From maligned to matured: Carson Wentz's hard lessons serve QB well in Washington relaunch | Opinion

·8 min read

ASHBURN, Va. — Starting over with his third team and entering the seventh season of his NFL journey, Carson Wentz feels a new sense of freedom.

As the quarterback puts it, he has experienced “some of the highest of highs” and “lowest of lows.” But Wentz is beginning to see how even those low points – injury, poor play, sharp criticisms and then trades from two different teams – have helped him reach a place of improved maturity, understanding and authenticity.

He still lacks all of the answers. He’s asked “why?” more times than he can count.

Why things didn’t work out in Philadelphia, the team that drafted him second overall in 2016 and three years later signed him to a four-year, $128 million contract extension.

Why they didn’t work out in Indianapolis, the franchise that in 2021 gave up multiple picks to acquire his services but soured on him after only one season.

Why he wound up in the camp of a former divisional rival, Washington.

But even if he still doesn’t fully understand, Wentz is at peace while receiving signs of affirmation as he settles in with the Commanders.

“I’ve asked all those questions before, and there’s a lot of things in this world that we may never fully know,” he told USA TODAY Sports this week. “I think there are glimpses of it. Maybe it’s someone impacted in the locker room. Maybe it’s something that helps me say, ‘God, I don’t know why this happened, but I’m going to do it all for you anyway.’ And again, I may never get full clarity, but already there have been some really cool moments for myself off the field and on the field, and while getting to know guys and build relationships that let me know, ‘You’re right where God wants you.’

"What’s next? I don’t know.”

MORE: 22 recent NFL first-round picks running out of chances

TRAINING CAMP STANDOUTS: 40 NFL players you need to know in 2022

Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz (11) looks to throw the ball during practice at the team's NFL football training facility, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, in Ashburn, Va.
Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz (11) looks to throw the ball during practice at the team's NFL football training facility, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, in Ashburn, Va.

Wentz doesn’t care about what’s next because he's focused on helping head coach Ron Rivera continue to change the culture of a long-suffering franchise following a confidence-building welcome extended to him by his new bosses.

When Wentz arrived in Washington, both Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner made two things clear: The quarterback was wanted by everyone in the franchise, and they needed him to be nothing but himself.

“I’ve told him, 'I don’t really care about what’s happened in your past and earlier in your career,'” Turner said. “I really tried to go into it in a blank slate, and he’s been outstanding.”

That encouragement from Turner and Rivera, whose message has been the same, had a liberating effect on Wentz.

“It does help confidence, even if it takes it from 99% to 100, just knowing that they believe in you and that they want you to be yourself,” he said.

Ever since, the quarterback, who turns 30 in December, has been on a mission to establish relationships and provide leadership to a Washington locker room, where the average player is approximately 26 and has roughly three seasons of experience.

It may seem ironic that Wentz, who drew criticism both in Philadelphia and Indianapolis for being aloof and selfish while failing to build chemistry with some teammates, is now so strongly driven to embrace such a vital role.

But he experienced plenty to lead him to this point. He was on top of the world in Year 2 before a devastating knee injury ended his season, which culminated with him watching his teammates celebrate a Super Bowl victory led by his backup, Nick Foles. He came back the following season but battled inconsistencies and perceived insecurities that fueled questions of whether the Eagles were better with Foles.

Then there was the fresh start in Indianapolis, where former offensive coordinator Frank Reich was supposed to help him recapture his onetime MVP-caliber form. His inability to prove himself as the answer that Colts owner Jim Irsay coveted in a quarterback led to another restart in Washington.

Says Wentz, "I'd like to think I'm smarter and more mature as a man and a player."

Now Wentz, who credits his faith and his family for helping him weather such storms, feels better equipped to lead.

Wentz better understands how to connect with teammates of differing backgrounds, and he sees how those connections help the team on and off the football field.

But Wentz makes one thing clear: He doesn’t see himself as a team savior by any means.

“I try not to crown myself as anything,” Wentz said, “and I try not to focus on pressure, good or bad. I just want to be one of the guys, be helpful for them and make everybody around me better.”

Being one of the guys while also carrying a weighty leadership role may sound contradictory or impossible. But that doesn’t stop Wentz from trying.

“I think if you can be authentic and be yourself, that goes a long way,” he said. “Not everybody can be. I’ve had moments when I’ve had to combat that too. For me, it’s just trying to be myself and not try to be something else. … I might not have the same home situation that some guys do because there are a lot of single guys on the team, but we can still get together and find ways to have fun, building that culture, camaraderie, in the locker room and off the field, going to dinner, going golfing, doing things.

"That’s why I love this game, because there are guys from all over the place with different upbringings, backgrounds and cultures and different phases of life, and we all come together not only on the field with the goal of building something special, but off the field as well.”

Further expounding on his mission, Wentz says, “ You’ve got to be willing to put yourself out there, be vulnerable, be accountable. At this point, I’m almost 30 years old. I am who I am. I’ve got a wife and two kids. I’m passionate about certain things. Everybody knows I’m an open book, and so this has been fun to be myself and get to know everybody at the same time.”

But Wentz does understand that his Commanders teammates want and need more than a friend.

The players, coaches and fans want someone to end this perpetually spinning quarterback carousel and transform a franchise that has gone 25 years without experiencing back-to-back winning seasons.

Wentz wants to win, badly. But he swears he’s not a quest for redemption.

“My flesh definitely wants to have a chip on my shoulder,” said Wentz, a devout Christian. “But I don’t think it’s healthy for me because of my faith and trusting in God’s plan.

“I have to fight that. I think as humans, we all have the desire to succeed and always want to prove that, but that’s our flesh. That’s something I have to combat and say ‘God, here you go,’ and just give this to him and trust him with it. It’s something that I have to work to put into practice, and quite frankly, it’s not always easy. But it’s something I have to walk through each day.”

Through the early stages of their union, Wentz has been and done everything the Commanders hoped for.

“He’s had a sense of urgency ever since he walked in this door,” Turner said. “That’s how we expected our quarterbacks to be. Football is important to him, being successful is important to him. It shows with his approach. ... He’s a really good communicator, the way he talks and communicates the things he understands and also the way he shares things he observes, and the way he listens. He wants to understand why we do things a certain way. The guys recognize the work he's putting in and how much it matters to him."

The Commanders are counting on this matured and rejuvenated Wentz to help ignite an offense that has ranked among the bottom third of the league in most key statistical categories.

That’s exactly what Wentz wants – not to recapture the magic years gone by, not to dispel negative beliefs about him, but to author a new chapter that helps him better fulfill his purpose.

“Honestly, what matters to me is the guys in the locker room. What guys think, say, feel. That’s what matters to me. Outside the locker room isn’t my concern. People are entitled to think whatever they want,” Wentz said. “I value the relationships inside the locker room, with the guys that I’m going out to the practice field with every day and in games.

"We’re building something special here. I can feel that. … Anything I can offer to help make people better – make this team better – is exactly what I want to do.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Carson Wentz goes from maligned to matured in Washington relaunch