The fumblingest quarterback in the National Football League over the past two seasons did not fumble for answers Wednesday when the topic of ball security stalked his weekly news conference like an unblocked blitzer.
“I’ve just got to protect the ball. Every situation’s different. It’s a case-by-case scenario, but when I’m moving in the pocket, I’ve just gotta keep two hands on the ball, and be more [cognizant] of who and what is around me,” the Eagles’ Carson Wentz said, as he approached the biggest late-December game he has faced as a pro, Sunday’s NFC East showdown with the Dallas Cowboys.
Wentz has fumbled 23 times in 25 games in 2018 and 2019 and lost 12. This season, in which Wentz has fumbled 14 times and lost seven, a lot of the mishaps are happening in the pocket, just as Wentz is picking out a receiver and starting to pull the ball back.
That was more or less the case Sunday at Washington, when Wentz’s fourth-quarter giveaway nearly doomed the Eagles’ comeback in what became a 37-27 victory that kept the visitors’ division title hopes alive.
It was very much the case back on Oct. 20, when with the Eagles already in a 7-0 hole after a first-possession fumble by Dallas Goedert, Wentz drew back his arm on second-and-4 from his 16. Right tackle Lane Johnson had only gotten a piece of Dallas edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence; Lawrence was so close to Wentz as the QB cocked his arm that when Lawrence lunged forward, he nearly got the ball with his helmet before he pawed it to the turf.
Asked Wednesday what he remembered from that 37-10 loss, Wentz said: “The biggest thing is just the early turnovers. The early turnovers, with the slow start, those things really put us in a hole, put the defense in a bad situation. That’s been the theme this year: When you turn the ball over, it’s tough to win.”
At Dallas, Wentz had just finished his drop when he was hit. At Washington Sunday, he was taking his time to find an open target, letting seconds tick by, unaware of linebacker Ryan Anderson circling back toward him from behind. Finally, Wentz started to drift to his right, on third-and-2 from his 33, but he was still looking for a receiver, with only his passing hand on the ball, when Anderson chopped it out.
The Eagles’ defense held Washington to a field goal, giving Wentz and the offense a chance for that amazing drive on which Wentz threw the winning touchdown pass to Greg Ward. Had Washington scored a touchdown, the final minutes might have unfolded differently.
Wentz was asked about his frustration then, which was obvious.
“Given the situation, really putting the defense in a bad spot there, I was mad. Not too happy,” he said. “I can definitely learn from it, and when I’m moving in the pocket, keep two hands on the ball.”
Could there be more to it than that, though – a “spider sense” that doesn’t tingle when it should? Anderson was coming from straight behind Wentz, but Dallas’s Lawrence was practically in his lap, Wentz seemingly oblivious. You don’t want your quarterback being skittish around pressure; blissfully unaware is not the way to go, either. There is a balance that is not being struck.
Someone wondered if Wentz had tried studying a film cutup of all of his fumbles. Wentz indicated that the ones that come from QB sneaks, or bad fits on handoffs, there is little to be learned from watching film. And by now, the ones that come around the pocket, he has seen on film, many times.
“The ones that I can control, I pretty much know what I need to do,” he said.
So, what has kept him from doing it? Overall, Wentz isn’t especially turnover-prone, given that he is one of the best in the league at not throwing interceptions. But the fumble thing has taken on a life of its own, the longer it lingers.
This is the fourth year of his career. According to SharpFootballAnalysis.com, the only QBs fumbling at a higher per-game rate this season than Wentz are much less experienced – rookies Daniel Jones, with the Giants, and Gardiner Minshew in Jacksonville, and second-year Carolina Panther Kyle Allen.
“A lot of times. I’m ready to throw the ball. If I knew I was taking off to run, if I was a little faster, maybe I’d [put the ball away] a little more,” Wentz said. “I’d tuck it away and we’d all be better off. I think a lot of it is just because I’m always looking to throw the ball. I can clean those things up.”
Wentz added that he is not afraid to take off and run, despite the knee and back injuries that ended his past two seasons, “but I’m always of a mindset that I’m trying to get the ball to my playmakers. If I’m extending a play, I’m trying to find them down the field, because they’re a lot better in space than I am.”
This is the latest Wentz has played in a season since his rookie year. It is the first true big-stakes, late-regular-season game of his career.
This, Wentz certainly understands.
“The last couple years, it didn’t end the way I wanted it to, personally, … being hurt and everything, so I’m excited to just be playing here in December, with what’s at stake, and to be out there with my guys,” Wentz said.
His guys don’t seem concerned about how Wentz will react Sunday.
“Honestly, I think for Carson, it’s just going to be another game for him,” right guard Brandon Brooks said. “I get it’s the Cowboys and everything’s on the line. One thing about him, I don’t think any moment’s too big for him, and I don’t think it’s going to be any different Sunday.”