The universe apparently doesn’t want anybody to make it through this 2017 NFL season unscathed. Just as fans were getting excited to welcome Aaron Rodgers back into the fold for what should be a frantic end to the NFC wild-card race, preliminary reports suggest that the league has lost arguably its leading MVP candidate. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz left Sunday’s game against the Rams with a knee injury, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported after the game that the team fears Wentz has torn his ACL.
There’s no good way to spin this for the Eagles. They had an MVP favorite at the game’s most important position, and now they don’t. Wentz grew in leaps and bounds this season after an uneven rookie campaign and looked to be every bit the superstar the Eagles imagined when they traded up to grab the North Dakota State product with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft. The only positive thing, perhaps, is that Wentz was on the field long enough for the Eagles to go 11-2 and clinch the NFC East title.
As much as it might feel like Philadelphia’s season is over after Sunday’s crushing blow, it’s not. There’s still a lot of football left to be played, and there are lessons from the past — and present — suggesting that the Eagles might still be in the thick of the playoff picture. Let’s run through some of the key questions after the Wentz injury, because some of the answers might surprise you:
Can Wentz come back?
For as devastating as an ACL injury sounds, Wentz didn’t leave the game after suffering his knee injury on Sunday. He stayed in for four more plays, including what will go down as his 33rd and final touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery on fourth-and-goal. If Wentz had the sort of catastrophic multi-ligament knee injury we’ve seen players like Carson Palmer and Tom Brady suffer in the past, he almost definitely would not have been able to stay in the game.
That’s a positive, but it probably doesn’t mean much in terms of saving Wentz’s season. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a scenario in which Wentz is able to return this season, even given that we’re about two months away from the Super Bowl, unless his ACL is intact. Joe Flacco, notably, played several snaps after tearing his ACL in 2015. The best-case scenario would be a partially torn ACL, but a partial tear ended the seasons of Brian Hoyer and Ryan Tannehill in recent years.
Philip Rivers famously played through a torn ACL in a playoff loss to the Patriots after the 2007 season, but that was in the middle of the postseason, and while it was about as gutsy of a performance as you could imagine, Rivers threw two picks and posted a passer rating of 46.1. He wasn’t helping the Chargers that day, and Rivers is virtually immobile now. Wentz is going to be the Eagles’ quarterback for the next decade, and their core of talent isn’t going anywhere. It would be foolish to put him on the field with a compromised knee two years into his career.
How much of a drop-off is there between Wentz and Nick Foles?
A lot, as you might suspect. Foles didn’t offer much as Wentz’s replacement Sunday, going 6-of-10 for 42 yards in the second half against an excellent Rams defense. In his lone start as a member of the Chiefs last season, Foles posted superficially good numbers against the Jaguars, but he averaged fewer than six yards per attempt, threw a number of dropped interceptions, and posted a Total QBR of just 12.5.
On the other hand, there was also the stunning half-season Foles pieced together during Chip Kelly’s debut campaign in Philadelphia, when the Arizona product stepped in for an injured Michael Vick and averaged 9.1 yards per attempt while throwing for 27 touchdowns against just two picks. Foles’ numbers slipped the following season, and he was subsequently traded to St. Louis, where his reputation cratered after 10 gruesome starts under the stewardship of Jeff Fisher.
In this, the year of quarterbacks overcoming their time spent with Fisher, it seems unfair to use Foles’ 2015 numbers with the Rams as evidence of how he’ll play as the Eagles starter in 2017. It also seems naive to incorporate his huge outlier season from 2013, when Foles was playing in an offense at a pace the league hadn’t really seen before. So let’s be totally arbitrary and throw out both of those seasons, which conveniently reduces Foles’ career to about a season’s worth of passes.
Throwing out those two outlier campaigns, Foles has gone 387-for-635 (60.9 percent) for 4,328 passing yards with 22 touchdowns and 15 picks. That’s good for a passer rating of 83.0. The closest 2017 comps to Foles’ career numbers would be Andy Dalton and Blake Bortles. I realize going from Wentz to Dalton might not particularly excite Eagles fans, but it could certainly be worse.
