PHILADELPHIA -- As Philadelphia Eagles players funneled in from the field to the locker room following Sunday's 17-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC wild-card round of the playoffs, they were greeted by quarterback Carson Wentz.
Wentz was still dealing with the effects of a concussion suffered on a Jadeveon Clowney hit in the first quarter, but he made sure to visit every locker stall to apologize for not being able to finish the game and to offer congratulations for their accomplishments this season.
"He came up to me and was like, 'Hey, we're going to do this next year. We're going to be back and we're going to be better.' In my head I'm like, 'Dude, are you OK? I'm not even worried about that right now. I'm worried about how you're doing,'" said rookie receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside.
"Even after him taking that hit, the injury, to be in that locker room to make it about everybody else and not him is a true testament of the guy he is, the leader he is."
Wentz's first playoff game did not go as hoped, nor did the Eagles' season. They came in as Super Bowl hopefuls and exited in the first round of the playoffs after winning a downtrodden NFC East with a 9-7 regular-season finish.
Yet time will prove this season a critically important and successful one for Philadelphia, because it was the year Wentz earned his wings.
Gusts of doubt swirled around Wentz entering Year 4. He was coming off his second major injury in as many seasons, Nick Foles had just rallied the team to the postseason in his absence, and questions about his standing in the locker room were raised by anonymous voices in a Philly Voice article published this offseason.
Further adversity hit this season as one skill-position player after the next was lost to injury. The anticipated high-flying offense never materialized, Wentz struggled at times, and the Eagles stumbled to a 5-7 start.
But a funny thing happened as veterans on offense were sidelined and younger players -- including five skill-position guys who spent part of the season on the practice squad -- began to surround him: Wentz and the offense took off. He engineered a pair of comeback wins against the New York Giants and Washington Redskins that cemented his role as a field general. Wentz pumped confidence into his young teammates, and they responded with loyalty and production. Wentz threw 10 touchdown passes to one interception down the stretch, and the Eagles rattled off four straight wins to capture the division.
"I see that maturation really manifested in success on offense," said Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins. "To be out there with a bunch of guys that are younger that he has to lead; it's not the veteran group that he's used to being with, so that takes a little bit more from you as a quarterback. It puts an onus on your decision-making, it puts an onus on your playmaking, and still keeping yourself from feeling like you have to do too much -- and I think he's handled that well all year, and he continued to get better every week."
The evolution was evident even in his sideline behavior. For much of his career and early on in the season, Wentz spent most of his time in between offensive series studying film on the tablet. Late in the season, he was communicating more with his teammates, moving from one area of the bench to the next to encourage and problem-solve.
And he cooled out. When the offense was in a funk -- most notably during a two-game stretch against the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, when the Eagles scored a combined 19 points -- Wentz often came off the field visibly frustrated. That disappeared at the close of the season, and it was replaced by positive energy.
"In a city where you get too many three-and-outs and you get booed, it's really hard to have positive body language when things aren't going well," Jenkins said. "But you can see in a game like the [Dallas game in late December] when we scored 10 straight points and then there was a span of really just jockeying for position, instead of being frustrated, it was just a very chill vibe, patient and positive, and I think that's what you need from the quarterback."
The vocal support of Wentz among veterans grew over the course of the season. Guard Brandon Brooks led the charge there. He viewed all the heat aimed at Wentz as unfair and unwarranted, and he made it a point to back him as a strong counter to whatever criticisms were being lobbed at Wentz, inside the building or out.
Wentz approached Brooks after Sunday's loss and apologized to him, as he had to other teammates. "S---, I wasn't playing either, so I apologized right back," Brooks, who was sidelined with a shoulder injury, said jokingly.
Then the Pro Bowl guard got a little more serious.
"I told him after the game, 'Man, this doesn't define you. Injuries happen. You're going to have people who say, "Something always happens." Those aren't the type of people that you really need to be listening to. The people that have your back and see what you do every day as far as putting the time in, the type of person you are, the type of character you have, those are the people that are important for you, and we'll be around as you go through this.' Watching him from the sideline, I felt extremely bad for the guy, all the work he has put in, all the stuff he has been through. I know he was super excited to go out there and play in his first playoff game, and for it to end the way it did, I just wanted to tell him, 'Man, it's not going to define your legacy. It doesn't define who you are.'"
Wentz played all 16 games in the regular season, came through in the clutch, and proved he could rally a team around him, making the 2019 season a pivotal one for the Eagles organization.
"He is going to be a star," said veteran tackle Jason Peters. "He's a leader. He's going to be good in this league for a long time."