Film Room

Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Carson Wentz

by Derrik Klassen

It is not often that a player earns MVP consideration, tears his ACL at the end of the season, and returns stronger the following year. Carson Wentz is on track to prove something new to the football world; to prove that he is not ordinary. Now a third-year passer out of FCS school North Dakota State, Wentz has shown early developments in his mechanics and nuance akin to a young Cam Newton, whose development arc should serve as a shining light for quarterback coaches and young signal-callers. The expectation of regression after Wentz's touchdown-heavy, efficiency-lacking MVP season and a torn ACL have not stopped him from balling out this year.

Unfortunately, the fruits of Wentz's continued development and excellent play have not yet shown up in DVOA or the team's 4-4 record. That is not Wentz's fault, for the most part.

The Eagles' offense currently ranks 23rd in pass offense DVOA, which may suggest a below average unit, but that total is bogged down by two Nick Foles starts in Weeks 1 and 2, as well as two middling performances from Wentz when he first returned to action in Weeks 3 and 4. Wentz has ascended in the month of October, leading the Eagles to four straight games of a 38.0% or higher pass offense DVOA rating, as well as a 10-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 9.71 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) for himself. In terms of efficiency, Wentz is on a better pace now than he was through six games last year, but a few surrounding factors have made it difficult to convert that into wins.

For one, the Eagles' average field position has set the offense behind. The Eagles' average drive started at the 29.6-yard line last year, fifth-best in the league, due to bountiful turnovers from their defense. This year, they are 25th with an average start at the 26.0-yard line. A few yards does not sound like a major difference, but it is not that each drive is starting a few yards further back, it is that the Eagles are getting fewer drives that start at or near midfield via turnovers from their defense, and that serves to pull down the team's average start position. Field position is a driving force in predicting scoring, so it makes sense that the Eagles do not look as explosive on paper as they once were.

The lack of a downfield threat has also hurt the Eagles' potential to strike from anywhere. Wide receiver Nelson Agholor has devolved back into a proxy running back, while the absence of Mack Hollins and send-off of Torrey Smith have stripped away the possibility of depth wide receivers making plays down the field. None of those three players are key losses in their own right, but when combined, the impact is noticeable.

The question then remains how Wentz has thrived despite unfavorable field position and little opportunity to attack vertically. Wentz's calling card has always been his play under pressure, and that is no different this season. If anything, Wentz has shown even more control and awe-inspiring playmaking when under duress than in seasons past.

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The fault of many quarterbacks under pressure is that they do not know how to or are incapable of maintaining a strong release point. Doing so requires not only great core strength, but the ability to contort one's body and still find a way to keep the shoulders square. In both examples above, Wentz keeps his shoulders squared, once while being forced to slide up in the pocket and once with a defender a foot away from popping him in the mouth. That Wentz has developed his mechanics from somewhat clunky and loose to now infallible under pressure is as impressive as player growth can get.

Of course, it is the plays that do not make sense that make Wentz the most exciting. Wentz's most memorable brain-busting play was his red zone Houdini act versus Washington on Monday Night Football last season, but he continues to find ways to match or top that feat. The Jacksonville Jaguars saw first-hand last week just what kind of magic Wentz can produce.

Before diving into the full clip, take a long look at this screen shot. Wentz's shoulders are squared to the sideline and there is a defender wrapped around his legs spinning him to the ground as he goes to release this pass. Without any knowledge of how the play actually ends, one can only assume the result would have been an incompletion or an interception.

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By some stroke of heavenly intervention, Wentz puts this throw right on the money. There is no way Wentz should be able to follow through on this attempt and deliver an accurate pass, but the ball hits the receiver right in stride as if Wentz had been playing 7-on-7. This type of play is no one-off, either. Wentz does something along these lines each and every week.

Flashy plays are no longer the center of Wentz's game, though. Even during Wentz's MVP campaign, efficiency was not his forte due in large part to inconsistent accuracy. Too often Wentz misfired in such a way that left viewers scratching their heads. Granted, he was so consistently able to generate explosive plays and bail the team out of third-and-long that he could mask that, but there was legitimate reason to harp on him for it. This season, Wentz has been far cleaner and more controlled.

Per Josh Hermsmeyer's air yards calculations, Wentz's average depth of target has dropped roughly 2 yards, from 9.9 to 7.8, partly due to the aforementioned lack of a vertical presence at wideout. However, Wentz can also be credited for being smarter about who he throws to and better about where he places the ball. The NFL's own Next Gen Stats credited Wentz with completing just 1.1 percent of his passes over what was expected in 2017 during his MVP candidacy. Wentz has dwarfed that number this season, completing 5.2 percent of passes over expectation, good for fourth in the league behind Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Kirk Cousins. Wentz is now fully blending the ordinary with the extraordinary in a way that only the league's elite can.

