This is the first in a semi-recurring series I’m dubbing, “Football According to Matt.” Since I graduated college and started a steady job in June of 2015, I’ve been meaning to produce more regular content for BGN but have missed that mark up to this point. My goal right now with this is to post something once a month under this banner on top of the Crunching The Numbers series I do during the season. The topics will be more of the “special interest” variety as the weekly roundup of football news is covered very thoroughly by Dave and Adam as site managers.
The inaugural post could not come at more pivotal time in recent Eagles’ history as Howie made a strong case that he’s a better wizard than Jon Dorenbos by shipping Sam Bradford to the Vikings in exchange for a first- and fourth-round draft pick. This allowed newly-drafted franchise quarterback Carson Wentz to be launched all the way from a healthy scratch to the starting lineup in the sport’s most important position. And on top of all that, it happened only eight days before the season opener.
We’ve spent a lot of time since then speculating how this affects the long-term future; namely debating the pros and cons of the “baptism by fire” versus “teach and groom” approaches of developing a quarterback. The upcoming season has become more or less an afterthought as much of the fanbase dismissed 2016 as a wash a long time ago. But where’s the fun in that? Why not talk about what our rookie head coach and rookie quarterback will do for us right now?
First off, regardless of what side of the “sit vs. start” debate you are on with Wentz, the BIG picture is being done the right way. Carson is tied to Pederson - neither one is a holdover from a previous regime, which is a strategy I speculated Lurie might take way back after the Eagles got crushed by the Lions on Thanksgiving. Everyone is on the same page with the team’s vision and they’ll either succeed together or fail together. No ugly discord to come apart at the seams like there was with Howie and Kelly.
That vision up to this point has manifested itself in an interesting way. The addition of Jim Schwartz on defense and the retention of Dave Fipp on special teams means that we can reasonably expect both of those units to be, at the very least, competent. The hire of an offensive-minded coach in Doug Pederson and the moves to draft Carson Wentz and flip Bradford leave the offense much less stable. As a result, the Eagles’ potential this season more or less lies on the shoulders of the young quarterback and his head coach. Let’s take a look at both of those people individually, starting with the franchise quarterback.
Here’s the career college stat line of a quarterback who won a national championship the year before he got drafted:
395/628; 62.9%; 5741 Yards (9.1 YPA); 52 TD, 12 INT
Who does it belong to? Wentz? Nope.
Try Cam Newton.
If you were fooled by that, don’t worry; Newton’s and Wentz’ stat lines in college are actually quite similar (in passing, anyway). Does this mean Wentz will have a similar professional career to Newton? Of course not. Newton won a championship in the powerhouse SEC conference while Wentz made his name playing against (and with) second-tier competition in the FCS at North Dakota State. But Newton’s story does show that all of this supposed “inexperience” with passing attempts is not necessarily indicative of anything. Newton had one unbelievable year in college and it was good enough to get him drafted first overall. Instead of resting on his laurels he put in the work to become an All-Pro NFL quarterback, driven by a strong desire to win.
That desire to win is something Newton and Wentz share, and it’s a big reason why I am so high on him. Everything I’ve read about Wentz that’s impressed me has been his off-the-field character profiles rather than his in-game performances. The quarterback is responsible for setting the tone on offense, and that can sometimes be almost as valuable as the quarterback play itself. Even though his lone preseason performance was uneven and truncated by injury, it was impossible not to notice the energy he brought to the field. This energy will certainly be marred by his rookie growing pains (of which there will be many), but I don’t think it will take long for his confidence and swagger to elevate the play of the offense.
Carson Wentz has the ‘X’-factor to elevate the play of his teammates.
