Carson Wentz has improved from last season, why can’t the Eagles capitalize? | Jeff McLane
Carson Wentz's accuracy is up. His passer rating is up. Overall, he's playing better than he did last season. And yet, the results haven't been there for the Eagles. Why is that?
Press Taylor has a phrase he uses when he's coaching up Carson Wentz and the Eagles quarterbacks.
Standards over feelings.
The standards are high.
"It's just being critical, being critical of yourself and then always striving to be perfect," Wentz said recently. "You're never going to be perfect in a game, but just being able to really dissect where you can improve every single play and strive to be perfect and strive to be great every time.
"Try and take the feelings and the emotions out of it."
Wentz, obviously, hasn't been perfect this season. But he's been very good. Better in some ways than he was last year before a knee injury ended MVP talk. Statistically, the improvement has been significant. And yet his development hasn't been reflected in the results.
The Eagles are losing more than they're winning. They're scoring nearly seven points fewer per game than they did in 2017. And the offense – particularly early in games, in the red zone, and in late situations – hasn't been as productive.
The 25-year-old Wentz certainly bears some responsibility for the struggles. But if Doug Pederson and his assistants were to apply Taylor's mantra to their evaluations, it's likely that the quarterback would be far down on the list of those who aren't meeting standards.
Wentz is thriving notwithstanding team-wide problems. The personnel isn't as good. The coaching and game plans haven't been as sharp. And the execution, as a result, hasn't been as consistent. Injuries have played a role, but the Eagles simply haven't been able to capitalize on their quarterback's Year 3 progress.
It's difficult to point fingers. But if Pederson was being honest with himself, he would at least factor some of his play-calling into the equation.
Wentz is completing 71 percent of his throws – more than 10 percentage points higher than last season (60.2). His touchdowns per pass attempt has fallen (7.5 percent to 5.6 percent) but so, too, has his interception rate (1.6 percent to 1.1 percent). And his 108.5 passer rating would have been the NFL's best in 2017.
Passing numbers are up across the NFL. There are 14 quarterbacks with ratings over 100. The season is far from over, but the previous high was eight in 2013. But despite the overall decline of the team around him, Wentz's numbers are only marginally down on third downs (a 123.7 passer rating in 2017 compared with 99.5 in 2018) and in the red zone (116.3 to 105.6).
And he has been more productive in the fourth quarter (109.8 this year, compared with 91.3 last year).
But statistics are pliable. Wentz has had the ball in his hands late in four games with the opportunity to win, and each time the Eagles have fallen short. He hasn't failed to deliver all on his own, but he has missed opportunities – especially in the loss to the Panthers. The standard is to win, and there's no sugarcoating that.
"There are times when we're going to be hard on Carson, just as hard as he is on himself," Taylor said. "But we have a standard in our room of how we expect to play. And so, regardless of how something makes you feel, we're going to put the truth out there, we're going to be honest with one another."
After games, Wentz will watch the film at his home. He'll analyze what went wrong and what he can improve on, per Taylor, so that by the time he comes in on Monday to go over the film with the coaches, he has moved on, and is able to accept the truth.
"It's, ultimately, was the play successful?" Wentz said. "The standard is completions. The standard is making right decisions, right reads, all those things. And a lot of it you'll never fully know just looking at a stat column. It's something we talk about up in the QB room – progressions, reads, decision-making, all that stuff.
"And just being able to be coachable."
The message isn't delivered in harsh tones. It's This isn't good enough. This isn't what we do. Let's fix this, according to backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
"The best quarterbacks – you see Tom Brady, Drew Brees – they want to be coached," Sudfeld said. "They want to be held to a high standard. They want people to work with them to get there, and Carson is no different."
Wentz will get to see one of the best up close on Sunday when the Eagles visit Drew Brees and the Saints. As far as he has already come, it's important to note that he's only 36 games into his career. Brees, for instance, completed only 57.6 percent of his passes in his third year.
Wentz's accuracy has gone through the roof this season primarily, he said, because he's making better decisions. He's not forcing the ball downfield and he's taking what defenses are giving him.
The average length of his attempts has dropped from 9.91 to 7.91 yards, but the overall average per pass has increased from 7.49 to 7.99 yards. Despite the shorter length of his throws, the ball is coming out quicker this year (2.49 seconds from snap to release) compared with last year (2.54).
Wentz had mechanical problems in his first two seasons, but he hardly has any loose throws anymore. And when he needs to fit passes into tight windows, he often places the ball where only his receiver can catch it.
"It's a maturation in the offense, of understanding not only what we're trying to get accomplished, [but] the intent of the play call," Taylor said. "First and second down, we're trying to put the ball in play. Yes, we may call a shot down the field vs. an ideal look, but just because we call it you don't have to throw the ball down the field."
There was concern that Wentz wouldn't dial back on some of his aggressiveness, especially after his injury. But aside from a few scrambles when he has dived forward rather than slide, he has mostly been careful about getting hit.
That may mean fewer razzle-dazzle moments, but Wentz hasn't shown any hesitation when it comes to his knee.
"I said I was going to be more cognizant of protecting myself and that sort of thing," Wentz said. "But as far as just extending plays and all that, I don't overthink that. I just let it come."
His physicals skills are nearly unmatched. When he needs to stay in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield – as he did on a 12-yard pass to Zach Ertz despite getting hit in the arm – he has the muscle.
And when he needs to zip a toss under time constraints – like he did on a third-down 18-yard pass to receiver Jordan Matthews – he has the arm strength.
There have been times when Wentz has left plays on the field. He fumbled in each of his first six games. Some were hardly his fault. There would be pressure and he'd get hit from behind. But he said he needed to clean up, and last Sunday he didn't fumble.
Wentz did hurl another first-quarter interception against the Cowboys – his second in the last two games.
Overall, interceptions haven't been a problem. He's occasionally held the ball too long. He recoiled and took a first-down sack even though he had Ertz briefly open in the third quarter. But he converted on third down two plays later.
Wentz and Pederson meet throughout the week to discuss the game plan. Last year, it was mostly a Thursday powwow, but they both said that their conversations have been spread out more over the week and increased this season.
The Eagles' success in 2017 was attributed, in some part, to Pederson's willingness to accept input from his assistants and players. There has been no proof that he hasn't been as open, but the cast changed when offensive coordinator Mike Groh and Taylor replaced the departed Frank Reich and John DeFilippo.
Wentz said that his voice is still heard, but that he also trusts Pederson, for example, when the coach decides whether to go up-tempo and give the quarterback more control over calls at the line of scrimmage.
But the Eagles' scripted starts have been, aside from the no-huddle drive against the Colts in Week 3, dreadful. They have gone three and out in five of their nine opening possessions. Wentz seems to play his best when he's given more freedom – both pre- and post-snap.
"I don't think that's the case," Groh said. "I don't have any evidence that would support that. I mean, all these plays are on the game plan. You know, they could get called at any time during the course of the game."
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Wentz's voice will only grow. The term franchise quarterback will have more meaning if, as expected, he signs a contract extension this offseason. He's always been opinionated, but he should have more influence as he matures.
"I think, ultimately, whether it's personnel decisions, game-planning decision, all those things – having an opinion on things is big," Wentz said. "But, again, there are so many things that I have to worry about from an X's-and-O's standpoint that I don't get too much involved in those things.
"And, who knows, someday, but right now I'm trusting them. They've never let me down so far."
His standards should be high.