There’s nothing more boring in sports than an NFL preseason game, especially the first preseason game — and extra especially the second half of the first preseason game.
That’s when the lowest of the low play, the dregs of the depth chart, the guys who have little chance to make the team and are here mostly to supply bodies for practice. The play is sloppy and the fans don’t even know or really care who most of those guys are. Most of the people at the game have headed back to the parking lot by that time, and most of the television viewers at home have switched to something else. There’s got to be a good John Wayne movie on somewhere, right?
But this exhibition will be different.
The Eagles open their preseason on Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lincoln Financial Field and most Eagles fans will be much more interested in what happens after halftime than before it. And that’s because that’s when quarterback Carson Wentz will make his Eagles debut.
Certainly, Wentz will get a great reception from the crowd, which will be much larger than the typical crowd for the second half of the exhibition opener. They’ll even forgive an errant pass or two and even a typical knuckle-headed rookie mistake or three. But they want to see something. They want to see a glimpse of the player who is supposed to be their next franchise quarterback. They want to be at least teased by his talent and seduced by his potential.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson made it clear what he expects from Wentz in the rookie’s debut.
“The biggest thing is just his decision making,” Pederson said. “The timing of throws, the accuracy of throws, how well he in turn manages the offense and how well they move. Basically, allowing him to just have fun and cut it loose. He’s such a mobile guy, that when he can scramble and get on the perimeter, he has the ability to make some tremendous throws and accurate throws out of the pocket.
“I’m kind of excited to watch him do those types of things in a live setting.”
That “live setting’’ is another reason why the fans are so anxious to see Wentz in action – he’s been practically invisible to them throughout training camp. When the Eagles held camp at Lehigh University, thousands of fans would flock to Bethlehem, Pa., daily to see their heroes in action, up close and personal. And while the camp excitement level this year might not have reached Terrell Owens intensity, the fans would have been packing the place to see their rookie QB.
Now, teams don’t practice as much or as long and there are only a few Eagles practices open to the general public. So, the fans haven’t seen much of their new hero and they’re excited about getting a long look at him on Thursday night when Wentz takes over after halftime.
Hopefully, those fans will understand that this is Wentz’ first time in an NFL game, albeit one that doesn’t count, and that it could take time for him to make the adjustment from playing at a Division I-AA college to the playing in the NFL, with new coaches, a new system and new teammates. And those teammates with whom he’ll play on Thursday night will be the afore-mentioned dregs of the depth chart. So, it probably won’t be pretty, but at least it’s something.
One disappointing thing about the exhibition opener — rookie running back Wendall Smallwood won’t play because of a quadriceps injury. Smallwood, a fifth-round pick from West Virginia, grew up in Wilmington and he’s expected to have a bigger impact this season than most rookie fifth-rounders. The Eagles were thin at running back to begin with and now nominal starter Ryan Mathews is out with his injury de jour (this time a sore knee), which means this would have been a great opportunity for Smallwood to get some serious playing time.
To digress a tad here — I was even more disappointed when the Pro Football Hall of Fame exhibition between the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts was cancelled because of poor field conditions. The Packers have two young players with Delaware connections and both of them were expected to play at lot against the Colts because both are listed at third team on their respective depth charts after starting out as undrafted free agents. Tight end Justin Perillo, from Tatnall School and the University of Maine, is a third-year player, and quarterback Joe Callahan, from Wesley College, is a rookie.
Packers’ All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers wasn’t going to play at all in the Hall of Fame game and Callahan was going to see a lot of action. A lot of people around here are anxious to see if Wentz can make the jump from Division I-AA, but Callahan is trying to make a tremendous leap from Division III Wesley and it would have been fun to watch him make his NFL debut, albeit in a game that doesn’t count.