The Eagles quarterbacks gathered in their meeting room in recent days and watched the film from the last time the Eagles hosted the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. It was October 2017, Week 7 of their storybook Super Bowl season, and Carson Wentz displayed what can be remembered as his signature performance. He dazzled in front of a national audience with both his arm and his legs, making passes and escaping pressure in a way that few quarterbacks alive could equal.
“We’ve probably seen it so many times that there probably wasn’t the awe that there was the day after when you put on the film,” quarterbacks coach Press Taylor said. “But there will still be somebody who will say, ‘How did you get out of this?’ or ‘How did you feel that?’”
As the Eagles prepare for Monday’s game against Washington, it’s worth revisiting what Wentz did that night. He went 17-of-28 passing for 268 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception. His 126.3 passer rating was the second best of his career. He also rushed for a career-high 63 yards. But the statistics do not tell the whole story from that game.
The way he played that night showed the type of quarterback Wentz can be at his best. He willed the Eagles when they were decimated by injuries, bringing them back from an early deficit and slow start. He was the best player on the field playing his best game of the season. The Eagles might need more of those performances to rescue this season.
“I thought he made some unbelievable physical plays, I thought he made great decisions,” quarterback Nate Sudfeld said. “He kind of had his big highlight plays last year across the board in that game. I see him doing that again this year. We’ll see. But it was a lot of fun to watch that game.”
When Washington coach Jay Gruden reflected on Wentz’s performance, it was Wentz’s legs that were most memorable. Wentz had rushes of 21 yards, 17 yards, and two 11-yard scampers. The 21- and 17-yarders came on third downs, moving the chains when Washington thought they could get off the field.
“His escapability is underestimated,” Gruden said. “When you think of quarterbacks who can run, you don’t really think of Carson Wentz as one of those guys, but he really is a great pocket-presence runner. He can create first downs with his legs. He can buy time, find the open receiver for guys to uncover. That’s the most memorable thing about that night. I think we had some great opportunities to get him down and we failed to do so because of his strength.”
The most memorable run came in the fourth quarter, when the Eagles had a third-and-7 at their own 27-yard line. They led by seven, and if the Eagles punted, Washington would have a chance to tie the game. The pocket quickly collapsed on Wentz after he took the snap. Four pass rushers – not to mention the four linemen charged with blocking them – obscured Wentz on the television screen. It looked as if he was down in the bottom of the pile. He somehow stayed on his feet, darted away from the pack, and ran for the first down.
“How in the world did that happen?” ESPN announcer Sean McDonough asked on the broadcast. Jon Gruden, Jay’s brother and then the analyst, shared the disbelief. He asked whether Wentz was down and observed that Wentz “came out of a pile of bodies.” Tight end Zach Ertz said after the game that he doesn’t know “how you stop that as a defense.”
It’s a good question. And it’s one defenses haven’t had to answer often enough this season.
Taking what he can get
Wentz does not want to be known as a running quarterback, and he hurts opponents more with a right arm that helps make him the face of the franchise. But there’s no denying what his legs can do for the offense. In fact, former quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo used to set the benchmark for Wentz to make one first down each game with his feet.
“Absolutely,” Taylor said when asked if that emphasis still exists. “Anytime your quarterback can create with his legs, it’s really an issue for a defense. He’s often times the one not accounted for. … That’s something we’re always trying to emphasize and show him examples of being able to create and extend plays and get some yards with your feet down the field.”
Yet Wentz’s rushing numbers have declined this year. He averaged 23 rushing yards per game last season. He’s down to 11.1 yards per game this season. His top five rushing outputs all came before this season. Last season, he rushed for 26 first downs on 64 attempts – including 13 third-down conversions. He has rushed for nine first downs so far on 26 attempts – with only three third-down conversions.
Wentz said that the Eagles don’t call designed runs for him, so he trusts his instincts when the play allows for a run. He doesn’t look to scramble, but will take it when he can.
“I never would say I want to do more,” Wentz said. “I never want to force the issue because then bad things can happen. It’s really case-by-case, the way teams are playing, the way teams are [pass] rushing. Sometimes teams are collapsing ends so you can get out and escape. Some teams want to keep you in the pocket. I never want to go looking for it, but I do realize there are a lot of big plays to be made when you’re extending plays outside the pocket.”
Pederson said the Eagles “certainly” want Wentz to run when there are opportunities to take off for a first down, as long as he protects himself and slides. The coach believes the Eagles can utilize Wentz’s running ability “on third down particularly” to stay on the field. He also insisted the Eagles don’t view Wentz’s running ability any differently since the season-ending knee injury in December 2017.
“He just hasn't had as many opportunities yet this year,” Pederson said.
Wentz has had games in which he’s looked like last year’s runner – don’t forget a key 13-yard run to extend a drive on third-and-11 against Jacksonville in October – but it hasn’t been as often. Taylor explained that Wentz’s command of the offense has improved this season, so Wentz can go through all his progressions and find his check down when needed. That’s evidenced by the notable improvement in Wentz’s completion percentage.
“I think there are times maybe in the past when he’s looking for something down the field, and it was his instinct to take off running,” Taylor said. “But … he knows where every bone is buried in the offense.”
The forgotten play
It was not just Wentz’s rushes that made that Monday night game so memorable. There was another play Wentz extended on a third-and-goal from the 9 when Wentz remained upright despite a phalanx of defenders in his face, found open space, and while two players hit him delivered a perfect pass to Corey Clement in the corner of the end zone. Pederson called it “one of the best plays I’ve seen in a long, long time.” Wentz also tossed a rainbow to Mack Hollins for a 64-yard touchdown and found Ertz for a touchdown on a two-minute drill before halftime.
Wentz doesn’t necessarily need to make the highlight-reel plays to lead the Eagles. But if he can extend a play with his feet or get the Eagles out of trouble on third down with a spectacular scramble, it could help inject life into an offense that can’t score close to last year’s rate. And it’s not as if there’s anything that Wentz can work on to replicate that performance – “there were just a lot of plays in that game that you don’t coach it,” Taylor said – as much as Wentz allowing his instinct and athletic ability to take over.
Wentz denied an NFL Network report that he’s tentative with his left foot when stepping into throws or scrambling this season. Wentz said he’s analyzed his mechanics throughout the injury recovery and feels fine about his current health. He also hasn’t used his injury as excuse.
Wentz is approaching one year since the injury. The apex of his injury-shortened season came in his last Monday night game. Wentz realizes there’s “a lot to kind of build from in that game.” He’ll have a chance to dazzle again against the same opponent in front of a national audience.
“Hard to say exactly what happened,” Wentz said. “Some of those plays, I’d just say they’re happenings. They’re plays where instincts take over and guys just make plays. … Last year, we made a handful of them, and I think that was the difference in the game last year.”