Carson Wentz isn’t seeing it.
He isn’t seeing the whole field. He isn’t seeing where defenses are vulnerable. He isn’t seeing open receivers. And three hours after he threw an opening-drive interception against the Bengals, he didn’t see that it was an ill-fated decision even if the ball was tipped at the line.
“I felt good about it,” Wentz said Sunday following the Eagles' 23-23 tie with Cincinnati. “The ball gets tipped at the line. That’s a bad feeling when you’re back there and you’re seeing the ball flutter through the air.”
Replays, though, showed three defenders in close proximity to Wentz’s intended target, wide receiver DeSean Jackson (No. 10). Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson (No. 55) was underneath reading the quarterback’s eyes and likely didn’t need the tip to make the interception.
Wentz (No. 11) didn’t have the benefit of reviewing the pass later on the sideline. The NFL doesn’t allow the use of film, only photos. But even if he didn’t get a good look, or he wasn’t focused on one of many unfortunate plays, that he didn’t at least second guess the decision raised eyebrows.
Asked later if he didn’t see what others had seemingly seen – triple coverage – Wentz said that he would have to watch the game film. On Wednesday, upon further review, he seemed to indicate that it wasn’t the right throw to make.
“It was going to be a tight one, obviously,” Wentz said. “That’s the play. The ball is meant to go over the middle, and [Wilson] squeezes. I got to be smart. I’m not sure what would have happened had it not been tipped. But that’s one to learn from and move past.”
Few know how it feels to play quarterback in the NFL, to stand in the pocket and make split-second decisions with 300-pound freaks gunning for your body. It’s a rare skill, and one that Wentz, for most of his first four seasons in the NFL, had mastered.
But he has regressed this season for whatever reason(s). He’s turning the ball over more. He’s holding the ball longer. He’s more inaccurate. And, perhaps most damning, he’s making the wrong decisions, and that’s often because he isn’t seeing the entire field.
Wentz, more than ever, has struggled to see defenders on the periphery and struggled to see receivers downfield who have been schemed opened.
“You have to put your eyes in the pocket,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “Did Carson have to move? Did the protection break down? Something of that nature could take him off of that particular play, and he has to either go somewhere, or you end up getting sacked, or it’s an incomplete pass.”
But pressure only accounts for a small percentage of the missed opportunities. In some cases, it appeared that Wentz had either not anticipated an open route or flat-out didn’t see it. And in others, he appeared reluctant to throw downfield.
“Carson would agree that there are times when he needs to make the play,” Pederson said. “He just needs to complete the ball, throw the ball, and we need to make those plays. It’s a little of both.”
There have been times this season when Wentz has seen it and made the proper throw, just as there were occasions in past seasons when he missed open receivers. But never has the latter been so prevalent over an extended period.
Just last month, new Eagles offensive assistant Rich Scangarello called Wentz an “elite processor” of reading defenses “both pre-snap and post-snap.” And based on previous seasons, that was true. But he has struggled so much through three games that Pederson said he needed to “unclutter his mind.”
Pederson mentioned tempo as a way to clear Wentz’s head. But moving fast decreases opportunities for the quarterback to get pre-snap intel on defenses. Of course, he hasn’t exactly capitalized.
For instance, on this third down in the second quarter, the Bengals showed a cover-2 shell. The Eagles had three receivers lined up to the right with two running vertical routes. The play was designed to beat the zone with Greg Ward (No. 84) running a stop-and-go toward the end zone.
But Wentz didn’t throw to Ward in the “turkey hole.” He instead checked down to tight end Zach Ertz (No. 86) well short of the first down marker.
The Eagles kicked a field goal, and Wentz, to his credit, hit Ward for a 29-yard touchdown on a series later on a similar play and route concept. But he continued to miss chances.
On the Eagles' next drive, Wentz rolled out naked to his left off play action. He had two receivers on a hi-low concept route with John Hightower (No. 82) open underneath against another zone. But Wentz inexplicably checked down to Ward and threw the ball at his feet.
A play later, he tossed his second interception when a back shoulder pass to Ertz was off target.
Wentz has mentioned chemistry with his younger receivers, or a lack thereof, as a reason for the early-season issues. It may have played a role in his seeming apprehension to pull the trigger to receiver Deontay Burnett (No. 16) down the right sideline against another cover-2 zone. It would have needed to been thrown on a rope, but Wentz has that arm talent.
He checked down instead to running back Miles Sanders (No. 26), who took a 2-yard loss. Wentz was able to compensate for his throwing struggles with his legs and engineered a game-tying drive in regulation when he rushed for a 7-yard touchdown.
But in overtime, the problems resurfaced. His first pass was nearly intercepted when he failed to see the free safety reading his eyes on a Ward curl route. It didn’t help that the pass was under-thrown.
A series later, the Eagles were in Cincinnati territory. They had a shot play dialed up against single-high man coverage. Three receivers ran routes to Wentz’s right, which, along with the quarterback’s eyes, drew the safety out of the post.
Hightower, meanwhile, ran a deep post into the vacancy and was pulling away from the cornerback.
Wentz may have had pressure, which kept him from heaving one. He scrambled and picked up the first down. But guard Nate Herbig held a defender from Wentz as he escaped the pocket. The Eagles punted two plays later.
It’s difficult to pinpoint one reason for Wentz’s regression. Pederson has cited the truncated offseason and the obstacles to building a rapport between the quarterback and new receivers. But only the injured Jalen Reagor and John Hightower are new.
Injuries on the line and at the skill positions have been a factor. Changes to the offensive staff and the addition of new ideas may have affected the dynamic. Wentz has always had minor mechanical issues. All of the above may have just exacerbated the problem.
The only other major difference with the team was the drafting of backup Jalen Hurts. Wentz said Wednesday that his relationship with the second-round rookie has been positive and that the several plays involving him thus far have stressed defenses.
But it’s fair to question whether looking over his shoulder has affected his ability to see the field and thus play as he did for most of his first four seasons. Wentz may never be as spectacular as he was in 2017, but there is still a much larger sample of good games than bad. There is time to turn his season around.