Carson Wentz’s opinion of his athleticism lies somewhere between self-deprecation and realism.
The Eagles quarterback is preparing for the most meaningful game of his career on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys after being unable to finish each of the last two seasons because of injuries. Fully recovered from the torn ACL and back injury that slowed him last year, Wentz has made a slight return to the improvisational playing style that had him in the running to win an MVP award before tearing up his knee in 2017.
The 26-year-old has 206 rushing yards this season, which ranks 11th among NFL quarterbacks, just behind Ryan Fitzpatrick. But even with the return to the ranks of somewhat mobile quarterbacks, Wentz would rather see his teammates evading defenders than him.
“I’m always of the mindset that I’m going to try and get the ball to my playmakers,” Wentz said during his Wednesday news conference. “If I’m extending a play, I’m going to try and find them down the field because they’re a lot better in space than I am.”
Regardless of which Eagles player has the best short-area quickness, Wentz’s running ability could be a factor when the Eagles host Dallas at 4:25 Sunday with first place in the NFC East on the line.
During the Cowboys’ three-game losing streak last month, they struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks. Over a two-week span, the Cowboys allowed 106 rushing yards and two touchdowns to Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Chicago Bears signal-caller Mitchell Trubisky.
Allen is third in quarterback rushing yards this season with 467, and Trubisky is 15th with 172.
Wentz’s rushing totals may be close to the middle of the pack, but his 19 first-down runs are tied for fifth among quarterbacks this year, according to Pro Football Focus. He had 26 rushing first downs in 11 games in 2017, which was also fifth that season. Seemingly reluctant to take off last year, Wentz managed just eight first downs in 11 games.
Wentz has made strides this season as a runner, and the Eagles may need him to take another step against the Cowboys.
“I think mobility can be a factor every game, honestly. I think each week it kind of just plays it out as it may," Wentz said. “We’re not out here scheming up quarterback runs and all those things, but when I need to take off, I will. I’m not afraid to.”
Good news for Wentz, most of the Cowboys’ struggles against athletic signal-callers haven’t come on designed quarterback runs but instead on pass plays gone wrong.
Allen’s most productive runs against Dallas in Week 13 came when escaping the pocket on designed pass plays. On three scrambles, Allen ran for 33 yards and a touchdown. His other seven attempts came on designed quarterback runs, kneel-downs, and a fumbled snap.
Trubisky broke free on designed passes four times against Dallas, and ran for 32 yards, although his 23-yard touchdown run came on a zone-read play late in the fourth quarter.
“Those guys are just reading that backside [defensive] end and if he bends down, they’re taking off,” Eagles guard Brandon Brooks said. “If he doesn’t, they hand it off. Guys are out there making good reads and not afraid to run the ball down the field.”
Wentz’s strength this season hasn’t come on quarterback runs, but he has made plenty happen by escaping the pocket and giving his targets time to break free downfield.
“For me, he’s always been the type of quarterback that’s going to try to extend plays," Brooks said. "Try to make the big plays, make some ‘Houdini moments,’ where I’m like ‘How the [heck] did he get out of that,’ but [shoot], he does a lot of the time.. ... There’s probably more and more confidence in that leg and back and everything healing up right.”
Those “Houdini” moments don’t come without risk, though, and Wentz is well aware of it. Wentz has fumbled 14 times this season, tied with Allen for the second-worst total among quarterbacks. He got through the first six games without putting the ball on the ground but has been the most fumble-prone since Week 7.
For Wentz, the balance between protecting the ball and being aggressive is always difficult to find.
“I want to be able to make every play," Wentz said. “When you’re in those situations, [I want to] pick up the first down and not put the ball in harm’s way. To some extent, yes, it is kind of speaking out of both sides of your mouth, but at the same time, for me, personally, I know that I can clean up those things and be better.”
The Eagles were without Nelson Agholor, Derek Barnett, and Lane Johnson once again during practice Thursday. Brandon Brooks, Fletcher Cox, Ronald Darby, and Jordan Howard were all limited in practice for the second time in as many days.