PHILADELPHIA -- Across the country, another young star quarterback was on a cart on the way to his locker room, his left leg extended straight and tense, his team already fearful of his future. Jimmy Garoppolo's season may well be over in San Francisco, just as Carson Wentz -- ambling off the field, a satisfied smile barely creasing his face -- had finally completed a long recovery from his own serious left knee injury to guide the Eagles to a 20-16 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
If this is the circle of the life in the NFL, it is a brutal but evergreen one, yanking away hope from one team, just as it is restored for another. Wentz was not perfect in his return -- he had an interception and a fumble, both of which gave the Colts the ball in the red zone -- just 9 1/2 months after tearing his ACL, which ended what would likely have been an MVP season and allowed Nick Foles to achieve Super Bowl stardom. But Wentz's return to the field gave the Eagles, playing deep on their depth chart at wide receiver and running back, both a boost of talent and the confidence they needed as they wait out the other injuries.
Wentz said he was not thinking about his knee at all Sunday, and he batted down every question that tried to probe into whether there was a moment that told him he was fully back to himself. Wentz has been antsy to play since the season began -- he said publicly he wanted to start the season opener, but the organization opted to be extremely cautious about his return -- and this game seemed less about testing his health than about him settling in where he thought he should have been all along.
"I've been doing so much in practice, whether you guys saw me or I was on the side," Wentz said. "Getting hit was new. It felt like riding a bike."
The Eagles are undeniably different -- they feel differently about themselves -- when Wentz plays, particularly because so many other stalwarts of the offense, such as Alshon Jeffrey, Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles, are out. The opening drive -- up-tempo just as Wentz had discussed with Doug Pederson last week as a way to get him started fast -- was all that the Eagles could have hoped for, 12 plays that went 79 yards and resulted in a touchdown.
There were darts and sprints and stops and starts and one dazzling scramble, when on third-and-6, Wentz spun out of trouble, tucked the ball, ran to the sideline and dove to the marker. His teammates have undoubtedly seen those moments in practice, when Wentz had the unfamiliar experience of running the scout team against the Eagles' smothering defense.
"I was standing right there -- it was a safe dive," Pederson said. "That's just him, that's the aggressiveness he plays with. It's instinct. It was a great play. I don't want to put restrictions on him and put him in bubble wrap. That's not how we play the game. It's not how he plays the game."
But there was a quieter moment that teammates mentioned as a telling one for Wentz. Early in the fourth quarter, with the Eagles trailing by three and the offense struggling to gain ground, Wentz called his offense together. The Eagles were facing second-and-26 from their own 20, backed up after Wentz was sacked and Clement was called for offensive holding.
"I said let's just get half of this, just stay together, stay on track," Wentz said.
The Colts were called for defensive holding on the next play, giving the Eagles a first down. They continued a 17-play drive that ended with the winning touchdown. The rest was in the hands of the defense, which held the Colts to just one touchdown in five red-zone trips and which has been the catalyst of both of the Eagles' two victories this season, much more than the offense has.
Wentz is almost certainly not fully his old self yet -- most players coming off similar knee injuries say with the benefit of hindsight that it takes a full year before there are absolutely no limitations. There are probably moments that will pop up this season that will call into question Wentz's full range of abilities, just like Andrew Luck's arm strength is likely to be a discussion point after the Colts used backup Jacoby Brissett to attempt the final Hail Mary pass Sunday, which traveled more than 60 yards in the air.
Still, Sunday's victory was a perfect reminder of how dangerous and dynamic Wentz makes the Eagles' offense, how electric his running ability is, how much more aggressive Pederson can be when his full arsenal of skill-position talent returns. The Eagles accomplished the unimaginable without Wentz in February, and they are still not entirely whole now. But the fears of what Wentz would be when he returned, and when was the right moment to find out, had always cast the slightest shadow as Philadelphia's championship jubilation gave way to the future. That can finally end. The Eagles still have the Lombardi Trophy and now they have their future, too.