Carson Wentz seems to get it. The Eagles quarterback, upon reflection during the bye week, seems to understand that his over-aggressiveness has hindered more than it’s helped his team, certainly as it relates to turnovers.
“Turnovers are gonna happen, and I’m aware of that,” Wentz said Wednesday, “but there’s definitely a handful of them that I can look introspectively at and say, ‘OK, just eat that. Just call it a day. Live to fight another down.’ And I’m going to work on doing that.”
Wentz, of course, has sung this mantra before only to revert to recklessness. After turning the ball over seven times in the first three games, he made minor strides in the next four with only five. But against the Cowboys in Week 8, he had four giveaways.
The Eagles, of course, still managed to beat Dallas, and at 3-4-1 hold a lead over their two-win opponents in the weak NFC East. But if they are to stave off competition, beat the New York Giants Sunday, and navigate a difficult five-game stretch in the second half of the season, Wentz will likely need to commit far less than the NFL-worst 16 turnovers he had in the first eight games.
His 12 interceptions and four fumbles have been the greatest manifestation of his struggles, but he’s been sacked at a higher rate and inaccurate at a lower rate. There are likely numerous outside reasons for his regression – personnel, coaching, play-calling, injuries, the truncated offseason, etc. – but Wentz’s over aggressiveness has caused him and the Eagles their most grief.
He said before the season that the No. 1 area he wanted to see the offense improve upon was explosive plays. And the Eagles have. Their nine 40-plus-yard plays this season ranks tied for fifth in the NFL. The next 40-plus-yard pass Wentz completes will match last year’s total of six.
But there have been more failures than successes on deep throws and, as has often been the case, disastrous results. Wentz has five interceptions on pass attempts over 20 yards, two fumbles when he’s held the ball too long while looking downfield, and three additional sacks that could be attributed to the same tendency.
Wentz has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want to lose his aggressive mindset. And the Eagles have said they don’t want to coach it out of him. But the best quarterbacks know when to push the envelope and when to pull it back.
“There are times where we are trying to throw the ball down the field and maybe we have the ideal look and get a chance to push it, which I think we have done a little bit more of this year,” Eagles quarterbacks coach and pass game coordinator Press Taylor said Tuesday. "Then there’s times where it’s not there, and by down and distance it calls to push the ball in the flat right now.
“That’s something that we are continuing to harp on with him and again, like all I can emphasize is we are excited to see where that goes in the second half of the season. I think we are moving in that direction.”
Wentz has tossed 45 passes beyond 20 yards this season, or 14.8 percent of his attempts. He averaged 12.2 in 2019, 11.1 in 2018, and 14.8 in 2017. While his 33.3 completion percentage isn’t much lower than it was in 2019 (35.1), 2018 (37.8) and 2017 (38.5), his 11.1 interception rate is significantly higher than it was in those years (6.8, 8.9 and 6.2).
Overall, Wentz is averaging 9.26 yards of length per attempt. Only the Broncos' Drew Lock has a higher average (9.43). A higher or lower rate in pass length doesn’t correlate to effective or ineffective quarterback play. Wentz has had issues on all distances of throws.
But many of his problems can be attributed to his increased aggressiveness downfield, which is partly a result of Doug Pederson and his coaching staff dialing up more shot plays this season.
“Honestly, that’s the way we call games,” Taylor said. “We are going to be aggressive. We’re going to be bold in our approach. We’re going to take our shots when we feel like the situation calls for that.”
The Eagles acquired several pieces this offseason to account for their lack of outside receiver speed on offense. But veteran Marquise Goodwin opted out, rookies Jalen Reagor and Quez Watkins have missed extended time with injuries, and DeSean Jackson – the lone speed returnee – has also been sidelined.
That has left John Hightower as the primary deep threat. But even though the fifth-round rookie has struggled since Week 1, the Eagles have continued to force passes downfield to him. Of Wentz’s 45 20-plus-yard attempts, 13 have gone to Hightower. The receiver has caught only two.
“We haven’t hit as many as I would have liked,” Pederson said Wednesday. “But the fact that we’re getting him behind the defense and having opportunities down the field are things that we can improve on and we can get better at. For me, that’s the encouraging part is that we have so much room to really grow in that area.”
But while Hightower has been involved in many of Wentz’s dubious downfield moments, his over aggressiveness has been the common denominator.
