The big questions after Carson Wentz’s injury, and why Philly still has a shot

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, 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 it’s been confirmed that he tore his ACL and will be out for the season.

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:


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 6 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. Foles is tough almost to a fault, staying in the pocket to take hits that end up costing him playing time. He 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 left tackle 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 night that it would have listed Philadelphia at 4-1 to win the Super Bowl without a Wentz injury, but if Wentz is done for the season, the Eagles’ 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. The final road game of the season takes the Eagles to New Jersey to face the Giants before heading 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 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 it’s 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 it 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 on to 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: