With Mental Hurdles Cleared, Carson Wentz Enters 2019 in a Good Place
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) — Just over 640 miles from Philadelphia, the people of Indianapolis and an old friend in Frank Reich were recently blindsided by the unexpected retirement of Andrew Luck, a superstar quarterback walking away from the game in his prime because he was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.
Maybe the current QB1 in the NFL who most resembles Luck from both a traits standpoint and star-crossed injury perspective is the Eagles' Carson Wentz.
While Luck succumbed to a host of injuries that ranged from a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder to a lacerated kidney, torn rib cartilage and a murky calf/ankle issue that was threatening the start of his 2019 season, Wentz has dealt with a plethora of his own injuries dating back to his days at North Dakota State, most notably the torn ACL/LCL that ended what would have been an MVP season in 2017 and the stress fracture in his back that short-circuited 2018.
And those are just the highlights on a lengthy list that also includes broken ribs as a rookie and multiple issues in college.
"I've been stuck in this process," Luck explained when announcing his retirement. "I haven't been able to live the life I want to live. It's taken the joy out of this game ... the only way forward for me is to remove myself from football."
SICK AND TIRED
Like Luck, Wentz was sick and tired of being sick and tired but the joy hasn't been taken from him so the Eagles signal caller went in a different direction, setting out on a path to change the feeling, tweaking both his training regimen and nutritional habits in the offseason.
"I mean, I feel … obviously in a different place," Wentz said during a wide-ranging discussion with reporters late last month. "I’ve mentioned it before but with just everything, I’ve gone through the last couple of years, with the injuries. Especially from the mental side of it and just having peace of mind with everything. So, like you said, knowing that I’ll be out there and everything with that. I feel like I’m just mentally in a much different place and physically I feel good too. Little more relaxed, you could probably say."
REMAKING A REGIMEN
Much has been made of Wentz's physique, which looks much leaner this year due to changes in his diet and the weight room where what Wentz described as a high school or college mentality of lift, lift, lift has been shifted more to a regimen focused on flexibility.
Why the shift?
"The back injury, the knee injury, just the combination of how I was feeling the last couple of years and different things like that," Wentz explained. "Just knowing I've been injured a few times, what am I doing? What can I improve? If I'd been doing these things, I don't think the injuries would not have happened. I don't think that's the case. But it made me look deeper at how I prepare, how I train, how I eat, how I sleep."
The changes come from experience, according to Wentz.
"From talking to other guys around the league, talking to my agents who represent plenty of guys, I think that's a standard cycle, especially for quarterbacks coming into this league, and just finding what works for them," he said. "For me, that's been this offseason. I've taken a big dive into it, and looked into it. I don't think it's going to necessarily prevent any injuries from ever happening. This is football. You can't. But I'll do everything I can to set myself up for that."
A NEW OUTLOOK
While the physical is obviously important in professional football in many ways the mental part of things is what hit Wentz the hardest and it wasn't just about the injuries, it was also about the whispers from anonymous teammates and the love from the city for a far more flawed player who finished what Wentz started in 2017 by getting red-hot at the right time en route to a Super Bowl LII championship.
"You could say that," Wentz said when asked by 973espn.com if the mental hurdles were the more difficult ones when compared to the physical ones. "Obviously, physically, last year, just looking at the knee and everything about that. I look back and I was wearing the brace and everything about that, it was a different element than coming back from a back injury and from the training and the recovery and the more unknown type of things.
"But the mental side of it, I think the journey I’ve been on the last two years ending the season on the bench and everything that’s come with that, from the criticism, from everything about it, has just allowed me to find freedom in this game again and not press, not put so much pressure on myself and just let the stress kind of just fade away and go play."
Wentz has always leaned on his faith. In some ways, though, that magnified his insecurities and made him painfully aware of the flaws that exist in all of us.
There was at least some 'why me?' that Wentz had to overcome.
"It’s been a journey," he admitted. "By no means am I going to say I’m perfect, that I have everything figured out. But the pressure and the expectations and everything surrounding everything that I have always done a good job of blocking out. But then you compound that with injury and then the struggle that we had last year early on, it just kind of got me to … seeing this game, it was more stressful and I was less free playing it."
THE SILVER LINING
Interestingly it was the murky, ever-evolving back injury that allowed Wentz to let go and adopt the mentality that almost every NFL coach preaches -- control what you can control.
"It just allowed me to release everything and take a bigger look at it." Wentz explained. "As a lot of you guys know, my faith has really gotten me through really everything. So just remembering that I play this game for a much bigger picture and that God’s in control of every single detail of it. Just surrendering that to him was a challenge but that’s ultimately what got me through it."
The purge of negativity has left a more relaxed Wentz, one who is set to enter the 2019 season with the largest guaranteed stipend in NFL history and the ghost of championship past safely tucked away on the First Coast of Florida.
"Obviously there’s stuff that’s out there and really since I came into the league I try to avoid social media and those types of things but I think finally going through the journey I did I really just kind of said screw it, I’m not even going to look at it at all," Wentz said. "But the criticism from anybody and everybody that’s just kind of part of this game and for me when I started to kind of hear those voices a little bit that was something that when I got hurt last year I finally just kind of had to let it all go and then realize that I can’t control what people think, what they say, what they write.
"It doesn’t really matter to me. I realize I play this game for a bigger purpose. So it was it kind of all just freeing this offseason going through everything and just remembering again that there’s a bigger purpose."
From a micro standpoint, Wentz has also grown into his role as the face of the franchise understanding he needed to be more inclusive with his teammates.
"I think some of that stuff just comes naturally," he said. "The older you get in this league — you come in you are a young guy, so you maybe have a smaller circle so to speak and less of an influence in the locker room. So some of those things just naturally came about.
"And just getting to know guys on a personal level, whether they play linebacker, DB or kicker. It doesn’t really matter. It is just a bunch of guys who want to hang out and spend time together. Some of those things were natural, so I didn’t really overanalyze that. I’ve just always tried to look at myself through a really strict lense and just say ‘Where can I improve?’, both on the field and off the field. As a leader, I think is something every year I think I can keep getting better at, and keep getting more involved with the entire team."
THE PATH FORWARD
A natural path forward to more maturity was also helped along by Wentz's wife Maddie.
"It’s been tremendous, honestly. Going home to my wife and a couple dogs has been such a huge stress reliever," Wentz said of married life. "For those of you in here who are married and have families and stuff, you know whatever you’re doing with work sometimes it can just build up, be stressful. It’s a full-time job and sometimes it’s long days, long hours, but going home to her just reminds me there’s more to life. I talk about my faith kinda reminding me of that, but my wife is a tangible representation of that too and going home to her, she’s gonna love me, support me, encourage me, no matter what anyone else says or does. That’s been a tremendous blessing for sure."
A blessing that has Wentz seeing clearer than ever.
"A lot of it is just up here [pointing to his head]," Wentz said. "... I still might get frustrated. But, you know, I just I feel like I'm just in a much freer mindset."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen