It should be pointed out that Carson Wentz was without his top wide receiver, his top running back, and was facing one of the NFL’s best passing defenses with a suspect group of outside receivers Sunday.
But the Eagles quarterback had a first down, trailing 17-10, on the Patriots’ 26-yard line with under a minute and a half left in the game. Despite a long stretch of ineffectiveness, Wentz had driven the offense into game-tying or game-winning territory.
It was money time. And Wentz had the opportunity to deliver a signature moment in his young career.
But the $100 million man came up small. There just isn’t any way else to put it. Wentz threw four incomplete passes – three of which he could partially be blamed for – and the Eagles succumbed to New England, 17-10, Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
“Just missed a couple. Just miscues,” Wentz said. “They made some plays, too, and hats off to them. They had a really good game plan, especially late there. But that’s frustrating especially the way we were able to move the ball and get down there.”
Wentz, to his credit, was hard on himself after the game. He never pointed fingers or harped on the absences of receiver Alshon Jeffery, running back Jordan Howard, and tackle Lane Johnson after he left with a concussion.
He could have noted that the receivers he was left with were substandard. That Jordan Matthews was only signed off the street a week ago, that rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is still a work in progress, and that Nelson Agholor has become a shell of his 2017 self.
Wentz could have focused his attention on his Hall of Fame counterpart and that Tom Brady, even Tom Brady, was lackluster in a chilly, windy, defensive-minded contest.
But he didn’t. That’s all part of the franchise quarterback job. Wentz has that trait in spades. And he has the temperament to rebound from a subpar performance. But he doesn’t quite have the clutch part down yet.
That may be harsh considering all the aforementioned qualifiers. But that’s the lens you must be viewed through when you’re paid to be elite. Sometimes you just have to be expected to strap the team on your back and lead.
And it’s not as if Wentz had to do anything special, at least on his first three throws after moving the Eagles – set up by a leaping Agholor 19-yard snag on third-and-10 – to the New England 26. But on first down he overthrew his favorite target, tight end Zach Ertz.
On second down, Wentz had plenty of time in the pocket, but with no one open he checked down to Agholor. The throw was also high and incomplete. Could he have extended the play or scrambled? Perhaps. But he had two more chances.
On third down, Ertz ran a hook route just short of the marker. He was open, but Wentz’s pass fell short. Ertz had caught 8 of his first 8 targets, but on the two passes that mattered most, Wentz inexplicably missed him.
“Those two to Ertz we both definitely want to have back,” Wentz said. “We weren’t on the same page a little bit. One I definitely missed. I got to be better.”
Said Ertz: “Just a little miscommunication. We got to be better. I got to better, got to probably be more definitive for him. We never really miss like that, especially two plays in a row.”
On fourth down, the Patriots sent a zero blitz and Wentz had no other choice put to throw the ball up for grabs. He somehow hit Agholor in the hands in the back of the end zone. It would have been a stupendous grab, but Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson hit the receiver and the ball dropped to the turf.
“They brought Cover Zero and I just tried to give him a chance,” Wentz said. “We just missed it.”
Wentz made several great throws. He somehow, at the start of the drive, stayed upright in the end zone after nearly falling before collecting himself and hitting Arcega-Whiteside for a 29-yard pass. And there were others.
But there were just as many plays he’d rather have back. He completed only 50 percent of his throws (20 of 40) for 5.4 yards per attempt. He was sacked five times, three of which could be pinned on the quarterback, the last a fumble that resulted in three Patriots points.
“I got to get rid of the ball,” Wentz said. “They had some good coverages, but I got to get rid of the ball and get better with that.”
The Patriots not only had good coverages, they had good players. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Devin McCourty are as good as they come. But Eagles receivers couldn’t get enough separation and combined caught only 6 of 17 targets for 75 yards. Wentz didn’t complete a pass over 20 air yards until he hit Ertz for 25 yards midway through the fourth.
“They were good players, but we were getting open, too,” Arcega-Whiteside said.
But the lack of explosive plays has hamstrung the Eagles, and after ten games, it would be a stretch to expect the current cast to suddenly provide that threat. It could be argued that general manager Howie Roseman didn’t do enough before the trade deadline, especially considering DeSean Jackson’s injury, but upgrading Wentz’s weapons is a next offseason issue.
“It’s tough, especially against a good defense,” Wentz said about sustaining drives without chunk plays. “We have to keep being creative and find ways to do that. But at the same time, it seems our recipe is to grind it out, ball control.”
The Eagles have adopted that persona, in part, because they just don’t have the aerial threats. But the 26-year-old Wentz should, when needed, be able to compensate for those deficiencies. He should be expected, at times, to come through when the game is on the line, no matter the opponent.