This time last year the Eagles and Carson Wentz were flying high, in their bye week at 3-0 and Wentz looking like the QB the Eagles drafted him to be. The season then immediately went south as his supporting cast fell apart, dragging down Wentz and bringing out the critics in full force. Heading into the season, the excitement went up another notch as Wentz got weapons to throw to and was prime to take the second year leap that many players do.
If it was fair to criticize Wentz at this point last year, then it’s fair to reevaluate those critiques at the same point this year. There’s 12 more games to go, but so far Wentz is putting those criticisms to bed.
Wentz and the Eagles can’t win without defense
In a great illustration of small sample size, arbitrary end points and obviousness, Wentz was criticized for not winning when the defense doesn’t play lights out.
Just two weeks ago, Wentz was 0-10 when the defense gave up 20+ points. Of the 15 quarterbacks sampled in Football Outsiders’ look at QBs in their first 18 starts, only two, Dak Prescott and Matt Ryan, had non-losing records when the defense gave up 20+ points. Those two had something else in common: 1600 yard rushers to hand the ball off to. (And both regressed in year two.) Everyone else predictably struggled, from Peyton Manning to Derek Carr. Wentz was also 8-0 when the defense gave up less than 20 points, the third QB with a perfect record along with Ryan and Andrew Luck. Only Derek Carr, who in his rookie season had a leading rusher with just 534 yards and whose starting WRs were James Jones and Andre Holmes, had a losing record when his defense kept the other team to fewer than 20 points. 11 of the 15 QBs had a winning percentage of over .800.
What this all tells us is that young quarterbacks play well when the defense plays great, and they play poorly when the defense doesn’t. A shocking revelation.
Now, two games later, Wentz is 2-10 when the defense gives up 20+ points, a record in line with Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, David Carr, Derek Carr, and Jameis Winston. Alter a sample size and you get a different result. And why set the threshold at 20 points? Because it’s a nice round number. Reduce it to 19 and the results change, with Wentz picking up another win. Move it to 21, a more logical goalpost in football since it’s three touchdowns, and Newton has just 1 win. Again, alter a sample size and you unsurprisingly get a different set of values.
He’s the reason why his supporting cast sucked
This year, Cole Beasley is 72nd.
The best Eagles WR is Nelson Agholor, who is 9th.
It would seem that Carson Wentz has greatly improved.
His QBR is bad
Among QBs who have started every game, Dak Prescott has the highest QBR (82.6) and Carson Wentz has the lowest (45.7).— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) November 20, 2016
There’s no arguing that in 2016, Carson Wentz’s QBR was bad, finishing the season 26th. In 2017?
Cross that one off the list too.
Those air yards
Everyone’s favorite stat from 2016.
Air yards is a descriptive stat, not a predictive one. Its use is in telling us what happened, in describing how a quarterback has played, not how they are going to play. Additionally, coaches who call a heavy screen game will weigh down their quarterbacks. Alex Smith and Sam Bradford show poorly because they have been checkdown artists through multiple teams, play callers and supporting casts, and we can expect them to continue to be that throughout their careers. Even this season, with Smith QBing an offense that is the talk of the league, he’s still the same old Alex Smith. Smith is further hurt with screen happy Andy Reid, while Sean Payton calls a lot of screens that drag Drew Brees down a notch. And everyone has their ups and downs. Smith and Bradford’s best seasons are above average, while many near the top of the chart’s worst season are worse than a typical season from Bradford and Smith. There’s a lot of noise, and that’s to be expected in the NFL where every season is 16 games and rosters and play callers are regularly turned over.
Which is exactly the case with Wentz. Last season, he had no legitimate deep threat. Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff weren’t threatening anyone on the outside. Dorial Green-Beckham was awful, and Bryce Treggs wasn’t a solution. Further handcuffing him, Doug Pederson called a lot of screens last season.
Now, with two starting receivers who can get the ball deep and open up the middle of the field, Wentz is able to throw to all levels of the field, and doing so. After spending the 2016 season near the bottom of the list of air yards, he’s near the top. And he’s been freed from the chains of a screen pass heavy offense. Last season, Eagles running backs caught 21% of Wentz’s completions. This season, just 12%, the same as Jameis Winston, who was among league leaders in air yards in 2016 and 2017.
Other assorted nonsense
The arguments above at least had some basis in statistics, however faulty or contextually narrow they may be. The unemployed by the NFL tape grinders who took every opportunity to slag Wentz last season are another story. The self proclaimed QB experts that said that Wentz was inferior to Vernon Adams, who has been traded twice in the CFL; or inferior to Christian Hackenberg, who spent 15 games last season as a healthy scratch; or inferior to Cardale Jones, who is already on his second NFL team; or inferior to Connor Cook, who is still a third string QB; or inferior to Dalyn Williams, who didn’t even make it to a training camp last year; or inferior to Paxton Lynch, who two coaching staffs have decided is worse than Trevor Siemian; or inferior to Nate Sudfeld, who is now Wentz’s backup’s backup; or that the Eagles lost the trade with the Browns for Wentz, look even worse now. Similar points can be made about the reborn Jared Goff, but the Eagles weren’t in position to draft him.
Wentz is not yet a finished product. His deep ball must get better, there are improvements to be made on holding onto the ball for too long and he’s left some easy completions on the field by taking high risk shots. Which for now is fine, no quarterback is completely polished in their second year. But a quarter of the way through his second season, he’s clearly an improved player both statistically and to the eye. He’s proving just about every criticism of him wrong.