At his best, Foles is a pocket passer with reasonable arm strength who is capable of throwing open receivers while in rhythm. His footwork can get inconsistent, which is in part why his numbers fell off a cliff after going from the coaching cocoons of Kelly, Doug Pederson and Andy Reid to Fisher and St. Louis. He’s tough almost to a fault, staying in the pocket to take hits that end up costing him playing time. Foles suffered an injury that cost him playing time in each of his three previous seasons with the Eagles.
More so than his ability to perform competently under center, I’d be concerned about Foles’ ability to stay healthy. I’ve seen fans and writers compare Wentz’s injury to the one suffered by Derek Carr last season, which derailed a possible MVP campaign and rendered the Oakland offense impotent heading into the postseason. Losing Carr hurt, of course, but what made things worse was backup Matt McGloin suffering a shoulder injury in his first and only start, turning things over to rookie Connor Cook. McGloin probably wouldn’t have saved the season, but the Raiders were hopeless with the inexperienced Cook.
As much as it hurts to go from one of the league’s five best quarterbacks to its 35th-best passer, it might be even worse to go from the 35th-best passer to the league’s 90th-best guy. The Eagles would be in danger of doing that if Foles went down with an injury, as third-stringer Nate Sudfeld has never thrown an NFL pass.
Will the Eagles add another quarterback?
It’s likely, although I doubt it will be Colin Kaepernick, who is clearly the most qualified passer available on the market. The Eagles cut McGloin at the end of training camp, and while he’s likely not much more than a replacement-level quarterback, McGloin would be a better option to have on the back of the bench than Sudfeld. Pederson also had former Georgia starter Aaron Murray in Kansas City and Philadelphia, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Eagles give Murray a call, though he retired to start a broadcasting career this summer.
Will the offense change with Foles replacing Wentz?
It has to, at least a little bit. Foles simply isn’t a mobile quarterback, so the Eagles won’t be able to move him around as much as they did Wentz. Those magical moments when Wentz would break two or three would-be sacks and find an open receiver downfield are probably gone. Teams won’t need to spy Foles or worry as much about his mobility, which should free another linebacker to help take away underneath throwing lanes and clog the middle of the field on drag and option routes.
Naturally, you would expect the Eagles to run the ball more frequently. Philly might seem like a run-heavy team, given that it has produced the league’s second-most rushing attempts in 2017, but many of those carries are coming in the fourth quarter with a comfortable lead. In the first half, the Eagles have run the ball on 43.6 percent of their offensive snaps, which is 10th in the league. Philadelphia should rely more heavily upon its offensive line and the combination of Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, and Corey Clement.
There is a chance, though, that the Eagles do just fine with Foles under center. Think about this season’s Vikings and how good they looked with Sam Bradford at quarterback against the Saints in Week 1. When Bradford went down and Case Keenum came in — only to promptly produce a mediocre performance against the Steelers in his debut — it was fair to wonder whether the Vikings were doomed to replacement-level quarterback play for the remainder of the season.
Instead, with a great defense, a solid running game, and a bevy of useful receivers, Keenum has played at a Pro Bowl level and looked much better than he ever has at any point during his career. Wentz was playing better than Bradford ever had, and Foles has that outlier half-season Keenum never had, but it’s important to remember how different a quarterback can look in the right context.
Outside of the missing Jason Peters, Foles has just about everything a passer would ask for from a team, from the coaching staff on down. Coming into Sunday, the Eagles ranked third in defensive DVOA, 10th in special teams DVOA, and ninth in rushing offense DVOA. He’s probably not going to play the way Keenum has, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Foles played better than the numbers I mentioned earlier.
Has anyone ever won a Super Bowl in a similar predicament to the one the Eagles find themselves in?
They have. The most recent example would be in 1990, when Phil Simms was posting career-best numbers in just about every category before breaking his foot in Week 15. Simms’ injury forced the Giants to turn things over to Jeff Hostetler, who had thrown 68 unmemorable passes over six previous seasons in the league. Hostetler promptly won each of his five ensuing games as a starter, throwing for six touchdowns without an interception, as the Giants rode their defense and a famous missed field goal to win Super Bowl XXV.
Can the Eagles do that, though?
Their chances are probably better than you might think. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook told ESPN on Sunday that they would have listed Philadelphia at 4-1 to win the Super Bowl after their win without a Wentz injury, but if Wentz is done for the season, its odds will drop to 14-1. Without adjusting for the vig thrown in across the various team bets for the bookmaker’s benefit, Philadelphia’s projected chance of winning Super Bowl LII falls from 20 percent to 6.7 percent.
