Carson Wentz is struggling and the $127 million question is why.
Is it the lack of enough spring and summer reps with his receivers?
Is it a trust issue with his injury-ravaged offensive line?
Is it mechanical problems caused by all of the iron he pumped and the muscle he added during the offseason?
Is it the fact that he no longer has a full-time quarterbacks coach since Doug Pederson added passing game coordinator to Press Taylor’s responsibilities?
Could parenthood — his wife gave birth to a girl in April — be having an effect on his football focus?
Is it some of the above? Is it all of the above?
Or has Jalen Hurts gotten inside the Eagles quarterback’s head?
In April, just 10 months after Wentz signed his four-year mega-contract extension, the Eagles drafted Hurts in the second round of the draft.
Seemed like a good move to me at the time (still does), given Wentz’s injury history and what Hurts brings to the table as a runner as well as a passer (he threw and ran for 52 touchdowns last season at Oklahoma).
But many critics of the selection suggested that the Eagles were inviting trouble by drafting a quarterback that high less than a year after making a nine-figure commitment to Wentz.
They suggested Hurts' presence would be an unnecessary distraction for Wentz and have him looking over his shoulder. I didn’t buy it then and don’t really buy it now. But the bottom line is something is going on with the Eagles quarterback right now.
He heads into Sunday night’s game against the 49ers with the NFL’s lowest passer rating (63.9). He also is last in yards per attempt (5.6), 29th in completion percentage (59.8), and tied for the league lead in interceptions with six
Tight end Zach Ertz, one of Wentz’s closest friends on the team, doesn’t think Hurts' presence has anything to do with Wentz’s struggles.
“I don’t think anyone is looking over their shoulder in this league; if you’re looking over your shoulder, you’ve got no chance,” said Ertz, who is much too young to remember Randall Cunningham’s famous monkey-on-my-back comment about Jim McMahon.
Ertz found himself in a similar situation a couple of years back when the Eagles took tight end Dallas Goedert in the second round of the 2018 draft. Ertz was so rattled by Goedert that he went out and caught 116 passes, the most ever by an NFL tight end.
"Me and Dallas have grown together,'' Ertz said. "We’ve been able to play extremely well together. So Carson is never going to be looking over his shoulder.
“He has that singular focus of, how can I be the best quarterback for the Eagles? How can I be better today than I was yesterday? He’s just trying to win football games. No one’s hungrier to have team success in this building than Carson Wentz. That’s just the bottom line.”
The difference between Ertz’s situation and Wentz’s is that you can play with two tight ends, as evidenced by the Eagles' fondness for 12-personnel. But you can’t really play with two quarterbacks.
And while much has been made of that huge contract the Eagles gave Wentz, it includes about $60 million in “rolling” guarantees, much of which the Eagles wouldn’t have to pay if they cut ties with him in a couple of years.
That’s not to suggest that’s their plan. But it certainly is an alternative if Wentz’s struggles turned into a long-term situation or he suffered another major injury.
Wentz said all of the right things about Hurts after the draft. Said he was “excited” that the Eagles added him.
“Whatever is going to help us win,” Wentz said in May. “All I care about is standing up there and holding the Lombardi Trophy. Whatever that takes, whatever that’s going to look like, I’m on board.”
Because of the pandemic, reporters obviously aren’t allowed in the locker room this season. Our only access to players is on Zoom. So it’s tough to get a feel for the interaction between the two quarterbacks.
“It’s been a good relationship,” Wentz said Wednesday. "Obviously, the summer was tough getting to know him or any of the new guys with all of the protocols, and it still is to some extent because you can’t get together with guys outside of the building too much.
“But it’s been good. It’s been really good getting to know him and work together [with him].”
The Eagles have begun integrating Hurts' skill-set into some packages. He played three plays against the Rams in Week 2, lining up at running back and wide receiver but getting no touches.
He played three more snaps against the Bengals last weekend, lining up at quarterback in a wildcat formation. He had an 8-yard run for a first down on one and fumbled an RPO exchange with Miles Sanders on another.
Joe Banner was the Eagles' president back in 2007 when the team had Donovan McNabb as its starting quarterback and selected Kevin Kolb in the second round of that year’s draft. McNabb was three years older (30) than Wentz when the Eagles drafted Kolb, with four more years of NFL experience (he was entering his ninth season, Wentz is in his fifth).
McNabb wasn’t crazy about the Eagles' drafting Kolb, but it didn’t really bother him. He had the third-best passer rating of his career to that point in ’07.
A year later, things got a little rockier when McNabb was benched in a 36-7 November loss to Baltimore after throwing two interceptions in the first half a week after throwing three picks in a 13-13 tie with the Bengals.
