Updated: Tuesday, October 3, 2017, 8:20 PM
The most important part of Carson Wentz’s first four weeks has not been the spectacular plays that lead the highlights. It’s been avoiding the negative plays that lead to losses.
Wentz has only two interceptions this season, both on deflected passes. Among the 19 quarterbacks who have at least 120 pass attempts this season, eight have two or fewer interceptions: Wentz, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins, and Alex Smith. Each quarterback other than Wentz has at least one Pro Bowl appearance and playoff start, showing that Wentz is in good company.
“I think his decision making has been excellent,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Tuesday. “We feel we’re the kind of team right now that if we don’t give somebody a short field, if we can protect the football, we feel like obviously that’s going to put us in the best chance to win.”
The caution flag to wave is that it’s still early. At this point last season, Wentz had only one interception. The Eagles were also 3-1. But when the interceptions started coming more frequently, the wins came less frequently. Eleven of his 14 interceptions last season came in losses. In 20 career games, the Eagles are 3-8 when Wentz throws an interception. They’re 7-2 when he doesn’t throw an interception.
No one can accuse Wentz of playing conservatively, either. He’s willing to throw down field and doesn’t always attempt high-percentage passes. His success comes when he demonstrates smart quarterbacking, finding the balance between being too aggressive and too careful.
“I think every quarterback has a number where everybody wants to be single-digit interceptions when the season’s over and certainly have a lot of touchdown passes,” Reich said. “And one thing about Carson, I know he’s never going to play scared. That’s what I love. He still has that aggressive mind-set and that aggressive nature to look down field, but yet the decision making has been excellent.”
The Eagles don’t want Wentz to lose the dynamism that can distinguish him. In the first quarter of Sunday’s win over the Chargers, Wentz rolled to his right, avoided a sack, and threw it across his body to a wide open LeGarrette Blount for a 20-yard gain. The play wasn’t coached that way; it’s often frowned upon for a quarterback to throw across his body. Blount wasn’t even one of the players Wentz was supposed to look toward during his progressions. The running back was only an outlet in case Wentz scrambled back to that side of the field. But Wentz made it work.
“That’s one where you get in the film room with him and you say, ‘Don’t ever do that again, unless you’re going to complete it,’ ” Reich said. “That is a freakish play, it is, seriously. It’s the thing you say, ‘Don’t do this at home.’ …In no way should that ball have gone to LeGarrette. That was just simply a case of a great player making a freakish play.”
Wentz surpassed 300 passing yards in the first two games of the season, but his production has been down during the last two weeks with the Eagles showing more of a commitment to running the ball. He attempted only 31 passes in both games, totaling 418 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. So his statistics haven’t yet taken the big jump expected of him this season, but he’s still on pace to top 4,000 passing yards and there will be games when the Eagles need him to air it out.
It will help if he clicks with top receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, who were acquired to give Wentz the offensive weapons he lacked last season. Jeffery has 17 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns – solid production, but not numbers that would put him on pace for a 1,000-yard season. It’s still far too soon to start extrapolating statistics, though, and the way he’s played would suggest that a big game could be coming. Reich pointed to Jeffery’s touchdown catch and a key third-down conversion as examples of his effect on the offense.
“I don’t think it’s been off the charts, certainly number-wise, but we had some big plays,” Reich said. “We had been running the ball pretty well, so the receivers naturally haven’t been piling up huge stats when you’re running it the way we’re running. I’m sure we’ll have some games where he’ll have some big-catch games, because one of these games, we’re going to have to throw it 40 or 50 times. That’s the way it’s going to happen, likely. It will all even out over 16 games.”
Smith is more of a concern than Jeffery. Wentz’s numbers could be noticeably better if he and Smith could have connected on more deep balls. Smith has only 10 catches for 134 yards, and there have been passes that he dropped that could have produced big gains. Even Smith admitted on social media that he’s in a slump. Reich said the Eagles have “no concern” about Smith.
“When you play enough and you get enough balls thrown to you…you’re going to have your miscues,” Reich said. “Sometimes they come in bunches. In the immediate term, we’ve got a lot of confidence in Torrey. He’s been around a long time and has made a lot of plays.”
When the outside receivers have bigger games, Wentz’s statistics will look better. But the focus should not be only on piling up the big numbers. It’s also on continuing to avoid the negative plays.