You’d never expect Linus van Pelt to dispense his yuletide wisdom in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” without his trusty security blanket. So, perhaps it’s unfair to expect Carson Wentz to be a good quarterback without his.
The biggest obstacle between Wentz and proficiency this season: the absence of Zach Ertz. Second-biggest: the absence of Alshon Jeffery. Third: Nelson Agholor. Without them, Wentz has been lost.
From 2016 through 2019, Wentz targeted that trio about 46% of the time (948 of his 2,055 passes). They accounted for about 46% of his completions (602 of 1,311), 48% of his passing yards (6,794 of 14,191), and 54% of his touchdown passes (52 of 97).
The Eagles allowed Agholor to leave via free agency and land with Las Vegas, where he already has six touchdown catches and has missed zero games. They replaced Agholor with first-round pick Jalen Reagor. Unlike Agholor, Ertz, Jeffery, and Reagor have a combined two TD catches and 17 missed games.
Wentz misses Agholor least: His throws to Agholor usually were designed-play deep throws, quick-read slants, or last-resort scrambles.
Wentz misses the big two more. He leaned on Jeffery and Ertz. It was a natural marriage.
Wentz is 6-foot-5, generally gun-shy, and relatively inaccurate. He doesn’t like to anticipate that receivers will come open and he doesn’t like to throw his receivers open. That’s why he loved Ertz and Jeffery. They are tall, wide pass-catchers. They were precise, dependable veterans in their prime. They loved to make contested catches. They were the perfect targets a young quarterback like Wentz needed. Ertz is 6-5 and runs routes like a city bus. Jeffery is 6-3 with an 80-inch wingspan and 10.25-inch hands, bigger than the Arizona Cardinals’ DeAndre Hopkins, whose 10.08-inch paws made the catch of the year on a Hail Mary pass two weeks ago.
Wentz progresses slowly through his reads, and sometimes he doesn’t make them all. With Ertz and Jeffery, Wentz could simply throw it where they were supposed to be. They’d catch it. Next play.
And then, they were gone.
Foot and calf injuries cost Jeffery the first eight games of 2020, and he has managed just 23 snaps in Games 9 and 10. Ertz sustained an ankle injury in Game 6 and hasn’t played since. They have proved irreplacable.
In his first four regular seasons, Wentz played with either Ertz or Jeffery in 53 of his 56 games; the second and third games of his rookie season, and the 2019 finale.
From the time Jeffery joined the team in 2017 through the end of the 2019 season, Wentz played with both of them in 40 of his 48 games.
They have played zero games together this season.
Not coincidentally, Wentz is having the worst year of any quarterback in the NFL.
Pederson generally agrees
“It could possibly contribute to that. Those are guys who he’s played with since he’s been here,” coach Doug Pederson said of the absences of Ertz and Jeffery. “They kind of know Carson.”
Knowledge is power. Replacements like practice-squad graduates Greg Ward and Travis Fulgham lack that power.
“I’m not gonna sit here and make excuses,” Pederson continued. “He’s worked with those guys for ... years.”
That said, after five years in the NFL, Wentz should be able to connect with any group of targets more than 58.4% of the time, which is second-worst completion rate in the league. That’s true even though he will play behind a 10th combination of offensive linemen in 11 games when the Seattle Seahawks visit Monday night.
By now, Wentz should have evolved enough to make do with whatever targets and whatever protection he is given. A $128 million quarterback should read blitzes better, get rid of the ball faster, and throw fewer dumb passes, with better mechanics. That said, Ertz and Jeffery at 100% would change things for Wentz. That’s a foolish wish right now.
Pederson said Saturday that Ertz wouldn’t return until the Birds fly to Green Bay next weekend. Jeffery has played two games, but the idea that Jeffery would be effective as soon as he returned was unrealistic, Pederson said before his return two weeks ago.
“I’m hopeful that he can just kind of plug and play, but realistically I think it’s going to take some time,” Pederson said then. “It’s going to take a little bit of time for him to get comfortable in the game, to be up to game speed, to kind of get fully integrated back into playing football.”
Pederson knew Jeffery’s foot injury always would delay the start of his 2020 season, but the COVID-19 lockdown kept Wentz from getting to know the backups better.
“We missed an offseason. We missed training camp,” Pederson said; and, with it, the chance “to really hone in some of the timing, decision-making.”
Fine. Monday night will be Jeffrey’s third game back. If he’s not effective when the Seahawks visit, it will validate questions about his remaining ability, especially in the face of his $11.5 million paycheck.
It can’t be all Ertz and Jeffery, can it? After all, Wentz succeeded with diminished weapons at the end of 2019, going 4-0 with a 100.8 passer rating despite playing with a similar group of practice-squad graduates. Jeffrey missed all but a handful of snaps and Ertz missed the season finale.
That was then. This is now.
Ertz caught 18 passes for 180 yards and three touchdowns in Games 13, 14, and 15.
More significantly, the line was stable. The Eagles started the same offensive line in the last three games of 2019 and they only changed the lineup once, due to Lane Johnson’s ankle injury in Game 13. Come Monday, the Eagles’ will have used the same lineup just once in 11 games this season.
Finally, the Eagles finished 2019 against Washington, Dallas, and the Giants, twice. All three teams were so bad that they fired their coaches. Even Nick Foles would have had 100.8 rating against those teams.
As for the argument that elite quarterbacks compensate for pedestrian supporting casts, we need to recognize that, regardless of his potential, Carson Wentz is not elite. Not close. We need to admit that he never was elite; not really. We also need to consider that he might never be elite, despite prodigious talent and lots of brains. So be it. Not all potential is realized.
So where does this leave Wentz and his 3-6-1 Eagles? Hopeful, as it turns out.
The Seattle defense ranks last in average total yards and passing yards allowed, and fifth from last in scoring. The Eagles then face the mediocre Packers defense; then the excellent Saints defense, though New Orleans won’t have injured Drew Brees running the offense; then the so-so Cardinals; then the Cowboys, who can’t stop the run; and finish with Washington, whose stingy defense beat the Birds in the season opener.
By then, Wentz should be cozy with his security blankets again.