We all know Carson Wentz had an impressive debut. But breaking down the film was even more impressive, revealing Wentz’s precise ball placement and veteran like understanding of how to beat a defense with his mind.
Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3
There will be plenty of time to dissect the rest of the Eagles performance in their 29-10 win over the Cleveland Browns. But this was Carson Wentz’s debut game for the Eagles, so I am going to focus exclusively on his play.
Simply put, Wentz was sensational. There really is no other way to describe his first start in the NFL.
Could he have played better? Sure. Were there some throws that he missed? You bet. Can he continue to take as many hits as he did on Sunday? Absolutely not. But for a rookie making his debut — after sitting out most of preseason with an injury — Wentz passed this test with flying colors.
Here is how Wentz’s first start stacks up with other notable rookie quarterbacks (note, I did not include players like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, who did not start their first game until after their rookie season):
By at least this measure, Wentz compares favorably to every quarterback on this list save for Newton and Mariota. That of course doesn’t guarantee anything — it’s only one start against potentially the worst team in the NFL — but it was encouraging, nonetheless.
It goes without say that we should expect regression at some point this year. Mariota had a historic first start by almost any measure, completing an absurd 86.87% of his passes for 4 touchdowns (on only 15 attempts!) and a college-like quarterback rating of 158.3. He followed that up by going 21/37 for 257, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, and a QB Rating of 96.3 in his second start. But eventually, he came back to earth with a handful of bad games – throwing more interceptions than touchdowns against Buffalo and Miami in weeks 4 and 5, respectively.
I wouldn’t at all be surprised if we see a similar pattern from Wentz. In fact, I would be more surprised if he didn’t regress at some point. That’s how this works with rookie QBs, even those destined for greatness.
One final stat before getting to the tape: Wentz threw for over 250 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in his first start of his career. Bradford had only one game last year out of 14 (Week 4 against the Redskins) where he accomplished that feat, and he was in his fifth season.
Now to the tape.
All offseason, we heard the Eagles organization rave about Carson Wentz’s intelligence. The 4.0 GPA; the impressive wunderlic score; a quick study in the film room. It’s hard to separate facts from a team that is trying to hype up a player they just traded a boat load of picks to acquire.
But almost immediately, Wentz validated that praise by showing an advanced understanding of the game. On his first drive of the game, Wentz was faced with a 2nd & 4 at the Browns 30 yard line. He had trip wide receivers split out to the top of the screen in a designed bubble screen to Darren Sproles. But Wentz recognized that he did not have the numbers in his favor, as the Browns had three defenders in man defense on that side of the field to cover the Eagles three receivers.
So Wentz audibled out of the play, switching instead to a hand-off to Kenjon Barner. The play wasn’t a huge success, but it was better than what would have happened had he stayed with the screen.
Just look at Sproles’ man keying on the WR screen. Had Wentz not called the audible, that 2 yard gain would have been a 2+ yard loss. But that was avoided because Wentz recognized the defense and got out of a bad play.
On the very next play, the Eagles were faced with a 3rd & 2. Wentz pulled off his best Aaron Rodgers impersonation, using a hard count to draw a defender offsides and get the first down.
This type of play is impressive for a 4 or 5 year veteran. But from a rookie on the first drive in his first career start? You just don’t see that very often.
In the second quarter, the Eagles were faced with a 1st & 10 inside the Browns 35 yard line. Wentz was under center with Ryan Mathews in the backfield in what looked like a designed run play.
But Wentz noticed that the Browns were in man coverage given the single high safety playing center field. So Wentz dropped back into the shotgun and audibled to a play that got Matthews in a one-v-one matchup on the outside. Notice how Agholor’s route clears out Matthews corner route and freezes the safety long enough to spring Matthews free.
In other words, a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start not only recognized what the defense was playing, but also had the wherewithal to audible to a play designed to take advantage of that scheme, and had the talent to execute it to perfection.
Yup, that’s pretty good.
