The Eagles are halfway through the 2016 season, which gives us a good amount of games to issue a report card. We’ll take a different angle on this than others do, rather than assign a letter grade for an individual or unit, we’ll look at the offense (and then the defense, lumping special teams in with each) from the standpoint of what Needs Improvement, what has been Satisfactory, what’s been Good and what is at an Accomplished level. Yeah, the kind you got as a little kid. Seems fitting for a rebuilding team.
When Carson Wentz was given the starting QB job, it was safe to assume that the Eagles would be a run heavy team to protect him as much as possible. There were pieces in place: Ryan Mathews was a career 4.5 yards per carry runner prior to this year, and when healthy was able to carry a starting RB load, Darren Sproles had made a career out of being a highly efficient backup, the team raved about Wendell Smallwood as a down the road starter, and Kenjon Barner had a preseason worth a roster spot as a utility player. And the team gave Brandon Brooks one of the highest contracts for a guard in free agency to help open lanes.
It hasn’t played out anywhere near as planned. Mathews is having the worst year of his career, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry and has been benched, Smallwood has played 5 snaps or less in 6 of 8 games, Barner is instead the 3rd running back. Brooks hasn’t been bad, but even prior to the Lane Johnson suspension the improvement he brought to the line hasn’t justified the price tag. Sproles has become the lead back, or to put it another way a 5’6” 33 year old running back will have a career year in playing time after 10 games played. That’s guaranteeing a bad running game.
Where to begin. Rueben Randle was brought in to add a veteran outside wide receiver but was so bad that he didn’t make it to final cuts, along with Chris Givens and TJ Graham. Being cut from this team’s WR group is pretty much a career ender. They’re probably not the last. After a season opener that made Nelson Agholor look like he might be something, he’s done nothing to warrant keeping a roster spot. Dorial Green-Beckham might turn into a useful player, but so far he’s looked like the player he was advertised as being in Tennessee: good in spurts but usually lazy and uninterested. His unwillingness to fight for the ball betrays his physical gifts. As a receiver, Josh Huff will not be missed. Jordan Matthews remains both the best WR on the team and not a viable option on the outside and continues to be an inconsistent pass catcher. Bryce Treggs was a breath of fresh air in his debut but to count on him going forward is premature at best.
At tight end, the situation is just as bad. Entering the season it seemed the Eagles would be running a tight end heavy offense, making use of their actual depth at the position. They haven’t. Zach Ertz missed time with an injury but when he’s been available Doug Pederson has barely used 3 TE sets. In some ways, it’s hard to blame him. At full health Ertz has been a huge disappointment on the heels of his contract that made him one of the highest paid TEs. He has yet to catch a touchdown and his 10.7 yards per reception is a poor rate for a starting TE. Brent Celek has played just 27% of snaps while Ertz has been available, and has been targeted only 8 times this season, half of which were in one game. That’s too low for perhaps the most reliable pass catcher on the team. Trey Burton showed a lot of promise in the preseason but struggled with drops. What seemed a strength hasn’t been.
The worst thing you can do to a young QB is play him before he’s ready. The second worst thing you can do to a young QB is play him before his offensive line is ready. Carson Wentz has certainly been ready, and the offensive line has too despite an injury and a suspension. It hasn’t been good, if it was we’d move it up a notch. The Eagles lackluster running game has been in part due to a lack of holes being opened by the offensive line. But the pass protection has been good enough. Carson Wentz is not being consistently overwhelmed by pass rushers, though there is plenty of room for improvement up front. Jason Kelce continues to struggle with larger DTs, Halapoulivaati Vaitai needs to be caddied and Jason Peters is showing his age. There hasn’t been a game where the Eagles have won because they won on offensive line, but there also hasn’t been a game they lost that the OL can be pinned as a major culprit either. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just... satisfactory.
There were plenty of warning signs that Carson Wentz would be a bust. He came from the FCS, the adjustment to the talent level in the NFL might be too steep for him. He was short on experience, starting only 23 games. He played on a stacked team at North Dakota, they won three straight titles before he was the starter, if they were an FBS team they’d be a perennial bowl team. And he really wasn’t ask to throw much at NDSU, further limiting his relatively small body of work.
And immediately he put all those concerns to rest. In his debut he looked like he belonged in the NFL, and after just 8 games in the NFL, Carson Wentz is a legitimate NFL QB. A comparison of the first eight starts of Wentz and recent busts who started multiple seasons shows that Wentz is comfortably a competent starting QB.
Wentz hasn’t been flawless, but all of his mistakes are the usual, correctable rookie ones that you would expect. He’s thrown a few balls too high, but otherwise has been pretty accurate. He’s missed a few deep throws, but he’s also made some spectacular ones. He continuously bounces back from bad starts. He no longer takes too many hits.
He’s the best player on the offense. There’s no more you can realistically ask for from a rookie QB.
Where his ceiling is will be determined and debated in the coming years, but right now, halfway through his rookie season, there’s every reason to be excited about the future.
Pederson has gotten deserved heat for his inconsistent aggressive strategies in recent weeks, and there’s other areas of concern, but overall he’s been a good rookie head coach. His main objective this year is to develop Carson Wentz, and on that he is wildly succeeding. The decision to make Wentz the starter has delivered, making Pederson and his staff, who couldn’t stop raving about Wentz, look brilliant. Everything else is almost a bonus this year.
That’s not to say there aren’t causes for concern. The team is undisciplined both on and off the field. His player usage has been questionable at times, from personnel packages to undeserved high workloads for bad players and low ones for reliable ones.
But on the whole, Pederson’s been a good rookie head coach. His team has yet to be blown out, and that’s not just because of the defense, the Eagles have scored at least 20 points in every game, and hasn’t lost by more than 7 points. His game plans have been good, his in game adjustments even better, the Eagles have scored 5 offensive touchdowns in the first half of games and 12 in the second half. And he’s done this with a rookie QB who has a terrible supporting cast.
His aggressive tendencies on 4th down will lead to games where it isn’t working, but that’s the risk. More and more fans and media members are imploring coaches to go for it on fourth down more often, when they do and fail, second guessing is hypocritical. Criticizing Pederson for being inconsistently conservative is fair game however, as was his handling of the Josh Huff situation.
But halfway through his debut season, and with the severe talent limitations his offense has, Doug Pederson has done a pretty good job to have his team a highly competitive 4-4.
One area where the Eagles actually got better as the Chip Kelly era progressed was special teams. His dedication to special teams with both roster usage and practice time paid off, but with a reduction in both it was fair to question how effective special teams would be under Doug Pederson. Through eight games, we have a clear answer, they’re still strong. Dave Fipp deserves a lot of credit for that. He’s turned Caleb Sturgis, a 77.5% field goal kicker when arrived, into one of the better kickers in the league. With a remade roster (though still holding on to key special teamers Chris Maragos, Bryan Braman, Najee Goode and Trey Burton), play hasn’t dropped off. The team has two kick return touchdowns and the team is #1 in special teams DVOA for the second time in four years under Fipp. (Note: we’ll put punts and kickoffs under defense.)
We should never have been worried. Andy Reid also valued special teams, both with the Eagles and the Chiefs, and his coaching tree has generally followed suit, Brad Childress in Minnesota, John Harbaugh in Baltimore and now Doug Pederson have all had strong special teams units.
Viewed through the lens of the 2016 being all about Carson Wentz, which it pretty much is, it’s hard to view the first half of the season as anything but a good one. Wentz looks to be the real deal, and in the NFL that’s half the game.