Originally, the title of this column was “Wentz poised for breakthrough year with Eagles.” Talk about some groundbreaking, high-level insight. There’s what, maybe three or four-dozen other sportswriters making the same dynamite-bold prediction from the Novacare Complex in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. Here’s a few more banner headlines in the same vein just as original that you can take to the bank: it’s going to be cold in Fargo this winter, and President Trump will continue blasting tweets that light up the “Breaking News” tickers on cable news like a Las Vegas marquee.
Where does that leave us, then? For starters, it’s true, even if cliché, that Wentz is poised for a breakthrough season after showing flashes of brilliance coupled with some rookie flubs in guiding the Eagles to a 7-9 record in his inaugural campaign. Keep in mind, this time last year, Wentz was scheduled to spend his rookie season carrying a clipboard and learning from Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel. The thinking was that Wentz, who led North Dakota State to back-to-back national titles in his two years as a starter, needed some seasoning and development after his selection as the second overall draft pick. An injury in the pre-season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a hairline fracture to Wentz’s ribs, seemingly reinforced this “redshirt” plan.
As Kevin Patra penned in an August 14, 2016, story for NFL.com, “Given their quarterback situation, and cost they paid to trade up to draft Wentz, the Eagles won’t rush the rookie back. The Eagles originally planned to redshirt Wentz for the season, with Bradford starting and veteran Daniels the backup. That plan might be forced if the rib injury lingers at all.”
The injury didn’t linger, however. Only eight days before the regular season opener, the timetable for Wentz taking the reins for a team that has struggled mightily to find a franchise quarterback since Donovan McNabb, was drastically expedited. Bradford was sent packing to Minnesota and suddenly Wentz, the heir apparent, was heir apparent no longer. Instead, the Bismarck, North Dakota, native was squarely in the pilot’s seat in what is, at least early on, looking like one of the savviest front office moves by any team in recent years.
Wentz set an NFL record for rookie completions (379), and his 3,782 passing yards was the fourth-highest total ever for a rookie, behind only Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Jameis Winston, all bona fide franchise quarterbacks. Wentz also showed his durability, starting all 16 regular-season games, the first Eagles quarterback to achieve that since McNabb started every game in 2008. Wentz’s performance in Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers set the league abuzz as he connected on 23-of-31 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns, including a heady, Aaron Rodgers-esque 73-yard touchdown to Darren Sproles. Here’s the recap of that play–a play that exhibited Wentz’s game-changing potential–from my column in last October’s Bison Illustrated. “Pressured from his backside, Wentz side-stepped one defender, moved up into the pocket to the right, and used his eyes and the threat of scrambling to freeze Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier. Once Shazier committed, Wentz lofted a perfect 25-yard toss, hitting Sproles in stride on the wheel route–a route often used by the Bison in their offensive game plans, including Chase Morlock’s late touchdown against Iowa. The touchdown gave the Eagles a 20-3 lead and they never looked back. While it looked seamless, it’s a play few rookie quarterbacks make.”
That play wasn’t a fluke. As Wentz explained during the post-game press conference, “I was reading to the field. I was about to pull the trigger [and run], and someone from the Steelers stepped up, I had to step up and avoid him and just made a play from there.”
Great quarterbacks make things like that happen when plays break down. It’s one of the things that separate guys like Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Matt Ryan from the next tier of quarterbacks. Wentz’s description of the play gives insight into his mindset, which shows how far ahead of the curve his understanding of the game is. “Even when a play breaks down, I’m always looking, that’s where the big plays are happening, me scrambling, yeah, I might get 5, 10, 15, 20 yards, I’m not that fast, though. I want to get it to the guys that can make plays, and we always want to make plays when they’re there and that’s what happened,” said Wentz.
“Although the Eagles playoff hopes rest squarely on Wentz’s broad shoulders and rocket arm, the second-year starter from NDSU has shown he’s capable of carrying the load.”
This is the sort of play and my belief that Wentz can repeat the same on a weekly basis, why the Eagles will make the playoffs this year for the first time since 2013. Sure, you can’t sugarcoat some of his rough outings, like a three interception performance against Cincinnati last December. But neither can you underestimate the importance of having an entire offseason to prepare as the Eagles quarterback and leader versus getting a phone call a week before the season starts–while laying in a corn field hunting geese in New Jersey–telling you that you just became the starting quarterback for a team in one of the biggest media markets in the United States. Combined with Jeffrey Lurie, Howie Roseman, and the rest of the Eagles brass surrounding Wentz with some offensive firepower, the Eagles are primed to challenge Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East title.
During the offseason, the Eagles added former Pro Bowl receiver Alshon Jeffery, and veteran receiver Torrey Smith and seasoned running back LeGarrette Blount. Smith and Blount each have Super Bowl rings, Blount winning two with the New England Patriots, and Smith one with the Baltimore Ravens. Blount led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns in 2016. The addition of two big-time targets should bolster an Eagles receiving corps that led the league in drop rate last season, while Blount gives them a featured back, particularly near the goal line, something the Eagles lacked despite finishing 11th in the league in total rushing yards.
In April, just after the Eagles acquired Jeffery, Wentz summarized the difference between years one and two in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Mentally, it’s a whole different ball game,” said Wentz. “It’s not coming in trying to learn a whole different playbook and be overwhelmed with all that as well as all the things that come with being a rookie in the locker room. Having that confidence and knowing that playbook and being able to dive into it even more, I’m really understanding and growing with these relationships with these receivers, these tight ends, everybody.”
With this confidence and understanding, Wentz, who is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL already, will make a big leap in his game. Wentz will also have the advantage of being protected by an offensive line that Pro Football Talk ranked as the top unit in the league heading into training camp.
Although the Eagles playoff hopes rest squarely on Wentz’s broad shoulders and rocket arm, the second-year starter from NDSU has shown he’s capable of carrying the load. The late Bill Walsh, who built the San Francisco 49ers teams of the 1980s and is regarded as one of the best offensive minds football has ever produced, once told Stanford head coach David Shaw that one of the most important things in a quarterback are the things that can’t be quantified. “This kid is ultra-competitive, he has a feel for the play of the game, he has a sense for timing. He has a sense for pushing up in the pocket. You’re looking for those things that you can’t teach,” relayed Shaw of Walsh’s instructions.
Go back and watch Wentz’s touchdown to Sproles against Pittsburgh. While it’s only one play of hundreds during a long season, it’s a portent of big things to come for Wentz and the Eagles. It’s why they win the NFC. How’s that for a bold prediction. Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!