It’s the question everyone is asking: Why has Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, in his fifth year under Doug Pederson, seen his production and performance regress through the season’s first two weeks? On Monday, when a reporter opened Pederson’s weekly presser by inquiring such, the feed lagged a bit, so the Philadelphia head coach didn’t catch the entire question. As a result, Pederson appeared puzzled at what he thought he’d heard.
“Progress?” Pederson asked, leaning forward and raising his eyebrows in meme-like fashion. The reporter repeated the correct word—regress—and Pederson slightly smirked, apologizing while noting the lag. The coach then slunk back in his seat, took a deep breath, sighed, and licked his lips while his eyes flitted away from the camera.
“You know,” Pederson conceded, “it’s a good question.”
There are a handful of circumstances that have contributed to Philadelphia’s 0-2 start, including a banged-up offensive line and an inexperienced receiving corps, but Wentz’s poor play stands at the forefront of the Eagles’ issues. “I just don’t want Carson to feel like he has to make all the plays every single time,” Pederson said. “I just want him to just be Carson.” Philadelphia needs Wentz to get back to being himself soon, too, or else it won’t come close to sniffing the postseason.
Through two games, Wentz’s numbers are abysmal. He’s completed 58.8 percent of his passes (29th), which is 8.8 percentage points below expected, according to Next Gen Stats, the second-worst dropoff in the league. Wentz has averaged 6.0 yards per attempt (32nd). He ranks 32nd among quarterbacks in both ESPN’s QBR (28.1) and expected points added (0.7) metrics, making him one of the NFL’s most inefficient QBs. Per Pro Football Focus, his 40.7 percent accurate pass rate is a league low. Wentz has thrown a league-high four interceptions, and his eight turnover-worthy plays are the most in the NFL, per PFF.
“I’ve gotta protect the football,” Wentz said after throwing two picks in Sunday’s 37-19 loss to the Rams. “Plain and simple. I’ve gotta own that.”
It’s a shocking turnaround for a player who threw just seven interceptions in each of the past three seasons. Wentz began his career as a more daring passer, ranking 11th and first in his first two seasons, respectively, in NGS’s aggressive throw metric, which tracks the percentage of throws into tight coverage, where defenders are 1 yard or less from intended receivers. But he’s ranked 20th and 21st in that category the past two years, respectively, and currently ranks 25th. He’s generally not forcing tough passes often, but when he is, the misses are bad and sometimes costly. In Week 1, both of Wentz’s interceptions resulted in Washington touchdowns, allowing the Football Team to cut a 17-0 second-quarter deficit to three points by the third quarter. Last week, his third-quarter red-zone interception against the Rams stopped the Eagles from potentially taking the lead.
So, back to the question: Why has Wentz regressed so much? Pederson had a few ideas, but nothing too specific.
“He’s just missing,” Pederson said. “I guess you could point to a lot of different things—missing OTAs, not having all of the necessary reps during training camps, missing preseason games … the timing of things that we do in the passing game and just missing these throws.”
In addition to Wentz’s own struggles, let’s look at his supporting cast, starting up front. The Eagles were supposed to enter 2020 with one of the NFL’s most talented offensive lines, featuring tackles Andre Dillard and Lane Johnson, guards Brandon Brooks and Isaac Seumalo, and center Jason Kelce. But injuries ravaged the group during the offseason and into the early stages of the campaign. In June, Brooks suffered a torn Achilles, and in late August, Dillard injured his biceps, knocking both out for the season before it kicked off. Johnson reportedly underwent ankle surgery this offseason and missed most of training camp. He was inactive for Philly’s season opener, resulting in an offensive line that looked completely different than anticipated:
The OL Eagles wanted this year:— Dave Zangaro (@DZangaroNBCS) September 13, 2020
LT: Andre Dillard
LG: Isaac Seumalo
C: Jason Kelce
RG: Brandon Brooks
RT: Lane Johnson
Their opening day OL:
LT: Jason Peters
LG: Isaac Seumalo
C: Jason Kelce
RG: Nate Herbig
RT: Jack Driscoll
The Eagles paid the price against a Washington team that features a fearsome defensive front, giving up eight sacks. Johnson came back for Week 2, and Philly rebounded by giving up zero sacks to a Rams front that features Aaron Donald. But the long-term prognosis is less than ideal. Seumalo injured his knee and on Tuesday was placed on injured reserve. (Pederson doesn’t expect the injury to be season-ending.) A year after ranking third in PFF’s team pass-block grades (81.1), the Eagles OL currently is 13th (69.1). After facing Washington and Los Angeles’s talented lines in successive weeks, the line gets a breather this week against the Bengals, whose defense has tallied just two sacks this year.
Offensive line struggles don’t just show up as sacks—they can change an entire offense. In Week 2, Wentz and the Eagles lost the vertical element of their offense. Wentz threw many fewer deep attempts in Week 2 (down from 12 to four) and many more short attempts (up from 30 to 39), as Rivers McCown noted this week for Football Outsiders.
