The Cleveland Browns have taken a lot of heat for trading away the rights to draft Carson Wentz since the quarterback, in his second season out of North Dakota State, has led the Eagles to an NFL-best 8-1 record entering their bye week.
Just this week, Browns vice president Sashi Brown acknowledged that “there’s going to be opportunities that you miss on to add talent to your roster.” This was taken as a tacit admission that Cleveland shouldn’t have traded the rights to Wentz to the Eagles for a package of draft picks in the weeks leading up to the 2016 draft.
It’s possible that if the Browns hadn’t fired their 2015 coaching staff, their fans wouldn’t be cringing every time a Wentz highlight surfaces. Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo is the guy who has worked most closely with Wentz over the last two years, and DeFilippo said Tuesday that though he hadn’t yet met Wentz before he was fired as the Browns’ offensive coordinator in January 2016, he was aware of the player and liked what he had seen.
DeFilippo said that in 2015 he watched the first game of Wentz’s senior season, against Montana.
“And I was like, ‘Wow, this kid is a really good player. He’s big. He’s fast. He can run. He’s got a really good arm.’ You could tell he knew what was going on out there,” DeFilippo said.
The Cleveland brain trust dealt the pick, and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta later implied that the Browns didn’t think Wentz could become a top-20 NFL quarterback. Would they have felt that way if DeFilippo had still been part of their decision-making?
Certainly, DeFilippo got to know Wentz much better after new Eagles head coach Doug Pederson hired him to coach quarterbacks at a time when the Birds were looking to make a big draft move. DeFilippo said Tuesday that the first time he was around Wentz, at the 2016 Senior Bowl practices, “I knew this young man was different in a good way.”
DeFilippo, in a 30-minute bye-week session with reporters, emphasized what people who have followed the Eagles closely this year see — how so much of what makes Wentz successful goes beyond his physical talents. They see him change protections, change plays at the line, coolly cycle through progressions, find mismatches. That might explain why some national analysts still seem reluctant to jump on the Wentz wagon. They look at highlights expecting to be bowled over by his arm instead of his head.
“He’s just so further along from a mental football standpoint than other guys who are coming into the league. I think it just allows him to grow even faster,” DeFilippo said. “I think that’s why you’ve seen the jump from Year 1 to Year 2. … He did a great job in the offseason of fixing a few things, things he and I had talked about mechanically, so we’ve got his arm slot where we need it to be now, and then on top of that, trust in his teammates, trust in his coaches, another year of playing, I think that is why you’re seeing him play the way he’s playing now.”
All of the offensive position coaches were available during the same window Tuesday, but when the session started, the largest swarm of reporters and almost all the cameras gathered around DeFilippo.
“Our quarterback must be playing pretty good,” DeFilippo said.
Asked what he thinks Wentz has improved on since the season began, DeFilippo said it was a matter of settling in.
“Just overall seeing the game. I think he’s really seeing the field well the last few weeks. I think that he’s really getting comfortable with his teammates in terms of the new guys we have on our team and throwing the football on time and accurately. And he’s really stepped up in the leadership role.”
DeFilippo is the guy in the film room with Wentz, doing the daily critiques. He said that is something he and Wentz enjoy.
“He’s very good. Every time we watch the tape, I open it up and say, ‘Be your own worst critic.’ He does a good job with that,” DeFilippo said. “He doesn’t take things personally. He can take hard coaching. I’m a pretty detailed guy and expect things a certain way. He’s bought into what we’re telling him to do, and he’s very, very coachable for a guy that’s having a lot of success, especially at a young age.”
DeFilippo said Wentz usually points out a mistake before his coach has a chance to mention it.
“If he misses a throw, or it’s on the back [shoulder] pad instead of the front pad, and it’s a catch-and-tackle instead of a catch-and-run, he’ll say, ‘Yeah, I need to get my eyes out in front.’ So he’s very self-critical, which I think all great quarterbacks have that quality.”
Maybe more important, DeFilippo said, is that after recognizing the problem, Wentz fixes it.
“Very rarely is Carson a repeat offender,” he said. “Very rarely will you see him make the same mistake twice. He is as good a quarterback at taking things from the meeting room to the field as any quarterback I’ve been around.”
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