PHILADELPHIA — The Carson Wentz Redemption Tour was not supposed to go like this.
Finally healthy and seemingly surrounded by playmakers, this was the season that the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback was supposed to skyrocket back toward his 2017 MVP status, quiet the dissenting voices and shake loose from the specter of Nick Foles by leading a Super Bowl charge.
Instead, the Eagles have struggled to a 3-4 start and are coming off blowout losses to the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys — the worst consecutive losses in Philadelphia since 2015 when the wheels were falling off the coach Chip Kelly operation. In the middle of this spell, anonymous quotes critiquing Wentz have resurfaced — a development that Wentz this week called “concerning.”
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Suddenly this upcoming stretch, starting with Sunday’s 1 p.m. ET (Fox) game at the Buffalo Bills, feels like a defining moment both for this season and, in some respects, for Wentz’s career. Not that he’s going anywhere. The Eagles just gave him a four-year, $128 million extension in June. But it will be a key submission of evidence that will help answer a bigger question: When Wentz is charged with leading a team out of adversity, will it follow?
Wentz is certainly not the primary reason the Eagles have gotten off to a rocky start. DeSean Jackson’s injury short-circuited what promised to be an explosive downfield attack. Jackson’s counterparts have failed to pick up the slack in his absence. Wentz’s receivers are second in the NFL in drops with 13, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and are tops in fumbles (four) and fumbles lost (three). Even so, Wentz continues to thrive in the red zone (seven TDs, zero INTs) and on third down (fifth-best QB rating of 104.3).
Philadelphia’s pass defense has been one of the league’s worst all season, allowing eight passing plays of 40-plus yards, second most in the NFL. Couple that with a downright epidemic of starting games slow as a team, and it’s not hard to figure out why the Eagles are where they are.
But Wentz has been far from perfect. He ranks 25th in both completion percentage (61.3) and yards per attempt (6.87) and is 19th in passer rating (92.9). The offense overall has lacked rhythm, and the conductor bears some responsibility for that.
“Carson Wentz is playing really good, not good enough,” said ESPN football analyst Dan Orlovsky. “He has been really good with his decision-making. He’s obviously made some plays that are becoming synonymous with Carson: the athletic movements or broken-down plays or the ‘Wows.’ But I still think he can do a better job of getting the football out of his hands a little bit quicker.
“That can be there more where Doug [Pederson] calls plays to say, ‘Hey, Carson, I want 5 yards.’ Sometimes Carson will hold it to try and get 12 yards. That’s difficult for a playcaller to manage because it’s not a lack of trust, it’s, ‘Are we seeing these things the same way? Are we understanding it the same way?’ They can be on the same page and Carson can be on the same page with Doug a little bit better.”
Wentz is getting the ball out of his hands in 2.70 seconds on average, which ranks 21st in the NFL.
Ultimately, Wentz is pretty far down the list for reasons the Eagles have failed to meet expectations to this point. His ability to create — think of his “Matrix”-like escape of a Quinnen Williams sack against the Jets — has bailed this offense out and helped keep the team in games. If not for late drops against the Falcons and Lions, the Eagles are 5-2.
But being a franchise quarterback is partly about shouldering the responsibility whether you’re to blame or not. And it’s about making the operation function at a high level no matter the parts. Yes, Jackson is out and yes, the receivers left in his place have been a disappointment. But there are plenty of examples of QBs making it work even with a rotating cast around them, including Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers this season and New England’s Tom Brady over the course of his entire career, essentially.
Those are great quarterbacks, but Wentz was on a trajectory toward being an elite quarterback in his own right in 2017. The past two seasons have been more of a challenge, in part because of injury. And while it’s a team game, the fact is the Eagles are 8-10 with Wentz as a starter in the past two years.
“Absolutely,” Wentz said, when asked if a quarterback should be judged off his win-loss record. “I think that’s our job. In this league, we’re striving to win every week and I think as a quarterback, that’s how you should be judged, for sure.”
Judgment has come from both outside and within over the past several weeks, as a team once thought of as championship-caliber began to spiral. Fair or not, it has created a circumstance where the quarterback’s mettle will be put to the test.
“I think he’s played really good football, just not, ‘Hey, carry the football team through really sucky times.’ That’s the burden that’s been [given to him],” Orlovsky said.
“You know what the difference is between 2017 and 2019? The expectations. That’s the difference. We expect him to play at an MVP level, for this team not to struggle because of his MVP-level play. He’s had glimpses of MVP-level play, he’s had glimpses of carrying this football team, but they’re sitting at 3-4. When you take on that contract, to whom much is given, much is expected, and that’s the difference.”