Each NFL season has a certain feel to it. There is a lot of excitement this year. Doug Pederson is the new head coach of the Eagles. Gone is the up-tempo, no-huddle attack of Chip Kelly. The defense is moving back to the 4-3 and the more conventional offense should help the defense to play at a higher level. The Eagles got rid of some players who were not exactly fan favorites (I doubt you will see many DeMarco Murray or Kiko Alonso jerseys in the stands on Sunday). More importantly, the Eagles were able to keep their best players, while also adding key free agents like Rodney McLeod, Brandon Brooks and Leodis McKelvin.
As great as all of that is, the thing that has Eagles fans more excited than anything else is the debut of Carson Wentz as the starting quarterback.
The last time the Eagles spent a top-five pick on a quarterback was 1999 when they drafted Donovan McNabb. He led the Eagles to five NFC title games and one Super Bowl. The team set various offensive records in that era. They were fun to watch and won a lot of games. Life was good. Can Wentz be as good as McNabb? What if Wentz is even better? Could he be the quarterback that will finally deliver a Super Bowl to Philadelphia? When you have a rookie quarterback with Wentz's level of talent, these are the kinds of questions that get asked.
You don't expect every high pick to be a Hall of Fame player who will lead you to a championship, but you dream of that. In the back of your mind, you imagine your prized rookie becoming the next Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Franchises can search for the right quarterback for decades. When you find him, it changes everything. The cool part of the Wentz situation is that it is just getting started. We get to go along for the ride. If he turns out to be the kind of quarterback the Eagles think he can be, the next few years should be a lot of fun.
As much fun as the Eagles were to watch in 2010, Michael Vick was 30 and on the downside of his career. As much fun as the Eagles were in 2013, Nick Foles was clearly not a franchise quarterback. He played well that year, but couldn't sustain it. Wentz is a young player with immense talent. He is the kind of guy you build an organization around. When you have a quarterback like that, you aren't trying to maximize that year. He should give you a chance to compete at a high level for the next five or 10 years. That brings a kind of optimism and enthusiasm that can be magical.
Having the right quarterback means that no matter what is going on with the rest of your team, you feel like you have a chance. Think about how different the Steelers were in 2004, 2008 and then last year. 2004 was Ben Roethlisberger's rookie year. 2008 was when he won his second Super Bowl. Last year, they had a tremendous group of young skill-position players. The cast around him changed, but Roethlisberger was the one constant. His presence allows the Steelers to remain a contender. They can change his blockers and his receivers. They can switch out running backs and totally revamp the defense. As long as Big Ben is in the lineup, the Steelers have a chance.
There are going to be ups and downs for Wentz and the Eagles. Don't get too high if he throws four touchdowns on Sunday and don't get too low if he throws four interceptions. We don't need to know who he is at his best or worst. We need to see who Wentz can be on the average Sunday. Consistency is the real test for NFL players. The best players do it week to week and then year to year.
Cleveland will be an interesting first test for Wentz. They have a veteran defensive coordinator in Ray Horton. He uses a 3-4 scheme and can come up with some very creative blitzes. At the same time, he has a lot of youth in his lineup. Five starters on the Browns' defense are rookies or second-year players. They'll bring energy and athleticism to the field, but the 3-4 is best when it can confuse the quarterback with a variety of looks and blitzes. Will all those young defenders execute the complex scheme the way Horton wants?
The preseason wasn't good for the Browns. They finished dead last in total defense. They gave up 150 yards on the ground per game and only picked off one pass. Obviously, the preseason is vanilla football and involves strange lineup combinations, but you never want to struggle like that. I'm sure the Browns will be much tougher on Sunday, but they have a long way to go before anyone is calling the defense a good one.
It will be interesting to see how Pederson uses Wentz. Conventional wisdom says the Eagles will try to run the ball a lot and protect Wentz. Then again, conventional wisdom says you don't start a rookie quarterback in the opener. Pederson is an offensive coach and he'll try to find the right balance between being aggressive and being smart. The Browns may sell out to stop the run, especially early, so it might make sense to come out throwing. After all, the point of this isn't to bring Wentz along slowly. The Eagles made him the starter because they believe in his talent and want to see what he can do. The coaches won't treat Wentz the same way they would a 10-year veteran, but they will give him a chance to throw the ball and make some plays.
Wentz will need help from the run game. He will need good blocking from his line. He also needs the young wide receivers to do their part. Nelson Agholor showed some good signs this summer, but was inconsistent. He has to make some plays for Wentz. We have yet to see Jordan Matthews and Wentz play together in a game. It will be fun to see if they have good chemistry. Josh Huff made some big plays in the preseason. Like Agholor, he must be more consistent. I think we're all excited to see what Dorial Green-Beckham can do. He showed major talent this summer. The change of scenery seems to have really brought out the best in him.
The defense and special teams will need to do their part in the game. I can't wait to see Jim Schwartz's defense on Sunday. The defense was dominant this preseason and that has me excited to see what they can do this season. This should be one of the better units in the league. I do think Robert Griffin III is going to make a tough opening opponent. He didn't play at all last year, is on a new team and playing in a new scheme. This could help him to get back his previous form or we could find out the magic of 2012 is all gone. He is as big a mystery as Wentz is.
The Wentz era officially begins on Sunday. This will be the first step in what we hope is a long and fun journey. I can't remember being this excited about a season opener in a long time.
Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com.