To put things in context, the Eagles’ odds at 14-1 tie them with the Falcons for the sixth-best figure in the NFL. They’re just behind the Rams at 12-1 and ahead of teams such as the Seahawks (18-1), Chargers (18-1) and Panthers (20-1), each of whom have franchise quarterbacks who aren’t injured. The Falcons were a 2-seed last season and ran through the NFC when their defense, which was a far bigger regular-season weakness than Philadelphia’s offense figures to be with Foles, got hot during the postseason. It helped that the Cowboys lost in the divisional round to the Packers, ceding the Falcons home-field advantage in the NFC Championship Game.
The Eagles wouldn’t have similar odds to those teams if the season started anew today, but they’ve already placed themselves in excellent shape for the postseason with three games left to go. Their win over the Rams — combined with Minnesota’s loss at Carolina — pushed the Eagles into the top spot in the NFC.
Pederson’s team is in great tiebreaker shape, too. It holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Panthers and Rams. The Eagles’ 9-1 record in the NFC puts them a game ahead of the 8-2 Vikings and two games ahead of the 7-3 Saints. The third tiebreaker is common games, and the Eagles also have a one-game lead on both the Vikings and Saints.
Philadelphia’s schedule from here on out also isn’t very scary. Its final road game of the season takes it to the Meadowlands to face the Giants before it heads home to go up against the Raiders and Cowboys, neither of whom may have much to play for. The Vikings still have to head on the road to Lambeau to play the Packers, who are likely to have back Rodgers. Carolina hosts Rodgers and the Packers this week with a road game against the Falcons to come. The Saints still have to play the Falcons (and vice versa). The Rams travel to Seattle this week. If you had to pick a schedule for your favorite team to play the rest of the way, you would choose Philly’s.
ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) gives the Eagles a 93 percent shot of coming away with the top seed in the NFC, which is probably too generous given Wentz’s injury. The instructive thing to keep in mind is that their chances don’t drop all that much with a lone loss; if the Eagles lose any of their three remaining games, their odds of spending the NFC playoffs at home fall only to around 75 percent.
How valuable is home-field advantage? In Vegas, the general rule of thumb is that home-field advantage is worth between 2.5 to three points. Before the year, I estimated it at 2.6 points last season. The difference between playing a game at home as opposed to on the road, then, amounts to somewhere between five and six points. The Westgate estimates that the difference on the line they would post for the Giants game with Wentz on the field as opposed to Foles would amount to four points.
If the Eagles are able to hold onto home-field advantage throughout the postseason, they’ll be less likely to feel the effects of losing Wentz. In addition, this is a season in which the Eagles really were the best team in the NFC. Their most likely opponent in the NFC Championship Game is the Vikings, who are starting a backup quarterback themselves.
Who does this help in the NFC?
Every team, obviously, has a better chance of making it through the bracket if the Eagles are merely a very good team as opposed to a great one. Even if the Eagles are still favorites, the Vikings certainly have a better shot at reclaiming the top seed in the conference with Foles replacing Wentz, which would allow them to guarantee themselves an entire postseason — potential Super Bowl included — at home in Minneapolis.
If the Eagles do maintain the top seed in the NFC, their most likely opponent in the divisional round would be the fourth seed, the division champion with the worst record. FPI projects the Seahawks, Saints and Rams as heavy favorites to come away with the 4-seed:
You also might argue that the sixth seed is looking a little scarier, though, given that the Packers managed to come back and beat the Browns to get themselves to 7-6 in time for Rodgers’ return. He could certainly run the table, of course, but the Packers still have road games to come against the Panthers and Lions sandwiching a home game against the Vikings. No playoff contender has a tougher schedule the rest of the way, but the Packers would be in line to face Foles and the Eagles in the divisional round if they sneak in as the 6-seed and beat the fourth seed in the wild-card round.
How does Wentz’s injury impact the MVP race?
Barring a total collapse from the other candidates, Wentz’s MVP campaign likely came to an end Sunday. Voters will forgive a player for taking off most of a meaningless Week 17 game, but Wentz could miss nearly a quarter of the season. There just isn’t a track record of players missing that much time and winning the trophy.