The problems don’t end with the offensive line. The chemistry between passer and receivers just isn’t there. For example, this year, Wentz has had a tendency to throw low passes to DeSean Jackson when targeting him on in-breaking routes, rarely connecting in stride or around his chest. Wentz has also struggled connecting with rookie John Hightower, airmailing some passes over his head and missing others behind him. Free-agent signing Marquise Goodwin opted out before the year and Alshon Jeffery is once again sidelined by injuries. So the Eagles receiver unit consists of 33-year-old Jackson, second-year pro J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, former college QB Greg Ward Jr., and rookies Hightower and Jalen Reagor.
Wentz might as well have met these guys yesterday; he’s 20-for-38 (52.6 percent) with 240 yards and three interceptions when targeting those receivers in two games. Lack of success is not all on Wentz, though—Jackson dropped two passes last week while Hightower and Ward each dropped a pass in Week 1. The snap distribution among Philly’s receivers resembles a rotating door, and the group has the lowest PFF grade (57.2) among teams through two games. However, Wentz’s ball placement, as already mentioned, hasn’t always given his wideouts consistently good chances. “They’re throws that he typically would [complete],” Pederson said.
Wentz has relied, possibly to a fault, on tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. Ertz is deservedly considered one of the game’s top players at the position and Goedert is a very good complement, but Wentz has thrown their way 31 times through two games. Last year he became the first player in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards without a single wide receiver amassing at least 500 yards. But if Philadelphia is going to get any further in the postseason than it did last year—or reach the postseason, for that matter—Wentz will need to establish a rapport with his other targets. In the fourth quarter against the Rams last week, Philly trailed by 11 points when it faced fourth-and-2 at L.A.’s 36-yard line. Wentz attempted to force a pass over the middle to Goedert instead of lobbing a pass toward the sideline to Jackson, who was in one-on-one man coverage. The Rams had shown a Cover-1 Robber coverage shell as the play began, meaning no one was over the top of Jackson, who had a step on his man. Wentz had adequate time in the pocket, too.
Similar to Wentz’s first interception last week, on his second he needlessly tried to force a pass to running back Miles Sanders while facing first-and-10 late in the game with his team trailing by three scores. Because he attempted the throw while off balance and from the opposite hash, it sailed over Sanders and was intercepted.
On Monday, Pederson was asked about Wentz’s season-opening slump and pointed to the unusual offseason schedule while mentioning lack of timing and chemistry with receivers. “You’re talking about two and a half to three weeks of actual, full-speed timing throws [that we had],” he said. “It’s a constant work in progress.” While the Eagles’ passing game was more conservative in Week 2, Wentz did target Reagor on a couple of deep throws during Week 1, even connecting on a 55-yard gain in the first quarter. It’s perhaps a peek into the kind of big plays the Eagles hope become routine as Reagor, a first-round pick out of TCU, gets more live reps catching from Wentz, like in the clip below. Just one more problem for the Eagles, though: Reagor has a UCL tear in this thumb, and will be out at least for a few weeks after landing on injured reserve Thursday.
Wentz’s inaccuracy issues have been exceptionally apparent this year, both because of a lack of rapport with targets and because of his mechanics, as the Draft Network’s Benjamin Solak has pointed out. Philly needs Wentz to fine-tune things and hit throws on a more consistent basis to get the offense back in gear. He brushed off his recent flat performances after Sunday’s loss. “There’s enough things through two games, offensively speaking, that we can put on the tape and know, ‘All right, we’re right there,’” he said. “‘We’re just missing some things. We’re right there, don’t panic. We’ll be OK.’”
Wentz has obviously struggled, but the Eagles aren’t considering a quarterback change. Second-round pick Jalen Hurts did appear on one play Sunday, but he aligned as a split back in a formation with Wentz under center. Pederson was asked Monday whether there’s any pressure from general manager Howie Roseman and the Eagles’ front office to get Hurts in, to which Pederson bluntly answered, “No and no.” Pederson doubled down on his support of Wentz on Wednesday:
Pederson: "Have you played quarterback in the National Football League?"— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) September 23, 2020
Reporter: "I have not"
Pederson: "Ok. They're not layups."
- Exchange between Doug Pederson and reporter about Carson Wentz missing alleged easy throws.
Last year, Wentz dragged Philadelphia into the playoffs without a consistent outside receiving threat. He’s shown what he’s capable of when at his best—the Eagles just need him to tap into that form. Even if he isn’t, they just need him to be serviceable. It’s rare for 0-2 squads to reach the playoffs, but the path there isn’t as impossible for the Eagles as it is for many other squads. The NFC East doesn’t compare to, let’s say, the NFC West, where all four teams are capable of reaching the playoffs. The Cowboys have shown early holes, Washington would have to mightily exceed expectations, and the Giants are struggling out the gate, as expected. Wentz is confident that he and his squad can turn things around.
“Overall, offensively, we know we’re right there,” Wentz said. “At the end of the day, we had two interceptions and the fumble—turning the ball over is really killing us the last two weeks. Those are things we know we can clean up. But other than that, we truly feel that we’re right there. We’re just missing some things, timing of some things. So we’re not panicking. We know what we got to clean up and we will.”