Carson Wentz will start the 46th game of his professional career Sunday for the Eagles, which means he is rapidly approaching the equivalent of three full NFL seasons of playing experience.
If all goes well — a hedge worth mentioning when it comes to Wentz — he will reach that symbolic milestone at the end of the three-game road stretch that begins in Minneapolis against the Vikings.
Coaches in the league like to say it takes three seasons for a college quarterback to become a real NFL quarterback. They must like to say it, because it gets said a lot. That long is required for the player to absorb the tactical side of the game, to adjust to the speed of the NFL, to develop physically, and to stash away experience that provides a base of knowledge upon which to draw.
It will take Wentz until midway through his fourth season to collect all those merit badges, thanks to knee and back injuries, but his apprenticeship is coming to an end. The quarterback who will take the field Sunday isn’t a finished product, but most of the work has been done.
One aspect of his game that Wentz feels has developed over time is his ability to think through situations rapidly. Whether before the snap at the line of scrimmage, or after the ball is in his hands, he is comfortable with reading opposing defenses, separating fact from fiction in what they show, and comfortable with where he will find every receiving target as the play unfolds.
“I feel definitely that processing things has been quicker,” Wentz said. “I feel confidence dropping back and going through my progressions really quickly. I’m confident guys are going to be where they need to be, and I’m going to be on time. Every year, I’ve improved on that.”
Wentz is an eager learner, and he enjoys the mental side of riffling through his options speedily like a star pupil working with flash cards. That’s certainly good for getting the ball out of his hands and saving Wentz some wear and tear. He has been sacked just eight times in five games. Before this season, he was sacked the 16-game equivalent of 37 times per season. If the current pace holds, he’ll be sacked just 26 times this year.
What that ability to check through his receivers quickly might not be good for, however, is one of the things the offense desperately needs now, and that is some explosiveness to the passing game. In living by the progressions, Wentz has often ended up passing to second and third options, and usually those are closer to the line of scrimmage.
There’s no debate that losing DeSean Jackson to a small abdominal tear is the main reason the Eagles have trouble stretching the field. But Jackson wasn’t here last season, and neither was Mike Wallace, who had been expected to play that role, and the Eagles didn’t have as much difficulty.
In the games Wentz played in 2018, he averaged 279 passing yards and 7.7 yards per attempt. This season, he’s averaging 230 passing yards and 6.6 yards per attempt, and that’s counting a 313-yard opening game against the Redskins (with Jackson).
The falloff can be explained away by a number of things, starting with Jackson’s absence, but also including the occasional appearance of the running game, some missed time for Alshon Jeffery, and a bunch of dropped passes all over the field.
But put into the equation a calmer Wentz, less likely to put himself at risk, who not only goes through his reads like a veteran now but values a good check-down more than when he entered the league.
“Earlier in my career, it was" hard to check down, Wentz said. “That’s the aggressiveness inside of me. But over the years it’s something you learn in this league. You get 5 [yards] on first down and put yourself in a good spot.
"You don’t always have to force a shot down the field. It’s a take-it-when-it’s-there kind of thing. I think until the day I’m done playing, I’m going to be always having that battle of when to be aggressive and when to take the check-down, but I feel I’m in a good place with that.”
In the absence of Jackson, the Eagles don’t really have a true burner who can get himself open in the early branches of the route tree.
Rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is probably the fastest of the bunch, but he can’t seem to get on the field. Wentz is often flying through his progressions by the time a deeper shot develops, even assuming the line would grant him time to wait for one. Wentz acknowledges the dilemma, but says it is also a two-way street.
“It’s definitely a fine line, and by no means do I feel I’ve got it down,” Wentz said. “Without a doubt, there’s times you rush through progressions, and there’s times you hang onto number one too long. That’s part of every football game, and it’s something we look at. But getting to your check-down, getting through your progressions, is something we always talk about.”
Living by that credo is good for creating those second-and-5 situations, but it also creates the need for 10-play and 12-play drives to reach the end zone. That’s a tough way to play football, too.
The issue isn’t that Wentz is doing anything wrong. In fact, he’s doing almost everything right, including limiting his runs.