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Can Carson Wentz run Nick Sirianni’s offense?

Nick Sirianni won’t commit to a starting quarterback. That’s okay. We know why he’s here. His offense needs to fix Carson Wentz. I take a look at how it will try.

NFL: AUG 24 Preseason - Bears at Colts Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“We have two quarterbacks in Carson Wentz and Jalen Hurts that are top-notch. A lot of teams don’t have any. Just really excited to work with both of them.”

Nick Sirianni is really excited to work with them. He’s really excited. Anytime that he was asked about the quarterback position, that was the line he delivered: excited to work with everybody. Excited to work with Carson Wentz.

Well, he better be excited — because there’s work to be done. As the Eagles’ 2020 season unfolded, Wentz’s play got worse and worse, to the point that he was benched for rookie second-round pick Jalen Hurts. But as the Eagles’ coaching search unfolded, reports unfolded that the Eagles were interviewing candidates on the premise that they would retain Wentz — and hopefully fix him — instead of moving on and building around Hurts.

It was the fall of Wentz that got HC Doug Pederson hired in the first place. As Pederson failed to stop Wentz’s skid throughout the season, reports that their relationship was fractured and that Wentz didn’t listen to Pederson or his coaches foretold an inevitable split: one had to stay; one had to go.

Lurie chose Wentz with the Pederson firings. And with the Sirianni hiring, he chose Wentz again.

It isn’t hard to connect the dots. In Indianapolis, Sirianni coached for three seasons under Frank Reich, who was the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia during Wentz’s astounding second season. Reich’s personality and leadership got him the Indianapolis job; football leadership is what Lurie lauded in Sirianni as he described their head-coaching search. Clearly, he believes Sirianni’s staff will bring the personalities and coaching styles necessary to break through with Wentz.

The connections go deeper than that. In that Reich is from the Pederson tree, the similarities between their West Coast approaches are easy to find on film. Both deployed multiple tight ends, five man route combinations, and predicated their offenses on precise timing. They’ve diverged a bit over the years, which has a little to do with how the Eagles’ offense changed as it tried to salvage Wentz over the last season or so. But it also had a lot to do with how the Colts’ lack of a franchise quarterback has forced evolution in their approach.

Sirianni gestured to that experience in Indianapolis when asked about his offensive philosophy. “The offensive philosophy is...we’re gonna be multiple. We can attack multiple ways. I’ll just the example here from Indianapolis. We had Andrew Luck as our quarterback, then that followed up with Jacoby Brissett as our quarterback, and then that followed up with Philip Rivers as our quarterback. Those three teams looked different. They were all different in their own ways of how they attacked defenses. I think that’s the sign of a good coach: that you’re gonna change based off of your personnel.”

In Sirianni’s three seasons as offensive coordinator, the Colts didnt’ just play three different starting quarterbacks. They played quarterbacks from pretty distinct molds: the injury-riddled Andrew Luck in 2018; the strong-armed, big-bodied Jacoby Brissett in 2019; the aging, but still pinpoint accurate Philip Rivers in 2020. The basic ideas on offense stayed the same — the triangle read will never die — but how each quarterback executed the base offense was different. And as such, Sirianni’s offense were distinct.

Take the RPO game, for example. As many expected of Frank Reich after leaving the RPO-obsessed Eagles in 2017, the 2018 Colts under Luck delivered a heavy dose of RPOs. That number dropped with Brissett, who didn’t have a quick enough release to hit those fleeting windows from weird platforms, and stayed pretty level under Rivers. That lack of a quick game also showed up in Brissett’s time to throw and sack rate: he liked to hold onto the ball. Accordingly, the Colts gave him more traditional play-action dropbacks with fewer receivers in the progression, to give him less options on the snap and more opportunities to use his big arm.

But for as much as things changed, core ideas had to stay the same. Vernacular had to remain consistent for the incumbent offensive linemen, wide receivers, and running backs. Cornerstone weapons like T.Y. Hilton, Nyheim Hines, and Jack Doyle still had the same strengths to build around.

So for as much as Sirianni may want to sculpt the offense around what Carson Wentz does well, there are characteristics of his offense that should remain steadfast even as he transitions to his fourth starting quarterback in four years. By identifying those, we can get an idea of what the offense may look like in Philadelphia — and how Wentz integrates with those ideas.