But a week later, McNabb was back in the starting lineup and threw four touchdown passes in a 48-20 Thanksgiving night win over the Arizona Cardinals and ended up leading the Eagles to the NFC championship game for the fifth time.
“You have to have real mental fortitude to succeed as a quarterback in the NFL, in addition to everything else you need,” Banner said. “And guys like Donovan and Wentz didn’t have the success they’ve had without having mental fortitude. So, it’s hard for me to believe that there’s a cause and effect [between drafting Hurts and Wentz’s poor play].”
Figuring the Eagles
The Eagles are one of three teams — Arizona and Houston are the other two — that still don’t have an interception this season. This isn’t a new thing for Jim Schwartz’s defense. Over their last 12 games, they have just three picks. That’s the fewest in the NFL during that period. The Eagles' opponent this week, the 49ers, have four. The Chargers, Jaguars, and Cowboys have five. Sixteen teams have 10 or more.
Carson Wentz’s 65 rushing yards against the Bengals were a career-high. So were his nine rushing attempts and six rushing first downs. Wentz has eight rushing first downs in the first three games. That’s tied for the fourth most among quarterbacks, behind Cam Newton (15), Kyler Murray (10), and Lamar Jackson (9).
Even though he has played in only two games, Miles Sanders is tied for ninth in rushing first downs with 13.
The Eagles sent extra rushers on 14 of 52 pass plays (26.9%) against the Bengals. Rookie Joe Burrow completed 10 of 12 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown when they blitzed. In the first three games, the Eagles blitzed on 26 of 114 pass plays (22.8%). Opposing quarterbacks completed 18 of 23 passes for 186 yards and two TDs (three sacks) when Jim Schwartz has sent extra rushers.
The Eagles used 12-personnel (1RB, 2TE, 2WR) on 92 of 136 plays (67.6%) in their first two games. But after Dallas Goedert got hurt last Sunday on the eighth play of the game, the Eagles went mostly to 11-personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR). They used 12-personnel on just 24 of 78 plays (30.8%) after Goedert got hurt.
The Eagles are 31st in average drive start by their opponents (34.9 yard-line). In the first three games, their opponents started at their own 40 or better on 14 of 39 drives.
NFL gets a visit from COVID-19
After three weeks without a single player testing positive for COVID-19, people inside the NFL and out started to get a false sense of security that hey, who needs a bubble? They’ve got this thing licked.
Well, they don’t.
This week, 11 members of the Tennessee Titans organization, including five players, tested positive for COVID-19.
After initially considering moving the Titans' game against the Pittsburgh Steelers from Sunday to either Monday or Tuesday of next week, the league finally canceled it and will try to play it later in the season. Much like Major League Baseball, which had to update its schedule following an early-season outbreak on the Miami Marlins, the NFL probably is going to have to move some games around.
The cancellation means the Steelers will be coming off a bye week when they host the Eagles in Pittsburgh on Oct, 11.
“I think it’s kind of a wake-up call for the rest of the NFL,” Eagles tight end Zach Ertz said Thursday. "You knew it was coming per se. Throughout the NFL, I thought we’ve done an incredible job with the amount of negative tests we’ve had. Unfortunately, this came up.
“There are protocols in place to deal with it. At the same time, it’s a great reminder for the other 31 teams that we have to be diligent. The pandemic is not over by any means. Even though we’ve been able to keep playing and do something we love, we’re dealing with something we’ve never dealt with before.”
Things are going to have to get a lot worse than this, though, to faze the NFL. It went into this season prepared to soldier on through multiple outbreaks.
The league is prepared to shorten its season if it comes to that. The season would have to turn into an absolute catastrophe for it to consider canceling the playoffs and the golden-goose Super Bowl in Tampa in February.
“Honestly, I was surprised,” Eagles safety Rodney McLeod said of the outbreak in Nashville. "We’ve been very clean thus far across the league. Everybody’s been kind of doing their part. It’s unfortunate to see this take place.
“It just shows you how serious this virus is. You have to be responsible. I think that’s been stressed every week here by our head coach and the organization. Once we leave these walls, we know we have a responsibility to fulfill, and we have to sacrifice a little bit in order to make it through the season.”
College football has tried to play through outbreaks. Last week, Kansas State was missing seven defensive starters who had tested positive for COVID-19 before its game with Oklahoma. The problem is, college football’s testing protocols aren’t as good as the NFL’s, which continues to test players every day so that they can catch infections quickly and prevent a massive team-wide spread.
And still, they are dealing with the outbreak in Nashville.