Accurate Ball Placement
Wentz flashed pinpoint accuracy and the ability to fit passes through impossibly tight windows on Sunday. The best example came in the third quarter, with Wentz delivering a strike to Matthews between two defenders as he was getting hit. This is one of the best passes I saw in any game yesterday. You simply cannot throw it any better than this:
Wentz arguably should have sensed the pressure and stepped up into the pocket to avoid the hit: the space was there and Wentz stood stationary for what seemed like an eternity. But this is his first start. He will have time to improve on his pocket presence. So I am not going to crush the guy for taking the hit.
Wentz was especially accurate on passes of 10+ yards, completing 9/11 passes for 161 yards and 2 touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. On both touchdown passes, Wentz showed great touch and ball placement; lofting the pass over the defender and putting it on the outside shoulder of his receiver, where only he could catch it.
The other thing you will notice from both of these plays? Wentz uses his eyes to manipulate the safety and spring open his intended target. Watch that first clip again. Notice how Wentz stares to the top side of the right, and how the safety playing center field reacts accordingly. Then, in a moment, Wentz pivots and throws to Matthews when the safety is too far out of position to make a play.
I’ll need to watch the All-22 to confirm this, but it looked like Wentz did the same thing on the touchdown pass to Agholor. It’s hard to see Wentz’s head move from this angle, but it looks like he stares down Jordan Matthews (breaking over the middle of the field) just long enough to get the single high safety to bite. The key for me is watching Wentz’s shoulders: his shoulders open up just as he’s about to throw to Agholor, suggesting this was by design. That makes the touchdown throw all the more impressive.
Arguably the most heated discussion last year centered on how to evaluate Sam Bradford’s performance in light of the drops from his receivers. And to be fair, the Eagles did drop a lot of passes. But every quarterback deals with drops; not all of them handle the dropped passes well.
When I rewatched the tape, I conservatively counted 4 drops (2 a piece from Matthews and Sproles) against the Browns. While the drops were bad, Wentz’s reaction to them was anything but. Wentz followed two of those drops up with completions.
The first happened during the first drive of the game when the Eagles were at their own 37 yard line. On first down, Wentz hit a wide open Darren Sproles in the hands, but he dropped the football. Instead of panicking or letting the play affect him, Wentz brushed it off and threw a back shoulder fade to Zach Ertz, on his outside shoulder and away from his defender:
Ertz obviously made an impressive catch, but credit is due to Wentz for the ball placement and letting Ertz go up and make a play on the ball. That isn’t something we saw often enough from Sam Bradford last season, who seemed more concerned with avoiding mistakes than making plays.
At a critical stage in the third quarter, Jordan Matthews dropped an easy catch on third down that likely would have been enough to move the chains. Pederson went for it on 4th down, putting his rookie QB in empty set (which tells us how much confidence Pederson has in Wentz).
Again, the drop didn’t phase Wentz. He delivered a perfect strike to Ertz despite having a blitzer bearing down on him through the A gap:
Quick side note: Wentz showed in his lone preseason game that he can recognize pressure presnap and get the ball out quick. He erased any doubt about that ability during this game. By my count, the Browns blitzed Wentz 12 times. He was sacked once, but completed 11/11 passes for 123 yards, including this strike to Ertz on 4th down.
Bottom line, Wentz showed the mental toughness to not let his teammates mistakes affect his play. Put another way, Wentz still found a way to get it done despite the drops, which is a nice change from what we saw last year:
Wentz was by no means perfect. He took too many hits and had periods in the game where the offense was largely ineffective. Wentz will also face tougher tests as we get deeper into the season (hello, Seattle), so we should expect some regression.
But pointing that out feels like nitpicking what was otherwise a very impressive debut. Wentz flashed his strong arm and athleticism. But I was more impressed with his accuracy, blitz recognition and understanding of how to attack the defensive schemes that he faced. Some quarterbacks take years to figure that out. Some, like Wentz’s week 1 opponent, RGIII, never do. So to see that from Wentz during his first start? We can’t ask for more than that.