ARLINGTON, Texas — The autopsy on Carson Wentz’s third season will come, but with the Eagles on life support after losing to the Cowboys in overtime, 29-23, it’s fair to start assessing the quarterback’s play since returning from the knee injury that he suffered a year ago Monday.
Wentz has been good, maybe better than anyone could have expected after he tore both the ACL and LCL in his left knee, but he hasn’t been good enough. On Sunday, he sleepwalked through more than the first three quarters. He wasn’t alone. Doug Pederson’s offense has been inept early in games for almost the entire season.
But when the Eagles needed their quarterback to lift them, to overcome yet another slow start, Wentz failed to deliver. Dallas has an excellent defense and its offense held the ball for over 30 of the first 45 minutes of the game. But the Eagles couldn’t sustain drives and went to the half without a point.
The Eagles have scored an NFL-worst 28 points in the first quarter this season.
“Obviously, everyone’s seen what we’ve put out there, and getting in a rhythm and starting slow has unfortunately been a common theme for us," Wentz said. "That’s something we got to look hard at.”
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Eagles brass will have to decide whether the incompetent starts have more to do with Wentz or Pederson. Other variables are at play, both in terms of scheme and personnel. But, for whatever the reason, the quarterback-coach pairing hasn’t been a winning one in 2018.
Last season can’t be discounted, of course. And, really, in the big picture, Wentz’s performance Sunday — and the season overall — will likely be just a blip in his career. There is more than enough evidence that he will be an elite quarterback for the next decade or so, and that the Eagles should pursue if they have plans on extending his contract this offseason.
But there have been enough moments, enough games, and enough of this season, to question whether he will reach the apex of his position and stay there. It’s a high bar, but those are the expectations when your team auctions off its future to trade up to the No. 2 pick, and, after three years, decides to pay you $30 million a year and limit its salary cap.
It says here that Wentz has the ability to be that guy. But for 3½ quarters at AT&T Stadium, he didn’t look it.
Wentz’s numbers didn’t look so bad — 15 of 24 for 88 yards and a touchdown — but the score came only after a Corey Graham interception gave the offense the ball at the 2-yard line. And when the Eagles knotted the score, 9-9, early in the fourth, it was only after Wentz threw short of the goal line and incomplete to tight end Zach Ertz on third down.
“I think there’s enough [blame] to go around offensively,” Pederson said. “I don’t think we put it on the quarterback. ... This is a tough game, and he’s done some great things, some great things tonight in the second half."
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Something clicked when the Eagles got the ball back, trailing 16-9, with 5 minutes, 25 seconds left. Wentz went on a tear. On the Eagles' next two drives, he completed seven of eight passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
He hit Alshon Jeffery with a 12-yard bullet on a comeback route. He strung a rope to Dallas Goedert for 26 yards. And two plays later, he hit the rookie tight end for a 3-yard touchdown. The Cowboys responded and retook the lead, 23-16, with one play — a 75-yard strike to Amari Cooper. But Wentz didn’t blink, even after a 75-yard touchdown pass to Goedert was brought back by the tight end’s pass interference penalty.
“I just said, ‘Hey, keep believing, keep believing and let’s go get this done,’ " Wentz said. “We did.”
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Wentz hooked up with Jeffery and Goedert and then dropped a 42-yard dime into the lap of Nelson Agholor. Two plays later, he found Darren Sproles and the running back took care of the rest for a 6-yard touchdown. An extra point evened the score again, but Dallas was called for an unnecessary roughness personal foul.
Pederson has opted to go for two under similar circumstances, if not to take the lead with under two minutes remaining. But he didn’t take the PAT off the board and elected to have the penalty enforced on the kickoff. Did Wentz want to go for it?
“I’m with him 100 percent," Wentz said. “You could always argue it’s easy in hindsight to look at that, but he made decision and went to overtime.”
But the Eagles lost the toss and Wentz never got the ball back again.
“It’s a helpless feeling,” Wentz said. “I got a lot of confidence in the defense. They were making plays today. ... We just didn’t do enough early offensively and that cost us.”
Wentz looked tentative. He held the ball too long on several occasions. The most egregious might have come late in the first half when he was strip-sacked.
“Ideally, I could get that ball out earlier, hopefully,” Wentz said.
He looked jittery. The Cowboys blitzed off the corner once, and Wentz threw short of Agholor, his hot receiver. His errant third-down pass to Ertz in the red zone in the fourth was a curious one, because it was several yards short of the goal line.
“I was trying to get it to him underneath, so he could hopefully get in from the middle there because they just went shell coverage and it got wide," Wentz said. "We just didn’t hit it.”
There were a lot of coulda, woulda, shouldas after the game. It’s been that way for most of the season. Six of the Eagles' seven losses have been by one score, and as small as the sample may be, Wentz’s record in those games over three seasons is 7-12.
He did show resolve.
“But it was just too little, too late,” Wentz said.
The Eagles' playoff hopes aren’t technically dead. But with the Rams next in Los Angeles — where Wentz’s 2017 season ended — they might as well be. His injury didn’t stop the Eagles from winning the Super Bowl, but the aftereffects may be felt more this season.