Even after directing the Eagles’ stirring comeback win against the New York Giant Embarrassments on Monday night, quarterback Carson Wentz still leads the NFL in only one official category, and not really the one you want.
It isn’t touchdown passes (Lamar Jackson, 33), or completion percentage (Drew Brees, 73.6), or lowest interception percentage (Aaron Rodgers, 0.5), or even passer rating (Ryan Tannehill, 118.5).
Those quarterbacks are all having very good years, as are most of the 16 quarterbacks ahead of Wentz in the weekly rankings, but they all take a backseat when it comes to recovering fumbles.
This accomplishment might be filed in the same drawer as the offensive rebounds Moses Malone racked up on his own missed shots, but when it comes to fumble recoveries in the NFL this season, Wentz with his six recoveries is the man. That, of course, is not a good thing.
In the four years Wentz has been in the league, he has fumbled the football 43 times in 53 games, including 11 this season. Only Jameis Winston has lost hold of the ball more often in that four-season span, and by only one fumble.
Wentz’s career rate of fumbling once every .81 games is nearly unprecedented in modern league history. The most successful quarterbacks of the era are all much more reliable in what coaches euphemistically term “ball security,” whether looking at Brees (.39), Tom Brady (.43), and Rodgers (.46), or even more mobile quarterbacks who seem more at risk of fumbling, such as Russell Wilson (.62), Deshaun Watson (.56), and Jackson (.63).
Whatever the underlying causes — delaying too long in the pocket, not protecting the ball properly, losing grip on it in bad conditions — it is a real problem, and one area of Wentz’s development that hasn’t improved since he was a rookie.
Just this season, he lost two fumbles early against Dallas, staking the Cowboys to a two-touchdown lead, and lost two more to cut short drives in the 17-9 home loss to Seattle. The margin between good teams and great teams in the NFL is too thin to continually give away the ball.
“We talk about it. We work on it each week,” coach Doug Pederson said. “There are drills we do to make him more aware of that. It’s something he’s got to be conscious of, and he is. You’d like to see [fumbles] maybe a few times year … and we’d love to keep that to a manageable size.”
The fact is that quarterbacks naturally fumble more than anyone else. It’s just part of the game. Of the 27 players with at least five fumbles this season, 25 are quarterbacks. They have the ball in their hands every offensive play and are hunted down by defensive players whose favorite pastime is separating them from that ball. Nevertheless, the good ones don’t let them do it as often.
“As a whole, every scenario is different,” Wentz said. “At the end of the day, when I put the ball on the ground, I’ve got to protect it. I’ve got to do a better job of keeping two hands on it and that kind of thing.”
At practice, mostly in individual drills, the coaching staff devises ways to harass the quarterbacks and simulate pocket conditions, but that’s not easy. Protecting the ball is a particular emphasis for young quarterbacks adjusting to the speed and physicality of the league. For Wentz, who is neither young nor old in career terms, the problem hasn’t gone away.
“It absolutely does [take time]. When you are in college, you might be stronger than the guys around you, so some of those hits might not jar the ball loose,” veteran quarterback Josh McCown said. “Or you might have more time to throw, whereas in the league, the clock is there every Sunday because the pass rush is so good. That’s par for the course for a lot of young guys.”
McCown, unfortunately, is well-versed on the subject. He has fumbled 81 times in 102 games, including 71 times in his 76 career starts.
“I probably would have stayed in one place a little bit longer if I did better,” he said with a laugh.
The breakdown on Wentz’s fumbles indicates that while he generally isn’t losing control of the ball any more or less than before his knee injury ended the 2017 season, more of the miscues are now becoming turnovers.
He fumbled 23 times in 29 games before the injury, with the opponent recovering only six times. Since the injury, he has fumbled 20 times in 24 games and 12 of those became turnovers. Not a trend that indicates the team’s attention to the matter is having success.
As this season drifts toward the finish line, with bad weather conditions more prevalent, another breakdown is worth noting. In his career, from Week 10 to whatever has been his final game of that particular season, Wentz has fumbled 18 times in 19 games. Fortunately, the forecast for Landover, Md., is 48 degrees and clear for Sunday, so what could go wrong?
Nothing about the Eagles has been scrutinized more in the last four years than the development of Carson Wentz, and he has developed. This season has been a bit of a downer for him individually in some ways, but as he showed against the Giants, he is capable of great things with the ball in his hands.
To become what the franchise truly envisions, however, he’s got to keep it there on a more dependable basis. If not, there are destined to be big games that fall to the ground and simply can’t be recovered.