The Philadelphia Eagles have problems. Perhaps the most unexpected and concerning development of the 2020 season: Quarterback Carson Wentz is one of their biggest ones. The veteran signal-caller has proven to be MVP-caliber at his best, and his supporting cast -- which is somehow both old and banged-up and young and inexperienced -- is only so-so when coupled with erratic play-calling. And yet, in Year Five, Wentz should be the one thing keeping Philly afloat, not pulling it underwater. So how long is his job safe?
Let's start by making one thing clear: The Eagles are not close to pulling the plug on Wentz as the franchise QB. They may or may not have signaled their openness to a future change by drafting Jalen Hurts so early this April, but this team has shown with its other actions that No. 11 is their man. Exhibit A: In June 2019, despite Wentz finishing two straight seasons on the sidelines, they gave the Pro Bowler a $128 million deal ($107.9M guaranteed) that effectively prevents them from cutting or trading him before 2022.
Atrocious as Wentz's 2020 start may be, we also can't forget that, from 2017-19, he mostly wavered between good and great, flashing top-10 upside even amid injury-riddled lineups, helping set up the team's historic Super Bowl run and then guiding the team to the playoffs against all odds at the tail end of 2019. In other words, the Eagles still have three-plus years of really promising QB play to fall back on -- all of which came under coach Doug Pederson, who's as married to Wentz as anyone in the organization.
But we're here to talk about 2020. And 2020 has not been pretty. Wentz may have willed the Eagles into overtime against the Cincinnati Bengals to help Philly stay out of the "L" column in Week 3, but it wasn't enough to overshadow another week of erratic accuracy, questionable decisions and killer turnovers. Somehow, after throwing no more than seven interceptions in each of the last three years, Wentz is working with these numbers through three starts this season: Three TDs, six INTs, and a measly 63.9 passer rating -- the worst among all 32 starting QBs. He's hurting the Eagles more than he's helping them.
That brings us back to the question at hand: How long is his job safe?
The thinking here is that there are two conceivable paths to Wentz landing on the bench this year. We'll call the first scenario the Motivational Benching and the second the Serious Benching. Here's how they'd logically play out:
The Motivational Benching
When: During Week 6 vs. Baltimore Ravens
As long as the rest of the NFC East remains nearly as inept as the Eagles (reminder: even at 0-2-1, Philly is tied in the loss column with Dallas and the Washington Football Team), Pederson and Co. will convince themselves they can still be playoff-bound. It's happened the last two years, and it'll happen again, especially with the NFC boasting an extra wild-card spot.
But if the Eagles can't steal a win over the next two weeks (at 49ers, at Steelers) and they start flat against the Ravens in Week 6, staring at an 0-5-1 start, there wouldn't be a better time to yank Wentz -- not as a permanent measure but as a last-ditch effort to light a fire under the QB.
Pulling Wentz for Hurts would confirm an entirely new QB controversy and open a door the Eagles might never be able to fully close. But if you're about to enter Week 7 winless after three straight playoff appearances, that QB controversy will have already manifested itself. In other words, replacing Wentz with Hurts might open a can of worms, but an 0-5-1 start means the worms have already spilled out. And if the Eagles' intention is to remain competitive until the very end, capitalizing on a bad division and doing whatever they can to restore Wentz in the process, then their best bet would be to insert Hurts to finish that Baltimore game, simultaneously relieving Wentz of pressure and scaring him straight.
The next step, of course, would be reinserting Wentz as starter for Week 7 against the Giants, just four days later. (You wouldn't tell Wentz this right when he's benched, obviously.) Then, ideally, you'd be giving No. 11 a clean shot to rebound and rebuild confidence against a division rival on a short week, with another NFC East game (vs. Cowboys) and the Week 9 bye right around the corner.