Triangle Reads and Shallows

As the Wentz-Pederson connection crumbled this year, focus was put on the simplification of the offense. In September, Pederson wanted to “unclutter” Wentz’s mind to keep him from overthinking the offense and ignoring the easy play. By November, they wanted to “simplify” to cut out mistakes.

This was an implosion of the Eagles’ own concocting. They rated Wentz’s ability to command the offense at the line of scrimmage so highly, they built an offensive approach similar to Peyton Manning’s old systems, according to Tim McManus’ most recent report for ESPN. When the Eagles’ coaching staff tried to correct some of Wentz’s mistakes in the system in which he had such control, he bristled; when injuries to the offensive line and receiving corps led to further simplification, he took it poorly. Too much had been put on Wentz’s plate, and even as the offense sputtered, his eyes remained bigger than his stomach.

By the time Wentz’s season ended, the Eagles’ passing attack was painfully basic. Most passing concepts featured isolated routes with few progression reads, encouraging Wentz to choose a match-up pre-snap, and then just point and shoot post-snap. Theoretically, the ball would leave his hands faster, he wouldn’t get paralyzed reading defenses, and he wouldn’t go big-play hunting. Practically none of that happened.

Sirianni’s offense in Indianapolis relies less frequently on isolated routes that attack match-ups or leverage. Instead, Sirianni likes triangles.

The idea of a triangle read was foundational to the West Coast offense, and now powers many quick-game concepts across all passing systems. The visual is pretty clear: the quarterback reads a combination of three routes that create a triangle on the field. Against zone coverages, which have two levels (underneath zones and deep zones), matching a triangle of receivers can be tricky. With a decisive quarterback, you can nickel and dime your way down the field with triangle reads. The Colts often tried to do just that.

This is the Colts’ shallow cross concept. It’s one of their favorite triangle reads, and it works across the entire field.

The shallow route is ran by the tight end here, and is technically the first in the “progression.” This concept isn’t always read as a pure progression concept, however — it’s a triangle read, and the triangle is going to put the underneath zone defenders in conflict.

You can see that triangle develop here. QB Andrew Luck is really reading the middle linebacker here, who initially opens to the shallow route and runs with it. With his momentum following the shallow, Luck knows he’ll be able to throw through the window between the linebackers and hit his slot WR on the dig route. And the slot WR will know to slow down on his in-breaking route, settling into the void between the linebackers.

Here’s how it plays out in real time.

The Colts relied on the shallow route more than most teams under Reich and Sirianni. In three seasons, Colts’ passers were among the league’s top quarterbacks in gross targets on shallow routes: Luck with 53 such targets in 2018 (2rd), Brissett with 35 in 2019 (4th), and Rivers with 46 (2nd). That quick-hitting shallow, thrown to a receiver in stride and often with a runway, creates easy completions and delivers high returns on YAC. When Sirianni described the foundational ideas behind the Colts’ offensive approach in Indianapolis in 2018, he emphasized getting “the ball to our players within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, running.”

To emphasize that point, he showed a clip of the Reich-era Chargers hitting Tyrell Williams on a shallow cross. This is another triangle read (watch the running back and the tight end!), but because of the free access for the quick shallow route, Rivers immediately hits Williams in stride, and it’s a 42-yard score that traveled two yards in the air.

This middle of the field triangle can be created in different ways. With the success that the Colts have enjoyed running shallow, they figured one’s the loneliest number. So they put a second shallow on the field, and they got the mesh concept: two shallow crosses running in opposite directions of one another.

Eagles fans will remember mesh from the Chip Kelly days. In fact, the Colts’ shallow cross idea (and a few variations/cousins) and their family of mesh concepts can all be found in Kelly-era Eagles’ film. One of the Colts’ favorite varieties of mesh, Mesh-Sit-Wheel, is affectionately called “Chip Kelly Mesh” for the work he did popularizing the concept.

The Colts under Philip Rivers spammed mesh ideas whenever they needed a key conversion or spark on offense, and rightfully so. Rivers was rarely wrong on this concept, they have a couple of great pass-catching backs, and it’s plain tough to defend on paper. The wheel is technically the first read, and if the back is clearly outracing the linebacker covering him, the ball should go his way.

If the wheel’s covered, the quarterback works back from the wheel to the near crosser, then the sit route, and then the far crosser — but again, it’s not really about the pure progression. It’s about reading the triangle and making the underneath defenders wrong. Against zone, the triangle stresses spacing; against man, it creates a ton of traffic that gives sprinting receivers the space they need to catch and run.

