Carson Wentz was the NFL's best player for 14 weeks last season, right up until the moment he tore his ACL against the Rams. The Eagles' second-year quarterback's MVP bid ended at the Coliseum that afternoon but not before he set the team record for touchdown passes, tossing his 32nd and 33rd against the Rams.
He had just seven interceptions and ranked eighth among all quarterbacks in total value (behind Matt Ryan and ahead of Alex Smith), according to Football Outsiders' metrics, even though he missed the final three regular-season games. In terms of value per play, Wentz was even better; he ranked fifth, behind only Case Keenum, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.
Wentz's athleticism was a big part of the Eagles' offense -- the run-pass options, the rollouts, the scrambles. Put another way: It will take longer for Wentz to return to that style of play than it will for him to return as a "pocket passer." Whenever he returns to the field -- and the expectation is that he'll be ready to start the season -- the Eagles are hoping he does more to protect himself. But if history is any guide, that will be a tough sell, according to Philly.com's Jeff McLane.
"It definitely went in one ear and out the other early on," former Eagles offensive coordinator and new Colts coach Frank Reich said recently about what he told Wentz during the QB's rookie season in 2016, regarding instructing him to be more cautious when running. "It didn't go exactly like this, but this is just made up to protect the innocent or protect the guilty, however you say it. We would say to him, 'Hey, you just need to kind of back off on some of this tackling stuff.'
"And he didn't quite say it like this, but it was essentially, 'No. I'm not backing off. This is me. This is how I play.'"
And Wentz and the Eagles were rewarded -- right up until he was injured. Philadelphia had one of the league's best offenses in part because Wentz was so difficult to defend. The good news is that there was no drop-off from Wentz to Nick Foles, who led the team to its first Super Bowl title. And Foles could start the 2018 season if Wentz has a setback. But whenever he returns to the field, the Eagles want Wentz to be more conservative about throwing his body around.
"I'm going to sit down and talk to him," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said last week from the owners meetings. "Longevity is everything in this business. Learn from the best. Learn from Tom Brady, who got hurt early in his career. And learn from guys that have done that and yet still went on to have great careers and long careers."
At the other end of the spectrum, a cautionary tale: Robert Griffin III, who had an unforgettable rookie season in 2012, helping the Redskins to seven-straight wins, the NFC East title and the postseason. But he suffered an ACL injury in the playoffs and was never the same. Griffin missed the 2017 season and just signed a one-year deal with the Ravens last week in what could be his final shot to play in the NFL.
For now, Wentz is working to get back on the field as soon as possible. In general, if players don't rush rehab, they can return to their pre-injury form. So what are the realistic expectations for Wentz?
"I think he could do well enough to participate in limited fashion in throwing as early as [late May, early June] offseason programs," Dr. David Chao, an orthopedic surgeon, told the San Diego Union-Tribune shortly after Wentz's injury in December. "I think he'll be able to throw well before training camp ... [and] I think he has a chance to be game ready as more of a pocket quarterback come the first week of the season. But if you want him to be run-pass-option guy and be himself, look for midseason for maybe even a little bit longer."