There's historical precedent for this kind of "motivational benching" in Philadelphia, and the most recent example is eerily similar: In 2008, Donovan McNabb had just struggled in -- get this -- an Eagles tie against the Bengals, and the following week, after throwing two picks against the Ravens, coach Andy Reid benched him at halftime for Kevin Kolb, a second-round draft pick the prior year. There are some differences: McNabb was in his 10th year at the time, whereas Wentz is only in his fifth; and the 2008 Eagles were 5-4-1 at the time. But the surprise change worked: After some awkwardness between McNabb and Reid, the two reunited four days later for a Thursday night game, finished the year 4-1 and advanced all the way to the NFC Championship.
You could argue that the 2008 Eagles were far more cohesive and/or healthy and/or talented than the 2020 Eagles, but that QB decision was no doubt still an incredibly tough call, with McNabb nearing a critical juncture of his Philly tenure and the Eagles in the thick of the playoff race. Numbers alone suggest benching Wentz would be a much easier call: His production is significantly worse than that of McNabb in 2008, and the current Eagles have yet to even hint they belong in the playoff race. They arguably need Wentz to rekindle his fire even more than those '08 Eagles needed a motivated McNabb.
What's the worst that could happen, in this scenario? Wentz shrinks during his second chance, and the Eagles slide out of the playoff race they weren't in to begin with? Then you're looking toward 2021 anyway. But if the bold swap pays off? You might be talking about a different team and QB.
The Serious Benching
When: After the Week 9 bye
Regardless of whether the Eagles need or attempt the "motivational benching," it's hard to see why they shouldn't consider giving Hurts a chance if they enter the bye at either 1-6-1 or 0-7-1. And while those records seem more befitting of a team like the Jets or Jaguars or Bengals (!), they don't seem entirely unlikely considering what lies ahead for Philly:
- Week 4 at 49ers (2-1)
- Week 5 at Steelers (3-0)
- Week 6 vs. Ravens (2-0)
- Week 7 vs. Giants (0-3)
- Week 8 vs. Cowboys (1-2)
Is there a scenario where Wentz plays really well but the Eagles still win just one of those games? Maybe, but either way, if you're fast approaching double-digit losses and have already dropped two to three divisional games, you've got to be on the verge of looking to 2021. So you'd be hard-pressed not to get a look at your second-round pick, see how things go for a week or three, and potentially ride Hurts through the end of the year ... and, possibly, into an open competition with Wentz ahead of the 2021 season.
Obviously Hurts' own performance might dictate whether the latter possibility is likely, but even if you're supremely loyal to Wentz (and, again, there's reason to believe he remains franchise-QB material), would it be the worst thing in the world for him to be forced to re-earn his spot? Couldn't that perhaps bring out the best of his Type-A preparation? There's a case to be made he might be working with a better roster by that point, too, if owner Jeffrey Lurie taps into some needed front-office changes.
Again, the Eagles can't plausibly cut or trade Wentz before 2022 without swallowing an absurd amount of money (and they're already set to be hurt by a reduced salary cap in 2021). So in this absolute worst-case scenario for he and the 2020 Eagles, the team could essentially make 2021 his prove-it year -- the season you really decide whether he's going to be your guy for the next title run.
But what if ...
- ... the Eagles win a couple of games before the bye? There's a reason both benching scenarios above involve the Eagles darn near bottoming out. As long as Philly remains even close to .500 or within reach of the division leader, it's highly unlikely Pederson would change QBs. Even a 1-4-1 start might not be enough. Point being, a Wentz benching could certainly be on the horizon, but it's going to take at least a few more duds.
- ... this is all a big overreaction? Hey, it's possible. Doug Pederson has successfully played the "underdog" card before. But goodness, these Eagles, regardless of injuries, were not supposed to start 0-2-1 with a tie against a winless Bengals team starting a rookie QB. Maybe, just maybe, they aren't a good team. And even if, secretly, they are, there's no denying Wentz has been off. If the losses and mistakes keep piling up, Pederson will have no choice but to shake things up, even if he hurts some feelings or overlooks some reputations. None of this is to suggest Wentz cannot rebound and cannot be a top-10 QB again. But right now, the Eagles are not getting that QB and need to figure out why.