Feature photo courtesy of NRG Energy
PHILADELPHIA – To understand what’s next for Carson Wentz, let’s rewind to a moment nearly a year ago that astonished all of us. And by “us,” I mean the hardscrabble Philadelphia media—the one that has a national reputation for a nasty, unforgiving approach to a sports landscape peppered with some of the worst franchises in all of North America, the one in which I have been a card carrying member since 1993, the year after Carson Wentz was born.
I saw no fear in his eyes. It was Saturday, September 3, 2016, eight days before the opener, and veteran quarterback Sam Bradford had just been traded to the Minnesota Vikings. Wentz had just been elevated to starting quarterback, and he had no fear. He had that placid “I got this” look of a fighter pilot. I’d seen that look. Before becoming a reporter, I was a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. Indeed, I often—unfairly, I guess —measure a young man’s heart and gumption by whether he could fill a military uniform. If he weren’t playing in the NFL, Carson Wentz could easily be flying F-18’s. No fear.
That morning, I texted Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and asked him whether Wentz was ready to become the Eagles starter. He gave me a two-word reply: “Born ready.” And then I hustled down to the Eagles Novacare training facility to talk to Wentz myself, one on one. It would be the third time I had a personal interview with him—once on the day he was drafted, once at training camp that July and now this, eight days before he was to be introduced at Lincoln Financial Field as the opening-day starter in Philadelphia, which I affectionately call The City of Brotherly Shove.
I could see Wentz liked this spot he was in—almost like he knew it was coming. “I have respect for this,” he told me, “and that’s going to help me succeed.” Wow, I thought, what rookie says that?
Then, on Opening Day, in a town that’s never won a Super Bowl, among fans that are nearly impossible to seduce, Carson Wentz never blinked. Opening drive against the lowly Cleveland Browns: touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews—a tear drop 19-yarder that floated out of the sky like some higher power was offering a cleansing rain, to wash away the years of doubt and frustration and open the floodgates of optimism. Wentz and Matthews are best friends—they even pray together in the same church. It was the first time the Eagles had scored on an opening drive in any game in eight years. Now we were all singing from the same hymnal.
At that moment, one of my colleagues in the press box turned around, smiled, and said to me, “Welcome to Wentzlvania.”
Hard act to follow, right? Yes, it proved to be. For Carson Wentz, the 2016 season fizzled to a disappointing finish. We all know why. His starting right tackle was suspended for 10 games. His receivers couldn’t catch a cold. The coaches asked him to do too much. Wentz wound up with 607 pass attempts, second most of any rookie quarterback in the history of professional football.
But he didn’t flinch.
No excuses. No complaints. Carson Wentz showed no fear. And he won over this reporter and a lot of others, too. And the city is his. He owns it.
Which brings up our original question: Where does he go from here?
Well, I’m a reporter, so I asked three people I respect the most: Dick Vermeil, Ron Jaworski and Greg Cosell, the film study guru who has been producing the “NFL Matchup” show for the better part of three decades.
Let’s start with Cosell and this fact: Carson Wentz completed only 46 percent of his passes to wide receivers, the lowest rate in the league last season.
Now, most of that was not Wentz’ fault. For the most part, his receivers were just not open and not reliable. But Wentz must improve in two specific areas, according to Cosell.
“From a purely football standpoint, Carson Wentz needs to tighten up his footwork and his delivery,” Cosell said. “That’s one. Number two, he needs to be more judicious in his decision making, channel his decision making based on the game situation—until he understands intuitively what he should be doing with the football as the game situation dictates.”
In the off-season, to tweak his mechanics, Wentz worked out with quarterback whisperer and Motion Mechanics Instructor at 3DQB Adam Dedeaux on the West Coast. From what I’ve seen in spring practices, the fine-tuning worked. The ball came out more quickly and he seemed to be opening up his front foot so that he could push off with more power and authority with the back foot. It’s working.
“I like what I see,” Pederson told me. “He’s driving the deep ball better.”
Vermeil told me this: “Carson Wentz has the potential to be one of the truly great ones. I mean truly great. Number one area of improvement I want to see this year is his accuracy downfield. And he needs receivers who make all the catches, even the tough ones.”
To help, the Eagles added two veteran wide receivers in free agency: Alshon Jeffery, who looks like Eagles legend Harold Carmichael (he’s wearing No. 17, Carmichael’s old number), and Torrey Smith, a true burner. In spring camp, both of them caught every pass thrown to them. Remember, last season, Eagles led the division in dropped passes with 31.
Fact No. 2: The Dallas Cowboys, who won the NFC East last year, helped their rookie quarterback, Dak Prescott, by running the football 46 percent of the time, the most in the league. The Eagles ran it 38 percent of the time—ranked 17th in the NFL last year. Prescott threw just 459 passes in 2016—fewest in the division. Dallas didn’t ask Dak to do too much.
“I think the Eagles need more of the B-word on offense: balance,” said Jaworski, the former Eagles quarterback. “If they run the ball more and more effectively, Carson Wentz will be more successful.”
Jaws told me that in the spring, just before the NFL Draft, thinking that the Eagles might try to move up in the first round again in 2017 and select a top running back. They tried but could not pull the trigger on a deal.
Instead, they grabbed free agent LeGarrette Blount, the running back let go by the Super Bowl champion Patriots. Blount will help, but Pederson must be committed to running the football. I’m not convinced yet that he’s convinced yet that he’s got to do that. And that could be problematic for Wentz. I hope I’m wrong.
Fact No. 3: Last season, 72 percent of the NFL’s games were one-score games, highest in league history. The Cowboys were 7-2 in one-score games. The Eagles were 1-6, tied with the Chicago Bears for worst in the league.
For me, in year two for both Wentz and his head coach, there must be a coordinated effort to improve fourth-quarter game management—and again, the young quarterback needs help here. It’s up to Pederson to improve in this critical area. Last season, Pederson’s play-calling in all three road games within the division played a major role in the unfortunate outcomes. All three were losses that coulda been, shoulda been-wins that woulda, coulda put Wentz in the playoffs in his rookie year.
Final factoid: There has not been a repeat division champ in the NFC East since 2004—12 years. By that measure, the Cowboys are out and won’t repeat. The division is wide open. And the Eagles front office has muscled up the roster to help Carson Wentz 2.0.
When I saw him on the last day of mandatory minicamp on June 13, which happened to be my 61st birthday as I embarked on my 25th year covering the NFL, I said to young Mr. Wentz—who I’ve come to respect in a way I didn’t think could be possible—so what do you think this year?
“Everything is in place,” he said, “sky’s the limit.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sal Paolantonio has been a staple at ESPN for more than two decades. He’s been on the forefront of Philadelphia Eagles news since the early 1990s when he covered the team for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s hosted “NFL Matchup” at the Worldwide Leader in Sports and has been featured on nearly every NFL show ESPN has produced since he joined the network in 1995. The national correspondent for ESPN is also the author of three books. Most notably, his best-selling “How Football Explains America” was published in 2008 and takes you through the journey of football’s relevance in the United States.
Follow Sal on Instagram at salpalespn