Carson Wentz had been terrible, until losing all his best targets. Then he led Eagles to a win
Perhaps the Eagles should strip the roster of anyone with a reputation and just provide quarterback Carson Wentz with practice-squad players, retreads and journeymen.
For that is when Wentz is at his best.
How else to explain the 42-yard arching pass into the arms of Travis Fulgham midway through the fourth quarter? How else to explain Wentz's running for first downs, throwing on the run, putting the Eagles on his proverbial back despite an offensive line that at times had just one projected starter in the lineup in center Jason Kelce?
So there was Wentz, leading the Eagles to a 25-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night.
There was nothing pretty about Wentz's performance, but there was plenty that was gritty. Wentz threw yet another interception, giving him seven on the season – as many as he has had in each of the last three seasons.
But Wentz also completed passes to Fulgham, Richard Rodgers, John Hightower and Adrian Killins. Only Hightower, a rookie, was on the 53-man roster in Week 1, and that was his first-ever NFL game.
"Quite frankly, it might not have been perfect, but he gutted out several plays," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "My hat’s off to him for just continuing to battle and continuing to stand in there and make some tough throws and some tough decisions."
This is how it had to be for the Eagles to get their first win of the season, and incredibly take over first place in the NFC East.
Wide receivers DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, first-round pick Jalen Reagor and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside were all out with injuries, along with tight end Dallas Goedert. So were left tackles Jason Peters and Andre Dillard, left guard Isaac Seumalo and right guard Brandon Brooks. Right tackle Lane Johnson missed most of the first half with an ankle injury.
That left the likes of Fulgham, promoted from the practice squad on Saturday, at wide receiver; and Jordan Mailata, a former Australian rugby player who had never played organized football before the Eagles drafted him in 2018, replacing Peters, who's likely headed to the Hall of Fame.
"You can’t really make it up, the injuries and the situations we’ve been put in," Wentz said.
And yet, Wentz managed what could prove to be one of those turning-point wins for the Eagles. It was similar to the four straight wins he led the Eagles to at the end of the regular season in 2019, enabling them to make the playoffs.
Back then, Wentz's top three receivers were out, and he still found a way.
This time, the circumstances were even more dire, both for the Eagles and for Wentz, who had played brutally through the first three games. He came into the game with the worst passer rating among starting quarterbacks in the NFL at 63.9.
Wentz didn't improve that figure very much, completing 18 of 28 passes for 193 yards with a touchdown and an interception. His passer rating for the game was 81.4. As a comparison, Wentz's rating for the 2018 season was 102.2.
But he made the plays when he needed to, and that included running for first downs, taking on defenders and lowering his shoulder. Wentz ran for 37 yards, including an 11-yard TD run to get the Eagles on the scoreboard first.
"I love being on the move and extending plays, making things happen," Wentz said. "I think it puts a lot of stress on the defense. Obviously, I have to be smart and knowing when to take my chances and knowing when to throw the ball way."
But that also included rifling a pass to Hightower on 4th-and-4 in the fourth quarter, as Pederson passed up a chance for a potential game-tying 55-yard field goal. Instead, the Eagles kept the drive going, and a few plays later, Wentz threw the ball deep down the sideline for Fulgham.
Think about that.
Fulgham caught his first career NFL pass in the first half. That TD reception was his second catch. He had spent time on the practice squads of the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers before the Eagles signed him a week into training camp.
Wentz and Fulgham practiced that play just once.
And yet, Wentz feathered the go-ahead touchdown pass, with 5:50 left in the fourth quarter, right into Fulgham's arms, as if they'd been playing together for years.
"At first, I actually lost the ball," Fulgham said. "But since Carson gave me a great throw, I was able to locate it, and it was right in the breadbasket."
How did Wentz know to trust Fulgham?
"I’ve seen him with this team for a while now going against our defense on scout team," Wentz said. "What he does to our defense. Watching him and seeing what he’s capable of doing."
This is what it has come to for the Eagles.
Wentz finds a way with players like Fulgham, Hightower and Greg Ward, the hero from the final four games of last season, who's now Wentz's most trusted wide receiver.
Maybe that's because Wentz is playing free, not worrying about making sure Jackson or tight end Zach Ertz get their touches.
And maybe it's because Wentz knows he's at his best when he's moving around the pocket, taking off down the field when he sees an opening.
"We’ve gotta make sure we’re doing the right thing as far as protecting him," Pederson said. "We don’t want to put him in the positions where he’s always taking a beating or being hit.
"He was smart tonight."
Contact Martin Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.