The Philadelphia Eagles were one of the biggest surprises of the opening month of the 2016 season. After trading their presumptive starting quarterback during the final weeks of training camp, the Eagles opened the season 3-0. They started off with victories over the decrepit Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears, but followed that up with a walloping of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were expected to be Super Bowl contenders.
The Eagles were powered to those three victories by an elite defense that allowed a total of 823 yards and 27 points during that opening stretch. But they also got strong, efficient play from rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, who was thrust into the lineup after the Eagles traded Sam Bradford to the Vikings.
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Wentz, who was expected to open his rookie season as the team's No. 3 quarterback, completed 66 of 102 passes for 769 yards, five touchdowns, and zero interceptions in those three games. At the time, here's how we described him in a piece Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott:of Wentz and
Wentz has shown both the ability and the willingness to take the easy throws that the defense gives him. If that sounds like a pejorative, well, why don't you tell that to Tom Brady -- the NFL's preeminent "take what the defense gives you" master.
Wentz has done a good job identifying his first read before the snap, then throwing to him immediately if he flashes even remotely open. He's gotten the ball into the hands of his playmakers and let them go to work. This has been especially noticeable in the screen game and on quick hitch and curl routes.
Though he has under-thrown a couple, he's also shown really nice touch on several deep fade routes. Both of his touchdown passes during Philly's Week 1 win over the Browns came on fades -- one to each side of the field. He should have had another touchdown toss to Jordan Matthews on the same route in Week 2, but Matthews dropped it.
Wentz's best work, though, has come when his protection has broken down and he's used his legs to make something out of nothing. The single best skill either of these players has shown this season is Wentz's ability to escape from pressure and make throws from outside the pocket. On several occasions, he has broken containment scooted to the edge of the formation, then thrown the ball down the field for big plays. The most notable of those was a 73-yard catch-and-run to Darren Sproles against the Steelers in Week 3, but he also found Brent Celek with a throw against his body while moving to his left in Week 2 that was a thing of beauty.
The Eagles went into their bye after that three-week stretch, and it was during that time that the popular consensus about Wentz's play was crystallized. He was a No. 2 overall pick, he got off to a wonderful start, he looked like a surefire future star; and so he was anointed as one.
The only issue is that when he came back from the Eagles' bye week, Wentz's play fell off considerably.
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Wentz was less accurate, did not do as good a job getting the ball down the field, turned the ball over more often, and did not create as many touchdowns with his throws after the bye. As such, his overall passer rating suffered, and so did the Eagles' record. He still had plenty of flashes of above-average play, of course, but on balance, he just wasn't very good across the Eagles' final 13 games of the year.
By way of example: Wentz, who was sparkling through three weeks, had more games with a completion percentage south of 60 percent (seven) than north of it (six) after the bye, as well as more games with multiple interceptions (four) than multiple touchdowns (three).
So which player is the real Carson Wentz?
We're going to get a much better idea during the 2017 season. The Eagles did an excellent job this offseason of making their offense more Wentz-friendly. How? Well, there are four important ways a team can put its franchise quarterback in position to succeed:
- Make sure he's well-protected by his offensive line.
- Make sure he has a solid running game to keep the defense honest.
- Make sure he has good pass-catching weapons that can not only haul in the ball when it's thrown to them, but make plays after the catch.
- Make sure to scheme him into advantageous situations so he makes throws that play to his strengths and the strengths of the team.
The Eagles checked off a few of these boxes last year, but not all of them. Their offensive line was quite strong. Their Adjusted Sack Rate of 5.4 percent, per Football Outsiders, was above average, and Wentz was under pressure less often than all but seven qualified passers, according to Pro Football Focus. The running game was above average as well, with the Eagles checking in 11th in rushing yards, Adjusted Line Yards, and rush offense DVOA.
The Eagles also largely did a good job scheming Wentz into position to succeed. They did not ask him to make very many throws that were too dangerous, or outside his wheelhouse. He threw behind the line of scrimmage more often than almost any quarterback in the league: 15.7 percent of this throws were targeted to receivers behind the line, according to PFF. Those tosses boosted his completion percentage and allowed him to rack up free yards. Given the style of coach Doug Pederson's offense, we can expect him to attempt many more of those throws next year and in the future.
The main issue with the Eagles' offense last year was that the weapons available to Wentz were among the worst in the league. Wentz had 38 passes dropped last season, more than any quarterback in the NFL. Those drops cost him 241 additional passing yards, according to PFF. Those drops alone were the difference between Wentz averaging a paltry 6.2 yards per attempt on the season and a more respectable 6.6 per attempt.
This offseason, Philly set out to getting him a better crop of pass-catchers. They brought in Alshon Jeffery on a one-year deal. Jeffery has struggled with health issues, but his specialty is taking inaccurate or semi-accurate passes and turning them into completions or touchdowns. Throwing the ball in his general direction is a better idea than placing it directly into Nelson Agholor's hands.
And Jeffery's not the only weapon the Eagles brought in to help Wentz out. Torrey Smith was imported to give the offense a field-stretching element it didn't really have last season, Mack Hollins was drafted to provide even more speed, and scat back Donnel Pumphrey was drafted to take an apprenticeship under Darren Sproles. Not only that but the Eagles added LeGarrette Blount to bring some more power to their running game, which should make short-yardage conversions easier and provide more plays with "and-short" to go rather than "and-long."
Wentz still has all the talent that led to his shooting up draft boards all the way to No. 2 and that helped him get off to such a hot start last season. His struggles over the rest of the year may be indicative of what's to come, but they also may not be. Performing poorly as a rookie does not necessarily mean that you will continue to perform poorly in the future. Plenty of rookie quarterbacks have seen their fair share of struggle before going on to have wonderful careers.
Whether or not Wentz can do the same will of course depend in large part on his ability, his instincts, and his work ethic, but it will also depend on his supporting cast. And on that front, the Eagles have done a much better job putting him in position to succeed in Year 2 than they did in Year 1.