This triangle is tighter than the other, but it works in the exact same way. In this instance, against man coverage, Rivers sees that WR Zach Pascal has a step on his cover man from the jump and hits him with plenty of room before the sideline, so Pascal can turn upfield and pick up the first down.

The Eagles certainly used mesh ideas for Wentz under Pederson — they scored a touchdown on it last season against Miami. They also threw a terrible pick on Mesh-Sit-Wheel against Cincinnati in Week 3. Here, you can see Wentz barely check the wheel before immediately working to the middle of the field, and as he stares down the mesh, he brings both the free safety and the middle linebacker to his target.

This was the game after which Pederson said the Eagles wanted to “unclutter” Wentz’s mind — and shallow routes were nary seen again. After attempting 16 passes targeting shallow routes in both 2018 and 2019, Wentz only threw 8 shallow routes in all of the 2020 season. This isn’t just a Doug thing, either. In 2017, with Frank Reich as his offensive coordinator, Wentz only attempted 16 shallow routes — and the Eagles ran mesh, especially Chip Kelly Mesh, a lot that season. It was their go-to short yardage play.

Well, it’s Nick Sirianni’s and the Colts’ go-to short yardage play as well. Wentz is comfortable throwing that RB wheel, but he doesn’t seem interested in reading the mesh or targeting quick crossers.

And Jalen Hurts? While we have a smaller sample size, the Eagles’ rookie was comfortable taking quick shallow crossers from his Oklahoma days and brought that willingness to the Eagles’ offense.

This design is straight out of Sirianni’s playbook. The three WR side creates vertical displacement and chaos to clear room for the primary look — the shallow cross coming from the weak receiver. When Sirianni looks for athletes to whom he wants to get the ball in that short area, rookie WR Jalen Reagor — the target here — will be the first player on the Eagles’ depth chart he circles.

If Sirianni and his staff are interested in a middle ground for Wentz’s predilections and their offense, they can find it. Not all triangle reads include shallow crossers or full-field progressions. Full-field progressions can be tough on Wentz (and Hurts, for that matter) because they force the quarterback to reset their throwing platforms across the field as they read. That means moving your feet and managing space in the pocket. Neither quarterback is strong in that area. Sirianni’s Colts loved the snag concept as a half-field triangle stretch, and it’s one with which Wentz is familiar. They didn’t run it as much with Rivers as they did with Brissett and Luck — presumably because of how much Rivers liked to target the back early — but it’s a core West Coast staple, and one with which Wentz will be familiar.

Sack Rates

Remember this table?

It largely shows how things have changed. The Colts were a heavy 13 personnel team this year (it’s big for their running game), but actually targeted tight ends less this season than they had in the previous two. That goes down to Rivers’ play style again — he likes throwing the ball to running backs — as we can see in his RB target rate.

But a couple of things remain consistent. The first is deep passing rate.

The idea that Rivers and Brissett attempted passes 20+ air yards downfield at the same rate is ludicrous when you remember that the Colts subbed Brissett in for Luck in 2018 to attempt Hail Mary passes. Luck beat them both in downfield passing rate, but all three were below-average in deep passing rate in their respective seasons. This will be a return to ground for Wentz, who was below average in 2018 and 2019 before ballooning to 6th in the league (13.7%) in 2020.

We can see the avoidance for deep passes reflected in another number: sack rate. Brissett took markedly more sacks behind the Colts’ offensive line than either Rivers or Luck. 5.7% might feel like a big number, but Brissett’s only other full season of starting saw him take a sack on 10% of his dropbacks — a whopping number that Sirianni and Reich nearly halved. Luck also had a career-low sack rate in his one season under Sirianni, and Rivers’ sack rate was second-lowest for his 17-year career.

Even as the offenses changed from Luck to Brissett to Rivers, the quarterback under center didn’t take sacks in Sirianni’s offense. They do not ask their quarterbacks hold the football for long and rarely attempt deep posts or long nine balls — routes with which the Eagles were enamored this season.

That’s a big deal. Wentz’s pocket management has long been his worst trait, as he insists on holding the football to let routes develop and rarely makes the necessary, subtle movements in the pocket to buy time and avoid pressure. As such, his sack rate ballooned this season as his decisiveness and trust bottomed out: he took a sack on 10.3% of his dropbacks, beating out even Brissett’s atrocious number.

