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January 17, 2021
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Eagles long to see the 2017 Carson Wentz who electrified the NFL

Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson hesitated last week when asked whether quarterback Carson Wentz would start Monday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). He offered a couple of hedges during a back-and-forth with the media before finally saying Wentz would remain under center.

You’re not making that move, right Doug, to a different quarterback?

“Not today on Wednesday, no.”

Possibly for Monday?

“I’m focused right now on getting better today. I don’t know. I mean, I would say, no, no, no.”

Wentz is your starter for Monday?

“Yes.”

The fact that Pederson is even being questioned about a change at quarterback — and it’s happening fairly often now — shows how sharply the dynamics have shifted since the last time these teams met in January in the wild-card round of the playoffs. It’s sparked by Wentz’s poor play and the second-round selection of quarterback Jalen Hurts in April’s NFL draft. That Pederson was loose in his commitment only furthers speculation that the wheels of change are churning under the surface should the ship not be righted, and soon.

Some change is already occurring. Hurts saw an increase in reps at quarterback with the first-team offense during practice this week, according to sources, an indication he is likely to have a bigger role at QB against Seattle. He has been used primarily as a gadget player and has thrown two passes this season, but signs point to him getting more opportunities. Any success will further the pressure on Wentz to perform in order to stave off split allegiances within the locker room.

Wentz was knocked out of the 2019 playoff game against Seattle with a concussion in the first quarter as a result of a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jadeveon Clowney. He entered that game on fire, tossing seven touchdowns to no interceptions over the final four regular-season games while working with a bunch of practice squad players to lift an injury-riddled Eagles team into the postseason. He had ascended to the role of primary leader, appeared to have finally shaken the shadow of Nick Foles and seemed poised to reestablish himself as one of the NFL’s best QBs.

Wentz’s fifth season in the NFL was supposed to be a launchpad but has instead been a trapdoor. His play has plummeted into the league’s abyss. He is first among all players in interceptions (14), fumbles (10) and sacks (40), ranks 32nd in completion percentage (58.4%), 31st in yards per attempt (6.2) and has the worst off-target percentage (23%) among all qualifiers, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The ball isn’t coming out on time (Wentz’s average time before a pass this year is 2.90 seconds, his highest for that metric in the four seasons of NFL Next Gen Stats data). His mechanics are out of sync. His decision-making is off kilter. And the Eagles are floundering at 3-6-1.

What happened to Wentz, the swagger-rich playmaker who once dominated? Who is responsible for his disappearance? And is he gone forever, or will he surface in time to salvage this season and a host of jobs in the process?

All the tools are there

Of all the signal-callers Hue Jackson has evaluated, Wentz achieved something no one else could.

Jackson, the coach of the Cleveland Browns when Wentz was coming out of North Dakota State in 2016, sent scaled-down versions of his playbook to prospective QBs and gave them three days to memorize it. When they met, he asked them to conceptualize it on the white board within three minutes. He has done this with at least 50 quarterbacks, he said, and none was able to beat the clock with the exception of Wentz.

“He did it in 2 minutes and 49 seconds. I’ve never had anybody do that,” Jackson told ESPN. “He is one of the smartest quarterbacks I’ve ever spent time with.”

Add in Wentz’s physical gifts — an agile 6-foot-5, 237-pound frame and rocket arm — and Jackson was sold that Wentz had what it took to be a very good quarterback in the NFL. Others in the Cleveland organization worried about Wentz’s lack of pedigree coming out of the FCS, and the Browns made a trade with Philadelphia to move out of the No. 2 slot. Cleveland spent the next couple of years looking foolish for that decision as Wentz ripped up the league and came a December injury shy of securing the 2017 MVP.

Though his pace slowed the next couple of seasons as he battled injuries, his production from 2017 to 2019 — 81 touchdowns to 21 interceptions — was exceptional.

“I love his physical makeup. He was everything you look for in a quarterback from a stature standpoint,” Jackson said. “He’s very intelligent. And he can make all the throws. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be or couldn’t be one of the good players in the league. So obviously, there’s something that’s missing.”

But what?

Some point to coaching. Plenty of analysts have opined Pederson is not playing to Wentz’s strengths enough, and there’s evidence of that. Wentz is often at his best when he’s creating outside the pocket, as an example, and yet there are few designed rollouts called for him in a given week.