The fumble he coughed up on the Eagles' third play from scrimmage against Dallas may have been one of the worst of his career.
The Eagles had a shot play scripted for Hightower, but with deep safety help over top, Wentz (No. 11) looked off his first read. He eventually rolled left out of the pocket to buy time, but he had nothing and should have thrown the ball away on second down.
Maybe he was waiting for Hightower (No, 82) to work back or for tight Dallas Goedert (No, 88) to release, but he held the ball for eight seconds and was striped sacked.
“I should’ve thrown the ball away,” Wentz said after the game.
Fumbles have been an issue since his rookie season. Wentz’s 55 are the most in the NFL since 2016. He’s lost 23. But taking sacks had never been a prominent issue until now. In his first four seasons, Wentz was sacked once every 16 pass attempt. This year, the rate is 9.5.
The Eagles' injuries on the offensive line have had something to do with their league-high 32 sacks allowed. But at least a half dozen can be pinned on Wentz for either failing to see the field or for not throwing the ball away.
On this third-down play against the Giants in Week 7, Wentz had time, but he didn’t pull the trigger to his first read (Travis Fulgham, No. 13), and missed a wide-open J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (No. 19) across the middle before taking a sack.
“A lot of those sacks that have been happening this year, there’s things I can do better,” Wentz said Wednesday. “There’s communication that I can do better. I can get rid of the ball quicker.”
The interceptions, as noted previously, have been the far bigger dilemma. As Wentz might say, each has been different. But what has been most disconcerting about two of his most recent ones was the decision-making.
Last week, the Eagles had first down at the Dallas 34 late in the second quarter. Wentz dropped to pass, but the Cowboys essentially had all routes covered. Reagor (No. 18) was being followed by two defenders. And yet, Wentz fired to his receiver.
The decision was poor, but he clearly wanted to throw in an area in which Reagor had the only chance to catch the ball. But the pass sailed on Wentz and Dallas cornerback Stefon Diggs (No. 27) made an impressive interception.
“I thought Reagor had a step on [Diggs], so I was out of the pocket, and I pulled the trigger quick,” Wentz said after the game. “I was trying to give [Reagor] a chance but [Diggs] beat him to the spot.”
Even if he had been more accurate, the window was tight, and Wentz’s mechanics just haven’t allowed for him to be consistent with those types of throws.
Three weeks ago, the Eagles were deep into Giants territory and faced second-and-15 before the half. Wentz spun out of the pocket to his left on this play, but he again had no one open and inexplicably threw a jump ball to Hightower that went over his head and was picked.
Not all of Wentz’s deep interceptions have been because of faulty decision making. He made the right read on this third quarter play vs. the Cowboys. Hightower faced single coverage and had inside leverage on a deep post route.
But Wentz’s pass, behind and over his receiver, was again intercepted by Diggs. After the game, the quarterback said that he and his receiver “weren’t on the same page,” but after watching the film, he said he didn’t like where he placed the ball.
“I could have thrown it more to the middle of the field, and that’s football,” Wentz said Wednesday. “Couldn’t get a good read on it when I let it fly.”
He had a clean pocket and could throw from a level platform, and yet, for some reason, he took a slight, unnecessary hop backward before throwing.
Hightower has been able to find space downfield. But he has struggled with either his catching or his route running on deep tosses. Wentz heaved a beauty to him early in the game vs. the Ravens, but he dropped the pass.
Eagles receivers have dropped a league-worst four deep passes, but some have also failed Wentz with their routes. Reagor slowed on a deep shot at Washington that would have likely hit. Hightower did the same here on a ball that might not have been catchable, but shouldn’t have been that far out of reach.
Hightower has caught two deep passes. This 59-yard grab was pivotal in the Eagles' comeback win over the Giants.
But no NFL receiver with more than 10 targets has a higher percentage of deep attempts than Hightower (54.2 pct.), and only two have caught a lower percentage of those targets.
“We’re going to stay aggressive, but obviously we’ve got to be smart in those situations and just play fast,” Wentz said. “But I feel really confident throwing the ball down the field with John, and he’s got a lot of faith in me as well. So we’re going to hit more of those than we won’t.”
Wentz will surely keep firing. The question for the second half of the season is will he improve on knowing when and when not to shoot?