The continuing NFL education of Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz | Bob Ford
The Eagles want to fine tune his decision-making without taking away what makes him special.
Brett Favre, whose NFL record for career passing yards was eclipsed only by Peyton Manning and, earlier this month, by Drew Brees, was not wed to the philosophy of taking what the opposing defense chose to give. He was much more interested in having the defense eat what he was serving.
"I'm never going to be a Checkdown Charlie," said Favre, who was a starter in the league for 19 seasons, and left the game a shell of the reckless genius that entered it, but not due to any change of heart.
A quarterback comes in all forms, but the best of the bunch makes his mark in those moments when he stands alone amid the chaos of the line fight, a game in the balance, and unslings the marvelous weapon that hangs from his shoulder to successfully deliver a football to a place he probably shouldn't have tried to reach.
It is what, athletically, he was born to do, and if there happened to also be a safe second option available in the flat that could have yielded a few yards, the difference to him is the difference between downhill and cross-country skiing. Where's the sport in the latter?
In Carson Wentz, the Eagles have one of those guys. Maybe it is too early to compare him to the names in the first paragraph, but only because his career track is a mere three seasons. On ability and temperament, he isn't out of place on any list you care to make.
What will be interesting is to see whether experience will change Wentz. If there is a failing now, it is that he can be too headstrong. Of course, he also plays a position where confidence and swagger is a prerequisite, so it's something of a delicate line for coaches to walk as they shape him.
"We're going to continue to work through it," head coach Doug Pederson said this week, following the Eagles loss to Carolina. "We're going to continue to coach, teach and instruct. But at the end of the day, I want the ball in his hands to help us win a game."
No game comes down to a single play, and the reasons for this loss were myriad, but Wentz made a mistake on third-and-2 from the Carolina 14-yard-line near the end, when he ignored a checkdown option to Wendell Smallwood that would have secured the first down. He threw into the end zone instead, where Alshon Jeffrey was defended by two Panthers, and the ball was knocked away. One play later, Wentz was consumed by the Carolina rush, and the last hope evaporated.
"I tried to force one in there that I probably shouldn't have," Wentz said. "When you're on the field at the end like that, with a shot, ball is in your hand, and you don't win, it's frustrating."
There are stats out there concerning how Wentz has done in his career in fourth quarter and game-ending situations, and none of them mean very much. When the defense knows you have to throw the ball somewhere, the job is a lot more difficult. And always throwing it to the right place isn't a science, particularly for a young quarterback.
"I don't know how long it takes. I couldn't put a time frame on it," offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. "But Carson is a smart guy. He knows where the ball should go, and he's a disciplined player. So, it's an experience we can all learn from."
Wentz is usually far more reckless with himself than with the ball. Former coordinator Frank Reich talked about having to "rein him in" when it came to taking off on runs or meeting tacklers head-on rather than sliding.
"It definitely went in one ear and out the other early on," Reich said.
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That tendency might have led to his torn ACL last season – the replay suggests the ligament gave way before he was even hit – but perhaps Wentz did learn from that painful experience. He seems to be sliding more. As for taking care of the football as well, Wentz has only one interception in 197 attempts this season and has thrown the ball 175 times without one. (He has lost a fumble in four of his five starts, however, which has to stop.)
So, it isn't as though he is tossing the ball into dangerous places all the time, but he does need to dial back and take the layup more often.
"I think he is an aggressive-minded quarterback," Groh said. "He looks to push the ball down the field, which … is his strength. We also try to emphasize at times [that] it's good to put the ball in play and let the system and the players around you work for you. I think there's a balance there, and you certainly don't want to take away one of his strengths, which we know has been a really successful formula for us."
The strength outweighs the weakness almost all the time, and the choice he made against Carolina might be a theme that is echoed throughout his career. That's how it was with Favre. The rambunctious streak was never coached out of him. If the same can be said at the end of Wentz, and the results stack up, too, that's not a bad bargain in exchange for a little second-guessing now and then.
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