Carson Wentz’s surprising debut
A simple game plan and good team execution helped the rookie QB
I am frustrated with the oversimplification of football analysis. As a cornerback, I am familiar with being blamed by media and fans for a deep pass caught on my side despite not being responsible for the deep zone. So this season, I will be watching the coaches’ video and analyzing the impact of all 22 players on the field and coaches’ game plan.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz’s debut was unexpectedly successful. He was 22 for 37 with 278 yards passing and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Since the game ended Sunday afternoon, Wentz has been lavished with well-deserved praise.
Have the Eagles found a franchise quarterback? Was this a promising start to an illustrious career, or was it fool’s gold? The stats can be misleading without context and the TV angles never tell the full story. To understand what really happened and why, I had to watch all 22 players.
After analyzing the full game, I have determined that Philly fans have several reasons to be optimistic, but they should temper their excitement about Wentz and keep expectations, for this season, low. Despite having a strong statistical game, Wentz’s performance was just OK. Let’s start with the bad news.
- He held the ball too long, waiting for receivers to get open. All veteran NFL quarterbacks, from Pro-Bowlers to game-managers and backups, know that in-game receivers are rarely open before the ball must be thrown. This is an issue for most young quarterbacks coming from the college game, where defensive backs and linebackers don’t have the athleticism or experience to diagnose and cover route combinations. Please excuse my locker room jargon, but receivers won’t be running “butt naked” through NFL defenses, this ain’t the Missouri Valley Conference.
- He locked his eyes on to one receiver. Combined with the above critique, you have a recipe for a potential turnover machine. Holding the ball too long will lead to sack fumbles, and staring at your receiver will result in interceptions against zone defenses. In Sunday’s game, Wentz seldom read through his progression to find a secondary receiver. And he was unwilling to abort well-defended plays and check it down to a running back or throw the ball away. But, that is to be expected from a young quarterback. Some quarterbacks never develop the ability to read through their progression. But that isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s OK for the quarterback to know where he is going to throw the ball before the play starts, as long as he doesn’t tell the defense by staring at the receiver for the entire play. Wentz needs to master the art of the look-off. For a few games when I played for the Denver Broncos, I had to move from cornerback to safety. In one of those games, we played against Brett Farve. He manipulated me with his eyes the entire game. I’d go sprinting to help cover the receiver at whom he’d been looking, and just as I was getting there to intercept the ball, he would whip his head and shoulders to the other side of the field and take advantage of the isolated defender.
- The last negative is a minor one, but it is still something to keep an eye on. Wentz had a lot of tipped balls. Fortunately for him, none of them were intercepted, but that is just lucky. At 6-foot-5, I would expect him to not have an issue with tipped balls.
After reading my list of cons, you are probably wondering how Wentz ended up with such a good stat line and led the Eagles to a week 1 win. Here are the reasons, in order of impact on the outcome of the game.
- Stellar offensive line play
- Patient and talented running attack
- Eagles coaching
- Wentz’s play
- Defense and special teams
New head coach Doug Pederson crafted a very smart and simple game plan for the team to execute. Presumably, they are well aware of where Carson is as a pocket passer, so they got him out of the pocket often with sprintouts and bootlegs. Those types of plays condense the field and simplify reads for the quarterback. By getting him on the edge, rather than ask him to be aware of all 11 defenders and the potential for exotic blitzes, Wentz has a simple read of two defenders. They also have the added benefit of forcing the quarterback to make faster decisions. Even if Wentz has yet to develop an internal clock tuned to NFL speed, he can’t miss the fast-approaching defender or sideline.
When the coaches did call dropback passes, they used empty backfield formations often. Empty sets make it very difficult for defenses to disguise, especially when the back motions to a wide position from the backfield, which the Eagles did often. Defenders need to get to a position where they can execute their responsibility. When you have backs in the backfield, the linebackers line up in the same place whether they are in man-to-man coverage, blitzing, Cover 3, or Cover 2. But if you motion the running back out to where a wide receiver would normally align, then the defenders have to expose themselves. If it is man-to-man, the linebacker follows him. If it’s Cover 3 or a blitz, the safety will come down to cover the slot and the cornerback will widen to account for the running back.
For most of the game, the offensive line gave Wentz plenty of time to throw the ball and plenty of room to step in to his throws. But the best friend of any quarterback is a good running game. If the offense can run the ball well on first and second downs, then the quarterback will be faced with manageable distances on third down and defenses vulnerable to play action passes on early downs. The committee of Eagles running backs seemed to be in sync with the O-line. The Eagles didn’t fool the Cleveland Browns with crafty blocking schemes. They just pushed them back and rather than sprinting to the point of attack, the running backs were patient and set up easier blocks for the O-line and tight ends.
Thanks to the Eagles defense, the Browns could not produce sustained offense or score consistently. Wentz never really faced a high-pressure third down on a drive that they needed to stay in the game. Running back Darren Sproles even contributed a 40-punt return giving the Eagles great field position, which led to a scoring drive.
While the jury is still out on whether Wentz is a franchise quarterback, here is what makes me optimistic about his future:
- He recognized blitzes and made quick, smart decisions. He was abnormally comfortable when the defense was coming after him. There are multiyear starters in the NFL who see a blitz coming and panic. With some development, he will turn aggressive defense into big-play offense.
- He is an accurate passer who showed the ability to fit the ball into tight windows and drop the ball in to a receiver with touch. Arm strength and passing accuracy are things that don’t improve very much. Either you can pass or you can’t, and he can. His touchdown passes are perfect examples.
- He did a nice job getting his pre-snap reads. Maybe he held the ball too long and stared down his receiver. But he was always staring in the right place. It was clear that he understood where the weakness in the coverage should be. I would guess the coaching staff didn’t give Carson a lot of autonomy to audible plays at the line of scrimmage, but the adjustments he did make were smart. In the first quarter, he flipped a running play that was going to the strong side of the formation to attack the weak side. In the second quarter, he checked from a run to a pass when he saw a favorable matchup.
Hope Wentz can build on what he did last week. He should have a slightly tougher test this week at the Chicago Bears. Not because the Bears defense is all that much more talented than the Browns. But playing on the road presents new challenges. And the Bears do have the benefit of studying Wentz’s tendencies and creating a more customized game plan.