- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 8, 2022

ASHBURN — The tattoo on Carson Wentz’s right bicep is a reminder to keep him grounded. Inside the inked outline of an ichthys, the Christian symbol resembling a fish reads “Proverbs 3:5-6” — a Bible passage exhorting followers to put their trust in God and lean into the greater plan.

The Scripture, the first of five religious-themed tattoos the quarterback has gotten over the years, is his favorite. But he also finds it to be the most challenging. 

Especially after his last few years.

“As a guy, as a man, you want to be playing, you want to have control,” Wentz told The Washington Times. “That’s how I’m wired. But that’s where faith comes in.” 

On Sunday, Wentz will start for his third team in the last three seasons. Coincidentally, the new Washington Commanders quarterback will first face the Jacksonville Jaguars — the franchise that helped end his time in Indianapolis and is coached by Doug Pederson who drafted Wentz in 2016 while with the Philadelphia Eagles. As last year’s regular season came to a close, Wentz and the Colts suffered a meltdown against the NFL’s worst team and missed the playoffs. The Colts traded the 29-year-old to Washington months later.

Over the last few years, there has been arguably no player more polarizing than Wentz. To the Commanders, the North Dakota State product is the solution to a problem it has been unable to solve for decades. To Colts owner Jim Irsay, Wentz was a “mistake.” Some stats suggest he still is an above-average quarterback. Other statistical models, like FiveThirtyEight’s quarterback projection, rank him 34th.

No city experienced the range of those emotions more than Philadelphia, which went from seeing the ginger-haired passer as a savior to being fed up with Wentz by the end of his five-year tenure with the Eagles. Wentz was an MVP candidate in 2017 before tearing his ACL and watching Nick Foles lead the Eagles to a championship. Three years later, with Wentz unable to rediscover his form, the Eagles benched him for second-rounder Jalen Hurts. It was a stunning fall, one he’s still trying to climb back from. 

Indianapolis appeared to be trending in the right direction. Despite an 0-3 start, Wentz led the Colts to a 9-3 record from October through December, behind 22 touchdowns to five interceptions. But that changed in the last two weeks of the season when he failed to top 200 yards in back-to-back losses. With the collapse came another round of reports that all pointed the finger at Wentz’s alleged lack of leadership, stubborn personality and inconsistent play — the same issues that drove him out of Philadelphia.

So once again, Wentz is starting over, spending the last few months with the Commanders getting used to a new scheme, new teammates and a new city. Then again, he’s been doing that ever since he was a rookie proving he belonged in the NFL.

“The best asset of Carson is just his ability to ‘turn the page,’” said Zach Wentz, Carson’s older brother. “He doesn’t dwell on things in the past or wish things would have happened differently. He just moves onto the next challenge.”

‘Just wants to be accepted’

From the moment the Commanders traded for Wentz, coach Ron Rivera repeatedly made it a point to emphasize that the passer was “wanted.” This, of course, came after the team explored trades for other high-profile quarterbacks — namely Russell Wilson — but Rivera says that as much as they chased others, they also chased Wentz. And the Commanders gave up a lot for him, sending Indianapolis multiple draft picks that included two third-rounders (one of which can become a second) and a swap of seconds.

“We did it for a reason,” he says, noting Wentz’s quarterback ratings (ninth in QBR, 13th in standard) last season.

During the first few months of their new partnership, Rivera has to come to learn plenty about Wentz. He tends to mumble to himself after plays, the coach said. Wentz can get so “fired up” that the ball occasionally takes off farther than expected, with Rivera adding a “phoooof” sound effect for good measure. 

Perhaps most interestingly, Rivera said during his initial talks with Wentz, he came away with an impression the quarterback “just wants to be accepted.” Had the last two years taken a toll? 

He‘s done a lot of good things but yet those things seemed to be overlooked by some people,” Rivera said. “For whatever reason, they want to buy into the narrative.” 

Asked about the idea that he just wants to be accepted, Wentz doesn’t offer much insight. Wentz is appreciative of Rivera’s support, support that means “a little extra because of who he is.” But at the same time, Wentz said, he tries to have “thick skin” and be unconcerned with needing approval.

