A lot of people have said a lot of things about the 2020 Philadelphia Eagles offense. Not much of it has been complimentary.
Carson Wentz ha been horrible. Doug Pederson’s play calling and roster management have been befuddling. The wide receivers are inexperienced and/or injured and cannot consistently get open. The offensive line is a rotating MASH unit. The offensive coaches brought in during the off-season are adding nothing of consequence. Jalen Hurts is delivering a spark, but his long-term viability as the team’s starting quarterback is still very much up in the air.
But there is one big question concerning the Eagles offense that has barely been mentioned this year.
What the heck is going on with Zach Ertz?
It is not a coincidence that Ertz’ steep decline in productivity and health coincided with the worst season Wentz and the offense has had since the middle of the 2016 season. Since the 2017 Super Bowl season, Ertz has been the most stable and dependable presence on the field and his absence, both in mind and body, has been overlooked as a huge reason for the struggles of the entire unit.
On last week’s Eye on the Enemy podcast, I touched on Ertz’ absence a bit (43:28 mark) and it remains true even in the wake of Hurts’ performance on Sunday against the Saints.
Zach Ertz may be the biggest reason Wentz has struggled in 2020.
From 2016-19, Ertz ranked second in the NFL among all tight ends in receptions (356), targets (507), yards (3,719), and TDs (26), behind only Travis Kelce in all categories. He’s fourth in in yards per game (63.0), and among all receivers (tight end and wideouts), he’s seventh in receptions. Here are the only players ahead of him: Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Jarvis Landry, Kelce, and Larry Fitzgerald.
Most of those guys are going to the Hall of Fame one day.
To say Ertz has been Wentz’ favorite target since Carson came into the league would be an understatement, and it’s painfully obvious Wentz has missed him desperately this year.
Ertz has played in eight of the Birds’ 13 games this season. In those eight games he’s caught 28 balls for 217 yards. Normally a dependable option in the red zone, he has just one touchdown. His 53.8% catch percentage is by far the worst of his career (his previous low was 63.2% in his 2013 rookie season), and his anemic 4.3 yards per target is also the lowest of his career, behind last year’s 6.8. It had never been below 7.5 in any other season.
Perhaps at age 30, Ertz is no longer a top tight end, but it seems difficult to believe he’s physically lost so much so quickly. Among the possible reasons for his decline: an ankle injury kept him off the field for five games and likely hampered him some time before that, perhaps a weird COVID-influenced off-season affected him more than most, or maybe a contract situation that caused him to lose focus.
Prior to the season, Ertz talked about his contract situation affecting his play on the field during summer training camp. As noted by NBC Sports’ Ruben Frank...
“I think you guys know me over the years,” Ertz said the Thursday before the Eagles’ opener. “I’m kind of an emotional guy when it comes to football. I kind of play with my heart as much as I can. Obviously it’s been frustrating at times, it’s been difficult. I’ve said all along I want to be here for the long run. I don’t know for sure if that feeling is mutual.”
In that same interview, Ertz said he let his contract status “got the best” of him for a couple days during training camp, but said he was committed to give everything he had for the city and the team.
Since his return from the ankle injury two games ago, Ertz has essentially been a ghost on the field. Against Green Bay, he played in 44% of the offense’s snaps, was targeted four times and hauled in two passes for 31 yards. Last week against New Orleans, he played 72% of the offensive snaps, was targeted just three times by Hurts and caught two passes for just eight yards.
In Ertz’ absence, Dallas Goedert stepped up as the team’s No. 1 tight end, although he also missed time this season, four games due to a foot injury. In nine games he has 39 catches for 447 yards and three touchdowns, decent if not spectacular numbers for the former second round pick. He’s undoubtedly replaced Ertz as the team’s future No. 1 tight end, and it’s possible he can be what Ertz once was, one of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL.
One of the biggest areas where the Eagles and Wentz missed Ertz is on third down. This year, the Eagles rank 28th in third down conversion rate, at 37.43%. Last year, with a healthy Ertz, they were 4th, at 44.58%. In 2018, they were 11th, 40.89% and were 2nd-best in their Super Bowl 2017 season, at 40.89%.
Of course, that’s not all on Ertz. Much of that is Wentz putting the Eagles in difficult 2nd and 3rd-and-long situations thanks to sacks and other negative plays, but it’s also true that Ertz bailed Wentz and the offense out in similar circumstances over the years.
Why the disappearance of Ertz as one of those most effective tight ends in football is due in large part to the struggles of Wentz, the offensive line, the wide receivers and the coaching staff. A healthy and productive Goedert also presumably leads some to believe the team really hasn’t missed Ertz’ production all that much. But they have. There’s no doubt the 2020 Eagles have missed Ertz. He entered the season as one of the three best tight ends in football and a vital part of Pederson’s 12 personnel offense, which was still going to be used quite a bit even though the addition of Jalen Reagor indicated a reduction in that formation.
Ertz has always been Wentz’ security blanket, the guy he looked to whenever the Birds needed a key first down, and suddenly this year, he was gone.
It’s unfair to blame all of the offense’s (and Wentz’) struggles on Ertz, but it’s clear it’s had a profound, and little-talked-about, effect.