The Eagles had no business trailing the Rams by only five points. They had been outplayed for the first 30 minutes, and yet found themselves 21 yards from inexplicably taking the lead early in the third quarter.
Carson Wentz hadn’t done much special until that point, but he had played efficiently, taking what Los Angeles' deep zone defense allowed. But the Eagles quarterback all but wiped away any progress he had made after last week’s reckless performance with one fateful first-down pass.
Wentz rolled slightly to his left off play-action. He looked off his first read and found JJ Arcega-Whiteside running a post route into the end zone. He fired. There was a window, but it was tightening. Rams cornerback Darious Williams stepped in front of the receiver and intercepted Wentz.
Whatever momentum the Eagles had was lost. The Rams, on the ensuing possession, would milk 16 plays before kicking a field goal. There would be other opportunities for the Eagles to come back, but Wentz’s costly interception loomed large after the Rams reverted to their earlier form and coasted to a 37-19 win Sunday.
While the 18-point margin spoke to numerous issues in Eagleland, Wentz’s second straight subpar outing suggested the quarterback hasn’t taken the necessary steps in Year 5. In fact, could it mean the 27-year-old has taken a step back?
Asked about the pick, Wentz first credited Williams.
He “made a great play,” Wentz said during a video news conference. “I got pretty aggressive and tried to force one in there. … I have to be smarter in that situation.”
Throwing to Arcega-Whiteside, especially after he had dropped what would have been an early third-down conversion, might lend that last sentence some credence. He had a step, but was his route too deep?
And what about the play-calling? Rams coach Sean McVay had scripted a game plan that had quarterback Jared Goff roll out on numerous occasions with multiple open options. Eagles coach Doug Pederson can’t necessarily be faulted for Wentz’s interception, but has he done enough to play to his quarterback’s strengths?
But pointing the finger at entities other than No. 11 — while fair — can’t overshadow how poorly Wentz has performed in the Eagles' 0-2 start. While offensive-line woes played a role in the season-opening loss at Washington, there were no such issues at eerily empty Lincoln Financial Field.
“I thought there were some good plays there. Some good decisions,” Pederson said when asked to assess Wentz. “He did a nice job handling the run game with some of the checks that we had going on, and got us in and out of some throws from the standpoint of bad defenses into good, positive plays.
"So he handled the game that way.”
Complimenting a quarterback on his game management is like heralding a receiver for his blocking. Yeah, sure, it’s important, but Wentz is supposed to be a thoroughbred. His decision-making has been shaky, his touch inconsistent, which might be even more troublesome.
When his mechanics are off, Wentz tends to sail his throws. He’s missed several open receivers the last two weeks. He had tight end Zach Ertz open in the flat on a third down late in the second quarter, but he overshot him high and wide.
He had a toss that might have slipped through Dallas Goedert’s hands in the first quarter, but it floated and the tight end had to extend himself for what would have been a difficult grab. Wentz threw behind his receivers on screen passes they caught but netted fewer yards than possible.
No quarterback completes all his attempts. And Wentz did better when plays were dead than he did last week. He threw once at Goedert’s feet when pressured by Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He had two throwaways in the red zone later in the third quarter, although he might have missed an open Goedert when the Rams blew an assignment.
But turnovers are killers and Wentz has five already. He never had back-to-back games with two or more interceptions until the last two weeks. But the timing and situation of the picks have compounded the mistakes.
“If plays are not there, don’t look to try to make something happen,” Pederson said. “Just throw the ball away in that situation or run. Unfortunately, it was a turnover in the end zone and we’re just going to continue to correct and move forward.”
Wentz is too talented to struggle for an extended period. But is coaching and scheme maxing out his abilities? There was a time when it seemed obvious the Eagles got the better quarterback in the Wentz vs. Goff 2016 draft debate.
But Goff looked significantly better Sunday. It shouldn’t be that way. Wentz is more athletic, has a better arm, and does more at the line pre-snap. So why did he pale in comparison? Jim Schwartz’s Eagles defense didn’t help in the debate.
Pederson had beaten McVay twice before. But the last came two years ago. The Eagles continue to seemingly regress.
“We do have the pieces, we have the talent,” Wentz said, “we have the guys to be an elite offense.”
He could have been talking about himself specifically. If the talent is there, then why hasn’t he been elite?