Sirianni got Brissett’s sack rate down to 5.7%. Can he do the same with Wentz?

The name of the game remains decisiveness. Wentz averaged 2.71 seconds to a passing attempt; on 59% of his dropbacks, he held the ball for at least 2.5 seconds. Remember, as the season went on, the Eagles’ offense was looking to simplify and unclutter. They were doing everything they could to get the ball out of Wentz’s hands, and he simply wasn’t having it. When they wanted to go deep, they tried to leave extra bodies in for protection and unlock the speed of Jalen Reagor or John Hightower — but Wentz and his receivers still could never connect. Brissett had similar numbers in 2019 (2.93s time to throw, 62% of his attempts over 2.5 seconds) and was replaced by Philip Rivers in 2020. He was not executing the offense with the requisite quickness in the pocket, so the Colts made a change.

For those wondering about Jalen Hurts: again, beware a small sample size. But no quarterback had a longer time to throw (2.98 seconds) or time in the pocket (3.39 seconds). The Eagles rolled him out a ton, which prolongs his time to throw — but he still ranked above other heavy rollout players like Baker Mayfield and Kirk Cousins. Considering the processing speed questions that followed him from Alabama to Oklahoma and into the NFL, it is difficult at this stage of his career to imagine Hurts will become a quick enough processor for Sirianni’s offensive approach.

Many called for Pederson to roll Wentz out more during the 2020 season, as he eventually did with Hurts — and rightfully so. It would have helped Wentz read the field and become his own checkdown. Remember, the Eagles were giving Wentz half-field ideas in the first place.

But it is difficult to roll a quarterback out of the pocket and give him a full-field concept — he can’t really read and deliver to the back side while on the move in the opposite direction. To demand that Sirianni constantly roll Wentz out is to change the character of his offense. The Eagles should have hired from Cleveland, Green Bay, or Los Angeles (Rams) if they wanted to build an offense on that foundation.

Building Around Wentz

We might describe the nature of Sirianni’s offense in Indianapolis as simple. He did as much himself — or at least tried to during a forsaken prepared statement at the Eagles’ podium which many have now seen.

Beyond the stammering, the idea is sound. The approach will be easy to learn. It doesn’t have nearly the variety of route combinations of Pederson’s offense in the past, and while there are route adjustments that the receivers must execute (something they’ve struggled with in the past), there is less optionality than Pederson’s route tree. This offense is easier to install.

But it is still difficult to defend. Most defenses are comfortable surrendering underneath routes, but the Sirianni offense takes those routes with such quickness and precision that it creates opportunities in space for their best athletes. When defenses commit extra defenders to taking away quick RB swings and shallow crossers, they surrender space deep or limit their pass rush. It’s a numbers game, and Sirianni’s offense has the advantage.

But a simple offense that requires decisiveness and a willingness to throw short is exactly what the Eagles had at the end of Wentz’s tenure in 2020. You can argue it was too simple; the half-field looks were too basic; the routes were unimaginative; the talent was bad — and you’d be right on all accounts. But Wentz seemingly hated that offense that demanded he play as a point guard, facilitating to other players and getting out of their way. The challenge for Sirianni’s staff won’t so much be improving Wentz’s accuracy — that challenge belongs to him and his private QB coach — or his risk-management. It will be humbling him such that he’s willing to play as a cog in the system.

There are a ton more ideas to parse than just covered here — not just Wentz-related. The Sirianni offense loves corner routes: Wentz throws a good corner route to his right and a bad one to his left. The Sirianni offense uses natural rubs on third downs: the Eagles WRs have historically failed to execute on those precisely choreographed concepts. The Sirianni offense needs blocking wide receivers — and multiple tight ends — to win in the running game: that may mean more snaps for JJAW and Fulgham, and an offseason addition at tight end (Kyle Pitts, anyone?). The Sirianni offense loves running back targets: Miles Sanders was one of the worst receiving backs in the NFL last season.

Offense doesn’t just belong to the quarterback, and like the fall of the Pederson Eagles, there’s a good chance Wentz’s climb is made uphill by a poor supporting cast. But for as hard as he tried to avoid it, Sirianni knows that he was hired to salvage the Wentz contract. And if I had to guess, his first crack at that enigma will be forcing the guy to throw a shallow cross. Then build from there.