Better yet for the Eagles, Wentz is not the only one elevating his play. As the team does its best to conduct an offense without a meaningful run game or a threatening vertical presence, what has popped up to make up the lost ground is excellent iso play from wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and tight end Zach Ertz. Both pass-catchers were plenty effective last season, too, but how well they have gotten open on a snap-to-snap basis to enable Wentz to shine has been critical to Philly's success through the air.

via Gfycat

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Here are Ertz and Jeffery, respectively, running more or less the same route for touchdowns. In each example, the player beautifully sells the inside break before redirecting back outside. The space created by each player presented Wentz with two touchdowns opportunities that were as easy as they come.

All season, these two have been able to make plays when needed most, ranging from Jeffery's fourth-down conversion versus Carolina to any number of improbably contested catch each player has made. Both players currently hold a 65 percent or higher catch rate, some of the best rates in their respective careers. Ertz and Jeffery have been as good a one-two punch as you can ask for.

General manager Howie Roseman knew those two would not be enough, though. With the way the Eagles' defense is struggling right now, Roseman made the decision to go all-in on the passing offense and count on Wentz to keep the team in contention. Given Wentz is exceeding his play from a year ago, it only made sense to stack the deck for him rather than hope to hotfix one of the many flaws the defense has. That is why the Eagles traded a third-round pick for one of the league's most devastating yards-after-catch receivers, Golden Tate.

At the very least, Tate will provide two things for the Eagles: he will free Jeffery to run downfield routes, because he will no longer have to catch screens and other short YAC-oriented passes, and he will allow Agholor to be phased out of a regular role in the offense. Tate can assume the pseudo running back role from Agholor, as well as be effective on the intermediate routes on which Agholor tries to get open, and free up the offense to keep Jeffery as an iso player.

via Gfycat

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via Gfycat

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Every YAC-oriented pass Agholor has caught this season feels like he missed out on opportunities to break tackles or fight for an extra few yards. There will soon be a world where Tate is catching these passes without clumsily spinning into his own blockers' backs or failing to generate any acceleration upon receiving the ball. In turn, the Eagles will find themselves more consistently ahead of the chains and generating more explosive plays due to Tate's savvy as a ballcarrier. Simply reducing the amount of wasted touches afforded to Agholor should help the Eagles' offense immensely.

As Wentz continues to light up opposing defenses and Tate enters the fray to boost an already ascending passing offense, the numbers will start to reflect how good this Eagles' passing attack is. The Eagles are on track, and now better equipped, to compete with any team in the league on the back of their passing offense.

Comments

4 comments, Last at 04 Nov 2018, 1:05pm

1 Re: Film Room: Carson Wentz

by Badfinger // Nov 01, 2018 - 11:52am

I appreciate the breakdown on Wentz, but the conclusion on the acquisition of Golden Tate is baffling. They almost certainly aren't going to phase Agholor out of the offense, they're going to phase out the rotating door of Jordan Matthews, Kamar Aiken, Shelton Gibson, Marcus Wheaton, DeAndre Carter, 4th string TE Josh Perkins splitting wide in 13 personnel, etc. His usage has been sub-optimal this year I agree, but in this tumultuous half season for the offense the only skill player who's taken more snaps is Zach Ertz. The Eagles clearly don't lack the confidence that he SHOULD be out there, they have to remember the ways they got him the ball so effectively last year.

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3 Re: Film Room: Carson Wentz

by Pat // Nov 01, 2018 - 1:12pm

"They almost certainly aren't going to phase Agholor out of the offense"

... Why? You have noticed that Agholor's *seriously* struggling this year, right? Matthews has been up and down, but at least that has an "up" in it. If Agholor keeps struggling I *hope* they start phasing Agholor out of the offense.

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2 Re: Film Room: Carson Wentz

by Pat // Nov 01, 2018 - 1:04pm

"The Eagles' offense currently ranks 23rd in pass offense DVOA, which may suggest a below average unit, but that total is bogged down by two Nick Foles starts in Weeks 1 and 2, as well as two middling performances from Wentz when he first returned to action in Weeks 3 and 4."

I get that this article is focusing on the quarterbacks, but there's a simpler explanation here than "Nick Foles played bad, Wentz played bad when he came back for 2 games then started playing good," and it's easy to see from the data: none of the Eagles wide receivers who are above replacement played in Weeks 1-4.

I mean, it's a pretty easy argument: Wentz and Foles were both ~replacement or below before Jeffery, and then Jeffery comes back and poof, Wentz is above replacement significantly.

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4 Re: Film Room: Carson Wentz

by phillyangst // Nov 04, 2018 - 1:05pm

Nice article and argument. Ginger is "passing" the great abilities and numbers test, but is failing the comeback test. In example, the Carolina loss and his last two pass attempts in that game. Less than 2:00 minutes and in Panther territory, a 3rd down pass to Ertz (or Goedert who was also in the vicinity) is nowhere near on target. 4th down pass to a double covered Jeffery in the endzone goes incomplete. If thrown high, would have given Alshon the better chance of making the game leading points for the Iggles. This was almost moot with the reversal of the Eric Reid interception on an errant pass. When Wentz makes final drive game-winning plays then I'll agree with what the article praises with his performance.

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