The bigger issue, some on the inside would argue, is the cacophony of voices ringing in Wentz’s and Pederson’s ears. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie wanted outside opinions brought in this offseason to spice up a sagging offense, so the team hired Rich Scangarello, Andrew Breiner and Marty Mornhinweg to help Pederson and quarterbacks coach/pass game coordinator Press Taylor shape the attack. Problem is, those voices and opinions aren’t always synced up, leading to Wentz and Pederson being pulled in different and often conflicting directions. That has played a hand in why the offense lacks identity and flow.

It’s also questionable as to whether this is the right grouping for Wentz. When he was at his best, he had John DeFilippo as his quarterbacks coach and Frank Reich as his offensive coordinator. It was kind of a good cop/bad cop situation where DeFilippo would push him hard when needed while Reich was the more gentle guiding hand. Wentz is strong-willed when it comes to what he thinks is right — a Type A personality — and that group knew when to coax and when to push back, with the primary goal of getting him to play within the structure of the offense.

Taylor has a good reputation but isn’t known to have the same type of aggressive coaching style. He is close with Wentz, and has earned trust, but it can be argued the bad cop is sorely missing.

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Damien Woody isn’t convinced that Carson Wentz or Jalen Hurts can have success in this Eagles offense.

Then there’s the addition of Hurts — the dynamic, uber-confident rookie out of Oklahoma. The Eagles sent shock waves through the NFL by using the No. 53 overall pick on him in April, not long after giving Wentz a four-year, $128 million extension in June 2019. Even though Eagles brass said he wasn’t a threat to Wentz’s standing, the move ran the risk of sending mixed signals. If Wentz shares the same type of camaraderie with Hurts as he does with other recent backups like Josh McCown and Nate Sudfeld, it does not manifest itself publicly, as the two are rarely seen interacting on the practice field or on the sideline in-game.

That said, Wentz needs to own the bulk of this. Yes, the coaching could be better and injuries have transformed his supporting cast yet again, including along the offensive line. But he is showing some startling regression and is making mistakes that should have been flushed out of his system already.

“He’s loose with the ball in the pocket, he’s loose throwing it down the field,” ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen said. “He’s trying to fit the ball into small or contested windows when there’s other options. … I don’t think he’s seeing things all the time. … He’ll have a read open and he’ll hold the football.

“You need smart decision-making and quick decision-making with the quarterback position. It doesn’t matter if they’re running the veer, when it gets to a point where you’re not getting execution from the players, the scheme is going to come into play, but you got to have the execution first and it’s gonna start with the quarterback.”

Favre or Trubisky?

Wentz’s precipitous drop in play puts him in select — and familiar — territory. He led the league in QBR in 2017 (78.5), a number that has dropped to the fourth lowest in the league this season (48.2). According to ESPN Stats & Information, only five QBs have gone from a top-five to a bottom-five total QBR ranking within two or fewer seasons since the metric was first tracked in 2011: Brett Favre, Mitchell Trubisky, Foles, Case Keenum and Matt Schaub.

The good news is Favre, who happened to be Wentz’s favorite quarterback growing up, did this twice and is proof that gunslingers lead a mercurial existence. The bad news is that Wentz’s career numbers are eerily similar to the other four QBs in the group, suggesting 2017 might have been an outlier and expectations should be tempered.

Wentz has a starting record of 17-19-1 since that Superman 2017 campaign. He has suffered three significant injuries in that time, including a torn ACL/LCL in his knee, a stress fracture in his back and the concussion against Seattle, which he politely declined to talk about this week.

“I don’t like to dwell on injuries, and frankly, a head injury is not a fun thing to relive,” he said.

Wentz was in his second season when he was ducking under defensive linemen, muscling through would-be tacklers, sprinting outside and throwing ropes downfield at a dizzying clip. He still has some of that magic in him, but to say he’s just as spry and twitchy would be disingenuous.

What he certainly hasn’t lost is that big arm or high football IQ, two of the traits that made the organization fall in love with him in 2016. While they did spend a second-round pick on Hurts, the Eagles’ brass entered the season believing Wentz would lead them to their next Super Bowl, and that one day, health allowing, they might be in the stands as Wentz is enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Even if Hurts does see a bump in playing time in the short term, the Eagles are financially committed to Wentz for the foreseeable future. Their success still rests in his hands.

On Monday night, under the lights, he has a chance to reassure Philadelphia there is still reason to dream big.

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