That said, one of the biggest perceived criticisms of Wentz throughout his career has been that he doesn’t do a good enough job connecting to teammates. But with the Commanders, it seems as if Wentz is making sure that he gets to know his new group. And they get to know him

Center Chase Roullier said, within a week of his arrival, Wentz started organizing dinners with the offensive line. At those meals, the 6-foot-5, 237-pound signal-caller holds his own, even as he sticks to the gluten- and dairy-free diet he started following in 2019. “He’ll order like three steaks because the guy can eat more than any other quarterback I’ve ever seen in my life,” Roullier said. 

Just before training camp in July, Wentz flew out most of the team’s skill players to work out with him in California. Double dates with punter Tress Way and their wives have also become standard for the Wentzes as the couples go to local escape rooms.

“He runs an escape room like he does the offense,” Way said. “I kind of keep it light. The escape rooms were not light. He needed to know the record [to break]. … He doesn’t want hints. He wants to do it all by himself.” 

“Sometimes I get very focused on those things,” Wentz says.

Family to help

Here’s another thing you might not know about Wentz’s escape room hobby: His wife, Madison, gets just as competitive as he does.

And, it turns out, that competitiveness applies to all sorts of different games. When Carson and Madison see Zach Wentz and his wife, Andrea, the couples have agreed that Pictionary can no longer be played. There have been, say, spirited disagreements over what can — and can’t — be drawn. And there’s the blaming that happens if there are wrong guesses.

“It just gets a little bit heated at times,” Zach Wentz said. 

Who knows where Carson would be, however, without her? Despite his professional setbacks over the last two years, Wentz said he’s learned that he’s “got everything I need” because of his family. Carson met Madison on a mission trip in Haiti after his 2016 rookie year and they were married just over a year later. The couple has two daughters, Hadley (2½) and Hudson (10 months). 

Madison, Zach said, has been able to provide balance to his brother because she is level-headed, whereas when Carson was younger, the quarterback could be “a little bit more emotional at times.” He added she’s done a good job of reminding Wentz of his purpose. The quarterback echoed similar sentiments.

“If something happened and I wasn’t playing tomorrow,” Wentz said, “they’d still love and support and encourage me. And I’d be Dad.”

Being the family member or spouse of an NFL player can be, for the lack of a better word, weird. Zach, for instance, described the occasional urge to lash out at the wave of criticism that his brother receives. But the 33-year-old realizes that engaging in a public back-and-forth wouldn’t “solve anything.”

Asked if he feels his brother is misunderstood, Zach lets out an “Oh boy” before pausing to think. He acknowledged he thinks Wentz can be a “punching bag” because the quarterback isn’t the type to respond.

“It’s the same as you heard last year in Indy,” Zach said. “For whatever reason, Carson is a lightning rod for one way or another. … In our world, we’re all just waiting for one moment to say, ‘Hey, I told you so’ as opposed to letting this thing play out a little bit before we make assumptions based on a game, a quarter or a half.”

Embracing change

Labels tend to stick, especially for NFL quarterbacks. And ever since Wentz admitted he has a Type-A personality, the 29-year-old hasn’t been able to escape the negative connotations that come with it. Impatient. Stubborn. A control freak.

Repeatedly this offseason, Wentz has said he feels more mature — crediting fatherhood, marriage and, of course, the trials and tribulations of the last few seasons. 

So how does that coincide with his natural personality? 

Well, he still considers himself to be Type-A. “My wife can attest to that every single day,” Wentz joked. But he realizes that he can become too task-oriented and too focused, which causes him to miss things going on around him. Madison has had to ask, “Are you ever present with us right now?” The question draws an apology.

“Those little lessons that apply in my marriage, as a dad, helped me become a better teammate and friend, as well,” Wentz said. “Because it does take intentionality. It does take unselfishness.” 

For the Commanders, the real test will be whether Wentz can perform well enough to lead them to the playoffs. If he doesn’t, the team has an easy out as Wentz has no more guaranteed money left on his contract after this season. And if he’s let go? Pundits like Hall of Fame quarterback and ESPN analyst Troy Aikman have wondered whether this is Wentz’s last chance to be an NFL starter. 

Wentz used to put a lot of thought into what he wanted to do after football. It was one of the many ways he tried to map out his life. He’s always tried to plan ahead, he admits.

The last two years have taught him not to, he said. 

“I’ve thought about those things for so long,” Wentz said, “that I’m trying to not think about things [anymore].”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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