PHILADELPHIA — When there was nothing more they could give, no more comebacks to be had, no more improbable Super Bowl runs left in them, the tears finally fell.
Josh McCown had set out to be the latest Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterback to lift the team to postseason glory. But as the curtain closed on their final game of the season, and likely the last of his 17-year career, all he could do was drop to his knees and weep.
He and his teammates lamented the lost opportunity, the plays they gave up and those they failed to make. Most of all, these bruised and battered Eagles rued the cruel twist of fate that left them without their young leader when it mattered most.
Carson Wentz had carried them on his shoulders for weeks, all the way to Sunday’s NFC wild-card round against Seattle. And for the first time in what felt like forever, Philly finally got to see the face of its franchise, healthy and under center, in the playoffs.
The moment would be short-lived.
Wentz — the last healthy man standing in an offensive huddle littered with practice-squadders and backups plucked off the street — was forced out of the game late in the first quarter after a helmet-to-helmet hit from Seahawks pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney.
The 27-year-old suffered a concussion on the play and he never returned.
“There might be death threats this week,” Clowney said, smiling, after Seattle outlasted the home team, 17-9, to set up a matchup with Green Bay in next week’s divisional round. “I’ll tell you once I get on my Instagram, because they usually light me up, tell me to go to hell, die, go to prison, you need to be in jail — you and your family, all of y’all. You should’ve seen the messages I had last year.”
Philly fans are all too familiar with Clowney. Last year, when he was a member of the Houston Texans, he briefly knocked out Eagles backup quarterback Nick Foles during their Week 16 contest at Lincoln Financial Field.
On Sunday, Clowney didn’t mince words when it came to the Philly faithful either, calling them the “worst fans in the world.”
While he downplayed the severity of his collision with Wentz, he insisted the hit wasn’t intentional.
“I was just playing fast,” Clowney said. “And he turned like he was running the ball, so I was trying to get him down. It was a bang-bang play. I don’t intend to hurt anybody in this league, let me just put that out there. I’ve been down the injury road. It’s not fun.”
Clowney drilled Wentz in the back of the head as Wentz was falling to the ground after trying to evade a first-quarter tackle. There was no flag, no penalty yards enforced at the time, and no initial indication that something was seriously wrong with the Eagles quarterback. It wasn’t until the Seahawks’ ensuing drive that Wentz was escorted to the locker room for testing.
“I hope he’s OK,” Clowney added. “Like I said, I didn’t intend to hurt him. I didn't even know he went out of the game until the next series. I thought it was just a small hit, but everybody was going crazy on the sidelines. I was just trying to finish the play, but it happened.”
While Eagles coach Doug Pederson and several of players said they didn’t see the hit, there was one person who took extreme offense to it: Wentz’s left tackle, Jason Peters.
“I just told him, ‘Man, that’s a dirty play,’” Peters said, disclosing his in-game conversation with Clowney. “And he’s like, ‘My bad,’ and we just kept playing. But I kept reminding him, ‘C’mon man, stay off my quarterback.’ I didn’t even know he was out until that next series.”
The officials saw things differently, of course. Asked about the no-call, NFL referee Shawn Smith said of Wentz: “He was a runner and he did not give himself up. We saw incidental helmet contact, and in our judgment, we didn’t rule that to be a foul.”
The team that was guided to the 2017 season’s Super Bowl title by Foles now needed a different substitute to carry the team in Wentz’s absence. And with 1:22 remaining in the first quarter, McCown trotted onto the field looking to lift the spirits of this city and his team. Instead of ripping off the first win in another unlikely Super Bowl run, the Eagles succumbed to their mountain of injuries and the wizardry of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (18-for-30, 325 yards, one touchdown).
Despite getting no first-team reps in practice, McCown did a serviceable job, completing 18 of 24 passes for 174 yards and keeping the Eagles within striking distance in the final minutes of the game. But Philly never found its way into the end zone.
“As a quarterback you want to do more, and you feel like you can do more,” said McCown, who became the first player in NFL history to make his postseason debut at age 40. “… You feel like you let those people down that come to the building. That’s a hurt feeling.”
Emotions were raw inside the Eagles locker room. Understandably so.
Quivering voices told the story of a team that had defied the odds all season long. They spoke of their collective toughness, their resilience and their willingness to sacrifice their bodies for the love of the game and each other. And they spoke of Wentz’s heart and his efforts en route to becoming NFC East Division champs.
“It’s been rough for him, obviously,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said of Wentz’s injuries in recent years. “It’s obviously out of his control. I know he probably feels like he let us down, but we wouldn’t be in this situation without him. We love him. It’s just a tough pill for us to swallow.”
When it was all over, McCown limped toward the locker room, his pulled hamstring burning with every step. His eyes were red-rimmed, his demeanor deflated. And soon, his body sunk to the floor in the hallway leading to the locker room.
Perhaps it was fitting that in that intimate moment of dejection, tight end Zach Ertz — Wentz’s trusted safety blanket on the field — was in prime position to help out his other quarterback.
In the aftermath of this crushing defeat, Ertz bent down beside McCown and offered words of encouragement to the veteran leader who wasn’t even on their roster when the season started.
“This team embodies this city,” said Ertz, who disclosed after the game that he suffered two non-displaced rib fractures and a kidney injury in Week 16, which resulted in him being rushed to the hospital. “It is a resilient city, a tough city, and I feel like the character of this team the past couple of years has been the reflection of their city. We do everything we can to try and win on Sundays, and sometimes we just come up a little short.”
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