With Russell Wilson throwing three interceptions against the Jaguars on Sunday before a furious comeback fell just short, the award seems like it’s Tom Brady‘s to lose. He gets a prime-time game on Monday Night Football against the league’s fifth-worst pass defense by DVOA in the Dolphins, and if Brady performs well, the MVP chatter will pick up for the future Hall of Famer. As Chase Stuart pointed out on Twitter, Brady has led the league in adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) twice during his career and won his two MVP awards during both of those seasons.
Antonio Brown might deserve consideration after his 213-yard performance during Sunday night’s dramatic win over the Ravens, but Ben Roethlisberger also would attract attention given that he threw for 506 yards in the game, which could split some of Brown’s votes. Brown is the best wide receiver in the league, but non-quarterbacks have to be downright dominant to win this nod.
A wideout has never won this award before, but when running backs have won league MVP in recent years, they’ve needed to either post unreal touchdown numbers (LaDainian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander) or single-handedly carry their team on their back (Adrian Peterson). Brown isn’t doing either of those things. At 1,509 yards and nine touchdowns with three games to go, the 29-year-old would probably have to become the first 2,000-yard wideout in league history to engender real MVP consideration. Sunday night was Brown’s first 200-yard game in more than two full years; he would have to roll off what amounts to four consecutive 200-yard games to win the award.
Will the ACL tear impact Wentz or change his style of play?
It’s impossible to know whether Wentz will be physically impacted by the ACL tear next season, although the early-December time frame makes it likely he’ll still be recovering as training camp starts next year. If the injury is strictly an ACL tear as opposed to a multi-ligament tear, the rehab and recovery should be more predictable and Wentz should be in better shape to pick up where he left off this season.
I suspect we’ll perceive that Wentz is struggling, though, because Wentz was likely to decline in 2018 by virtue of how he has performed this season. Wentz was playing very well, but he had been particularly incredible in key situations. He is 15th in the league in passer rating on first down and 20th on second down, but his 123.7 passer rating on third down leads the league by more than 16 points. Likewise, Wentz’s passer rating is 14th in the league outside the red zone but third best in football inside the opposing 20, topped only by Eli Manning and Rodgers.
Wentz is likely to continue improving his overall performance as he grows, but no quarterback is able to significantly outperform his general level of play on third down and in the red zone on a consistent basis. His numbers would likely have taken a hit in 2018, but without the injury, we would have blamed it on general randomness or invented another cause. Last year’s clutch situation hero was Marcus Mariota, who was sixth in passer rating on third downs and third in the red zone. The 2017 version of Mariota has struggled to overcome his own injury this season, and he’s 33rd and 21st in those same categories, respectively, this season.
It’s fair to wonder whether Wentz will be quite as effective athletically, especially at first. Wentz’s mobility in and around the pocket, especially on those third downs, has created a handful of huge plays for the Eagles. Many of those plays turn into scrambles, where Wentz has been extremely effective, generating 0.53 wins through 13 games, which is seventh in the league. He also has been virtually unstoppable on sneaks, going 14-of-15 when trying to convert with 2 yards or less to go for a first down. The only quarterback in his ballpark this season is Cam Newton, who is 12-of-14 on those same plays. The Eagles might be less likely to throw Wentz out there as a runner in short yardage — either on sneaks or as part of the read-option — in 2018.
The injury doesn’t change Wentz’s long-term outlook. He looks like a franchise quarterback, and an ACL tear, while frustrating, shouldn’t change that. As tough as the physical pain might be, though, the mental and emotional pain might be worse. The Eagles look well-equipped to compete for the next decade, and there’s no guarantee they would have made it to the Super Bowl with Wentz, but this might go down as the best shot of his career.
Think of Dan Marino, who set NFL records during an MVP campaign in his second season on a 14-2 Dolphins team. The Dolphins lost in the Super Bowl, but with Marino and Don Shula, we would have figured Marino & Co. to make multiple deep postseason runs. Instead, Marino went 7-9 in the playoffs the rest of the way, and the Dolphins failed to make another Super Bowl during the rest of their star quarterback’s career. Even for wildly talented quarterbacks, just about everything has to go right for teams to advance to the Super Bowl. Even though Philadelphia won Sunday, we might look back on it as a day when things stopped going right for the the Eagles and their superstar quarterback.