Carson Wentz always had something to prove.
In high school, he wasn’t big enough. In college, he inherited a national championship team and the expectation to continue a dynasty. As a professional, he’s overcome injuries and navigated the pressures of a rabid NFL fanbase.
That chip on Wentz's shoulder followed each turn of his football journey. But as much as it claims responsibility for Wentz’s greatest triumphs, it may also be the culprit behind his biggest shortcomings and his struggles with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Wentz’s current and former coaches laud his competitiveness and tenacity. Those qualities helped transform him from a 5-foot-8, 150-pound high school underclassman in North Dakota to a 6-foot-5, 230-pound Indianapolis Colts quarterback.
“He was a late developer,” Craig Bohl, Wentz’s head coach at North Dakota State, said of his former student during an exclusive interview with USA TODAY Sports+. “But we saw a tremendous competitor and a guy who was growing like a weed. He had a really bright mind and maybe not physically developed yet, but we saw great potential.”
Wentz parlayed those attributes into back-to-back national championships as a collegiate starter for the Bison and a No. 2 overall selection in the NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.
After opening some eyes during his rookie season, Wentz had a sensational 2017 campaign in which he posted a career-high 78.5 QB rating before a season-ending knee injury, which bled into 2018. Nick Foles won a Super Bowl in his place under center, and Wentz didn't regain form until his record-breaking 2019 season that saw him eclipse the Eagles’ franchise record for passing yards in a season (4,039).
The Eagles traded Foles that offseason and handed the keys to Wentz for 2020. Under the watchful eyes of the Philadelphia faithful, Wentz faltered and was benched in Week 13 for rookie Jalen Hurts.
Now, after an offseason trade sent Wentz to the Colts, Wentz might be under more pressure than any other quarterback this season.
Is this Wentz’s last chance to be an NFL starter?
A local legacy
At first, Ron Wingenbach wasn’t sure what to make of the scrawny high school sophomore sniffing around his football team. Surely his constant work in the weight room would pay off eventually, but how good could this Wentz kid really be?
Even after bulking up a bit, Wentz played most of his junior season at Bismarck Century High School in North Dakota with his arm in a cast and relegated to safety and wide receiver for the Patriots.
Wentz didn't see regular playing time under center until he was a senior.
But that fall, Wentz completed 91 of 149 passes for 1,285 yards and 12 touchdowns en route to a state football semifinal appearance.
He then played center on the basketball team despite not playing organized hoops since eighth grade. Bismarck Century won the state title that winter.
And in the spring, Wentz was recognized as valedictorian of his graduating class.
“I think the one thing that sets him apart is his inner drive,” Wingenbach told USA TODAY Sports+. “He had a long way to go in terms of physical growth and handling nuances of the game. Kudos to him for really sticking with it and growing into his own body. Just being a competitor in other sports helped, too, and he was able to get to the collegiate ranks as a much more physical football player than he was in high school.
“His competitiveness rubbed off on teammates and his persona has been emulated throughout our program since he graduated in 2011. We’ve had a great run ever since his senior year. It’ll be a community in Bismarck that will go from wearing Eagles green to Colts blue.”
Indeed, Wentz’s impact has had a lasting effect in Bismarck. The Patriots have won four state championships in the last six years, going 61-8 during that span under Wingenbach.
But Wentz’s legacy is more representative of what he accomplished after graduation, especially considering that senior season included some of the same mistakes Wentz made in Philadelphia years later.
“Senior year he was such a competitor that he probably took some shots he didn’t necessarily need to take,” Wingenbach said of Wentz, adding the quarterback missed time with a concussion that year.
Wingenbach, who has stayed in touch with his former pupil, said he thinks something similar happened to Wentz with the Eagles.
“At times he probably put a little too much pressure on himself to lead the Eagles to victory every Sunday,” Wingenbach said. “There were probably things behind the scenes that he wanted to prove.”
Wentz stepped under center at the 5-yard line, checked the defensive coverage and called an audible to change protection. Wentz took the snap, surveyed and delivered a perfect pass to the split end for a touchdown.
“What were you thinking?” Bohl remembers asking Wentz.
This was Wentz’s first scrimmage as a true freshman at North Dakota State, one of Wentz’s few Division I options out of high school. Bohl couldn’t believe an 18-year-old who had been on campus for literally one weekend could have such a command of the offense.
“Most guys have a hard enough time managing the snap count, let alone these other things,” Bohl said. “I knew right then and there that his football IQ was off the charts.”
Wentz, who still needed to put on weight, would have to wait a few years to get his chance to start. He made the most of it when he did, winning the FCS national championship in consecutive years as a starter in 2014 and 2015. The Bison won the title all five years Wentz was with the program.
Still, Wentz was subjected to the same small-school prejudice that plummets the draft stock of many FCS products. It didn’t affect Wentz’s draft position, but it did follow him to the Eagles. He had everything to prove to a skeptical fanbase.
Now, he’s with a different team and four years have passed, but he still has everything to prove after a dismal 2020 season that cast doubt on Wentz’s abilities as an NFL quarterback.
But what exactly caused Wentz to struggle so much during his final season in Philadelphia?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Bohl said. “Many times, the player executing the game plan and the coach calling the plays need to have a relationship. And it’s hard to define, but I think the move to the Colts is really good for him. I think it’s going to be a bounce-back year.”
Wentz and Colts head coach Frank Reich formed a relationship when Reich was the offensive coordinator of the Eagles team that won Super Bowl LII. Reich said what happened to Wentz last year can actually help him with the Colts.
“His attitude couldn’t be better,” Reich said of Wentz during Colts’ OTAs in June. “When you come off a year like he did in 2020, humble pie doesn’t taste good but it’s good for you.
"I’ve been around a lot of quarterbacks and it’s very common when you’re struggling to try to make something that isn’t there.”
Wentz expressed excitement about the Colts’ system, telling reporters at OTAs in June that Reich’s spread offense had him stoked despite looming pressure.
“This is the game we play and the position that I’ve chosen,” Wentz said. “There will always be pressure and expectations. I’ve really felt a lot of excitement around here. The culture is a one-day-at-a-time mindset and that’s what I’m doing every day at work."
Reich, who has also bonded with Wentz off the field over their mutual Christian faith, agreed with both Bohl and Wingenbach that Indianapolis could spur a resurgence for Wentz.
“It’s a chance for him to acknowledge that he has to hit the reset button,” Reich said. “I believe he’s going to do that and have an incredible year.”