday. "You play a couple of seasons, you have a couple of injuries – I get what's happening. Unfortunately, I've ended the last two years on the bench. There's only so much I can do in talking about it. Now, I've got to be about it. I'm going to set myself up as best as I can to stay healthy, to play the whole season and get out there every week. It's football, and things happen. Everyone has their own opinions, and at the end of the day, I'm not really worried about it."
Here's the funny thing about that label, though: Of the two of them, Wentz and Foles, only one has played a full 16-game regular season in his NFL career, and it isn't Foles. Wentz did it as a rookie in 2016. People tend to forget this. Foles has never started more than 11 games in any of his seven NFL seasons. In just two of those seasons he entered Week 1 as his team's starting quarterback – in 2014 with the Eagles and in 2015 with the Rams – and he didn't finish either one as the starter. In fact, in six of Foles' seven years in the NFL, his head coach – whether Andy Reid, Chip Kelly, Jeff Fisher, or Doug Pederson – decided at one time or another that he had a better option than Foles available to him at quarterback.
Again, I'm not belittling Foles in any regard. We're talking about a difference in perception here. Because Foles is a third-round pick who nearly walked away from football, stepped in for the prospective NFL MVP, and beat Tom Brady, he is afforded a measure of grace and allowance that Wentz – as the No. 2 in his draft class, as the handpicked franchise quarterback – is not. Thought experiment: Imagine that Wentz had performed just as Foles did in the Eagles' two playoff games last season. Imagine that Wentz had thrown four interceptions and just three touchdown passes, that he needed an opposing kicker to miss an easy field goal to win the first game, that he had led his offense to a total of 30 points, that his team had squandered a 14-point lead in the second game and lost in excruciating fashion.
Nick Foles was forgiven for it, and it's understandable why. The challenge for Carson Wentz now is to earn that same benefit of the doubt as the quarterback of the Eagles, to stand on his own two feet.