PHILADELPHIA -- On the opposite sideline was the player to whom Carson Wentz is most often compared, but Ben Roethlisberger was too preoccupied with the Pittsburgh Steelers' own offense to admire a play that would have looked so familiar to him.
Early in the third quarter, Wentz, the rookie phenom who would not even be playing had Teddy Bridgewater's knee injury not set in motion the series of events that thrust Wentz into his star turn, put on a display of all the things coaches yearn to see in young quarterbacks and all the things he shares with Roethlisberger. With a Steelers defender approaching, Wentz scrambled away from pressure, moving out of the pocket to extend the play while keeping his eyes up the field. Then he spotted Darren Sproles a few yards upfield along the sideline. While fading to his right and still on the run, Wentz floated a feathery pass that dropped into Sproles' hands and he took it the rest of the way for a touchdown.
Wentz didn't see the end of Sproles' touchdown, because center Jason Kelce had already come running over to celebrate and jumped in front of his face. Coach Doug Pederson, whom Sproles was standing directly in front of, said it unfurled as if in slow motion. What Wentz missed was just one play in a jaw-dropping 34-3 whipping of the Pittsburgh Steelers, that represented the worst loss for the Steelers since 1989. Wentz, whose 23-of-31 passing, 301 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions would have looked even better but for a handful of drops, is the first rookie in NFL history without an interception in his first 100 pass attempts to begin a career.
That Wentz was supposed to be Sam Bradford's apprentice this season, that he missed most of the preseason with a rib injury to forestall a complete evaluation, is long forgotten, along with Bradford himself, Chip Kelly, the exorbitant haul the Eagles gave up to move into position to draft Wentz and all the stops and starts since Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid. The future has come at the Eagles fast -- it is just a month old now -- and it is big and strong with a charming story that originates at a small school, nearly made a detour into commercial real estate and has made its first stop at 3-0, atop the NFC East.
"Back then circumstances were completely different," Pederson said, when asked how Wentz was a blown-out knee in Minnesota away from not even dressing this season. "We saw glimpses of it in the spring during OTAs, saw it even in camp prior to his injury. I just think given the opportunity, and when you make the decision you make the decision. Knowing that you have to trust your coaches; I have to trust myself. I don't want to say that I have to call a perfect game, but I want to call plays that are beneficial for him and the offense. I still think the sky is the limit with him. He'll get better with every rep that he takes."
Pederson said the draw-it-up-in-the-dirt play to Sproles is the kind of thing the Eagles saw in Wentz's tape from North Dakota State. That his preternatural poise and headiness has translated so fluidly, so quickly, to the NFL is what is so surprising. The Eagles had the best of intentions in their initial plan to sit Wentz behind Bradford and Chase Daniel -- they wanted to ease him into the NFL, to allow him to adjust to the elevated level of competition without bearing the weight of expectation of a frequently desperate fan base. What they couldn't have known until he was already in the middle of it, though, is that Wentz also came equipped with the steadiness that Roethlisberger showed in his rookie season. The Eagles would happily take the same kind of results -– Roethlisberger went 13-0 as a starter that year, and the Steelers went to the AFC Championship Game.
Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin called Wentz "awesome," but he also praised how the Eagles are handling him. On Sunday, Pederson called a series of misdirection screens. The Eagles have also remained consistently aggressive in their play-calling, which plays into Wentz's style. He has the ability to run -- he said he almost did on the Sproles play -- but he prefers to pass.
"I always want to be a thrower first," Wentz said. "Even when a play breaks down, I'm always looking [to throw] because that's where the big plays are happening. If I scramble I might get 5, 10, 15, 20 yards, but I'm not that fast. I always want to get it to the guys that can make plays."
Frank Reich, the Eagles' offensive coordinator, has been entrusted with Wentz's development. After the game Sunday, he said that sometimes the hardest thing is handling success, in keeping a level head. That will certainly get a test now -- the Eagles have a bye at 3-0 before games against the Lions and Redskins, giving the fans who still wear Michael Vick jerseys ample time to get to a store. Reich admitted he is always afraid of a team losing its edge.
Pederson preaches, nearly constantly since the spring, the need to follow the process. But the reality is that those who have come to know Wentz best think there will be more plays like the 73-yard toss and run by Sproles, which showed off Wentz's pocket awareness and his touch.
"We all know that's what we were expecting from Carson," Reich said. "We didn't see it in the first two games, because he didn't have to. Everything was in the pocket. I think there is a lot more of that in there."
Around the locker room, it is clear that his teammates think so, too.
Defensive end Brandon Graham said he believes in Wentz because he has seen him in practice and the only difference now is that everybody else will see what he has seen.
"This young quarterback we have," Brent Celek said. "He's inspiring me. He's bringing some youth back to me. The guy is playing better than anybody on offense."
As the Eagles' locker room cleared out Sunday night, Pederson repeated to reporters a few more times how young the season is. A victory over a very good Steelers team, a team widely regarded as a Super Bowl contender was, Pederson conceded, a good benchmark. It gives his players a little glimpse of the results of the belief he wants them to have, that if they do their jobs, good things will happen. The Eagles have had these moments before -- remember the mania surrounding Kelly's inaugural season, when the Eagles won the division and the season was spent trying to divine the secrets of Kelly's smoothies? The Eagles will try hard to tamp down that level of hype over the next two weeks and they will probably fail. It wasn't just excitement apparent in the Eagles' locker room as general manager Howie Roseman, responsible for the trade to draft Wentz and then the trade to jettison Bradford, shepherded kids around. It was an eagerness to see what comes next.
"We say, you don't have to be a hero," Reich said of his conversations with Wentz. "You don't have to make the miraculous throw."