And that is ultimately why I am a big believer in Carson Wentz. I am tired of watching our talented (on paper) offense underachieve week in and week out behind the leadership of flaccid quarterbacks who either dump it off, toss picks, take sacks, or fumble the ball away. I want to see my quarterback show everyone else in the huddle he wants to WIN, dammit, and they better do everything they can to make that happen. Everything I’ve read and seen about Wentz shows that he is that type of quarterback. To paraphrase Frank Reich, he has that ‘X’-factor that elevates the play of those around him. Time will tell whether or not this perception is reality, but at this point I don’t think we have any real evidence to suggest that it’s not.
Of course, an ‘X’-factor can never replace actual play on the field. This is where things will most likely get ugly as Wentz transitions from FCS to the NFL. I have him penciled in at tossing upwards of twenty picks, and he’ll take his fair share of cringe-worthy sacks as he tries too hard to keep a busted play alive. However, as long as he doesn’t get rattled (more on that later) I don’t think he’ll get timid and become afraid to make gutsy runs or push the ball downfield. Additionally, I am totally buying into the profile of him as a quick study. I would not be surprised at all if he settles in and shakes off a good part of his rookie mistakes by Week 6.
But as I mentioned before, Wentz is only one half of the equation. The guy who is sending the play into his helmet radio is just as important.
I’m more concerned about Pederson than I am about Wentz. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the hire at the time, and I still do now. It wasn’t a flashy hire, but it felt like the right one. Doug is a players’ coach (being a former player himself), which is a nice departure from the authoritarian regime of Kelly, and he is easy to root for with his laid-back, genuine attitude. I even gave him a pass for his clumsy press conferences. The big hooplah over that never made sense to me: Kelly was a master at handling the Philly press, and what did he do for this franchise?
Regardless, I am worried that he hasn’t quite found the line between “players’ coach” and “player who is a coach.” His lukewarm responses to the Agholor and Bradham legal situations make me question if he’s doing enough to make sure the players know he isn’t a doormat. Additionally, his depiction of Carson Wentz being upended on a run in a preseason game as “kinda cool” does not really demonstrate the maturity a head coach is expected to have.
I’m not in a position to really speculate whether or not the players respect Pederson, which is ultimately the most important connection between a coach and his roster. I’m just calling attention to some of his behaviors that have given me pause. He absolutely deserves the benefit of the doubt there, and I really hope he puts my worries to rest.
On that note, I won’t even go into his abilities as a game manager or play caller. We know he called the second half of the Chiefs’ games last year, but is that really enough to judge him on? He was taking over when the game was in progress and the team had made halftime adjustments. His true test will come when he’s responsible for the whole game.
What I WILL go into is how Pederson uses the offensive personnel, because this is where I think he will really shine. We may bemoan the lack of talent on offense, but the current roster actually has good potential to help smooth over Wentz’ rookie transition. Darren Sproles and Josh Huff both have excellent YAC ability which could garner a thirty yard gain from a pass that traveled seven yards through the air. The three tight end sets give the offense a lot of versatility to either run the ball down the opponents’ throats or utilize the mismatches caused by lining up Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, or Trey Burton up against a linebacker. New addition Dorial Green Beckham gives the Eagles a legitimate threat in the red zone, and Ryan Mathews’ downhill style of running will limit long down-and-distance situations often caused by more slippery rushers who take big losses trying to elude defenders in the backfield. There will also be designed runs for Wentz, but I hope he limits those to help protect his quarterback. If Pederson is smart about his personnel groupings (which I fully expect him to be), Carson will be in a great position to succeed.
Bringing it all Together
With all of that being said (and there was a lot of it), let’s revisit the original question. What can we expect from the Eagles’ 2016 season? Realistically, I have them pegged as a five- or six-win team. But I also expect the Eagles to surprise me this season in a good way (don’t think too hard about that one). So I’ll boil down the Eagles’ outlook into three statements:
- Carson Wentz will make a strong push for Offensive Rookie of the Year
- The Eagles will win eight games this season (including the Monday night game against the Packers)
- They will be playing meaningful football in December
So that’s my take (all 1700 words of it). But what say you? What are your expectations for the Eagles? Sound off in the comments below!