Strength in num­bers never a bad thing at QB

The Review - - SPORTS - Jack McCaf­fery Colum­nist

The Ea­gles slid a con­tract across a ta­ble Sun­day, and Chris­tian Hack­en­berg signed his au­to­graph, speed-read­ing past the fine print, hop­ing the ink dried be­fore it smeared.

“I as­sume,” the Ea­gles’ new­est quar­ter­back said Mon­day, “they signed me for a rea­son.”

One rea­son. Two maybe. Three is not out of the ques­tion. The Ea­gles may have signed him for rea­sons they are yet to know ex­ist.

“That’s a per­son­nel de­ci­sion,” Mike Groh shrugged Mon­day, af­ter rain chased a train­ing camp prac­tice in­doors. “We’re happy that he’s here and look­ing for­ward to work­ing with him.”

Groh co­or­di­nates the Ea­gles’ of­fense, and at some point should have some weight when the coach­ing-room chit-chat turns to the most im­por­tant po­si­tion on a foot­ball field. He was thrust into the hem-and-haw role Mon­day be­cause Doug Ped­er­son was too busy to com­ment, in­sist­ing on wait­ing un­til Tues­day and a pre­vi­ously sched­uled press brief­ing.

Mon­day, the­o­ries were bump­ing around the News-Con­trol Com­pound about why a club so deep in quar­ter­back depth that the sit­ting Su­per Bowl MVP is likely to play only in the fourth quar­ter of blowouts would im­port a 23-year-old of some high pedi­gree. But Groh’s choice of the word “per­son­nel” was a code that the Hack­en­berg Ini­tia­tive was an ex­ec­u­tive-level con­coc­tion. And Howie Rose­man’s de­part­ment has been good enough in the past year-plus to have in­spired that march on the Art Mu­seum.

While the value of the quar­ter­back, at any level, has never been a foot­ball de­bate, the Ea­gles have un­der­stood the more con­tem­po­rary de­mand more than oth­ers: At that level, any more, a truly cham­pi­onship-minded op­er­a­tion can­not set­tle for one high-level quar­ter­back, or for two. And given the Ea­gles’ sit­u­a­tion, and how it has been twist­ing for weeks, three would not be enough.

Strength in num­bers. It’s the only way to run a quar­ter­back de­part­ment. And it’s the only way the Ea­gles can ap­proach at least the ear­li­est part of the sea­son.

Be­cause that con­fetti-drop from that Min­nesota dome at the end of the last Su­per Bowl cov­ered some de­tails, it was some­how lost that the Ea­gles won the thing on a day when Nate Sud­feld was one Nick Foles in­jury away from be­ing the Birds’ quar­ter­back. If Ea­gles fans were able to re­di­rect that re­al­ity to their sub­con­scious, it’s un­der­stand­able. But how long can Rose­man and Ped­er­son take that risk?

If ev­ery­thing plays to form be­fore their Septem­ber 6 opener against vis­it­ing At­lanta, the Ea­gles will have a re­spon­si­ble quar­ter­back ro­ta­tion. But the chance of that is di­min­ish­ing.

Though Car­son Wentz, with a de­ter­mi­na­tion that is ei­ther ad­mirable or reck­less or both, is work­ing hard to beat the knee-surgery sys­tem and start, it’s not yet cer­tain if he will be the Open­ing Night starter.

“We’ll stick to the plan,” Groh said, “like Coach has said all along.”

Wentz looks strong in prac­tice, run­ning with­out

a limp, throw­ing with ve­loc­ity and com­mand. But he hasn’t been tack­led since the in­jury that cost him the end of last sea­son. And the Ea­gles have in­vested so much in him in draft con­sid­er­a­tions that they can­not af­ford to ex­pose him to a ca­reer-threat be­fore he is ready to be clob­bered by 350-pound peo­ple.

“I think we’re re­ally pleased where Car­son is,” Groh said. “He’s right on track with ev­ery­thing that we’ve asked him to do. Ob­vi­ously, you can see out here he’s per­form­ing well when he gets his reps.”

That should en­cour­age the coaches and fans. But if Wentz is not ready for NFL vi­o­lence in 22 days, that will leave Foles. And that would be very same Foles who re­cently needed time off to rest an up­per-body in­jury. Talk is the sore­ness was the re­sult of in­creased train­ing­camp de­mands while Wentz is ush­ered back at a re­spon­si­ble pace.

If Wentz is not gameready for the Fal­cons, and if Foles is shaken up be­fore then, the Ea­gles can­not be com­pletely com­fort­able with Sud­feld, who twice was in­ter­cepted early in a 31-14 pre­sea­son loss to Pitts­burgh. So, they need more in­sur­ance.

Enter Hack­en­berg, once drafted No. 51 over­all by the Jets, given a $4.6 mil­lion con­tract and never trusted in a reg­u­lar-sea­son game. Once, though, he was a ma­jor re­cruit at Penn State and was com­fort­able enough jump­ing into the draft af­ter three years. He has been viewed as a spe­cial quar­ter­back for most of his life and, well, didn’t Foles wind through three or­ga­ni­za­tions be­fore win­ning a Su­per Bowl?

“I think you see ex­am­ples of that all over the league,” Hack­en­berg said. “And I think that’s what’s so cool about what Nick did. I bet if you asked Nick, he had some times where he just started fo­cus­ing on the lit­tle things. And even­tu­ally those lit­tle things turned into big things.”

So Hack­en­berg is start­ing over, fo­cus­ing on fun­da­men­tals. If that al­lows his nat­u­ral skill to flour­ish, the Ea­gles will have a quar­ter­back bet­ter suited to win an im­por­tant game than Sud­feld, who was be­ing tor­mented by the Birds’ de­fense in prac­tice Sun­day. At the min­i­mum, the former Big Ten starter is an up­grade over 6-foot-1 Joe Cal­la­han, a Wes­ley Col­lege prod­uct try­ing to show enough value in camp to land on a prac­tice squad.

If the mar­ket for Foles bub­bles to the point where some con­tender suf­fers an in­jury and be­comes quar­ter­back-starved, then the Ea­gles could find con­tent­ment in Sud­feld and Hack­en­berg, in one or­der or the other, back­ing up a heal­ing Wentz.

“I as­sumed they signed me for a rea­son,” Hack­en­berg said. “I re­ally didn’t get into all that. I just showed up.”

He showed up, and be­cause he did, the Ea­gles were just that much deeper in quar­ter­back po­ten­tial than they were a day be­fore. No one knows bet­ter than the team still sweep­ing up that con­fetti that it’s im­pos­si­ble to be too deep in that de­part­ment.

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