Carson Wentz autographed Eagles-embroidered footballs for Donovan McNabb’s sons. The current franchise quarterback and the former franchise quarterback then shook hands, hugged, and spoke.
If McNabb hadn’t paid a visit to the Lincoln Financial locker room that he once called home, there still would have been plenty of reasons to write about Wentz. The second-year quarterback earlier delivered perhaps the best performance of his brief NFL career, as the Eagles lambasted the ailing Cardinals, 34-7, on Sunday.
But when arguably the team’s greatest quarterback and his heir apparent have a moment – however scripted it might have felt – it’s as good a time as any to take stock of Wentz after 21 games.
He clearly has the necessary physical tools. Off the field, he seemingly checks every box. But does he have the mental makeup to thrive in one of the toughest sports towns in America? McNabb may only have a cursory relationship with Wentz, but he might be the authority on the subject.
“He works extremely hard. He’s prepared for it,” McNabb said. “I don’t know if I can tell you that he’s bulletproof or anything. Here, in this town, they want to see winners. They want excitement, and that’s what they’re bringing them right now.”
In other words, let’s see how Wentz does when the going gets tough. Right now, he is living a charmed life, and rightfully so. The Eagles are 4-1, and each week, whether he must carry the offense or not, Wentz’s confidence grows.
“I feel good,” Wentz said. “The game’s just continually slowing down.”
After two games of balanced play-calling and success on the ground, coach Doug Pederson had to rely more on Wentz’s arm, particularly early. The Cardinals mostly had an extra man in the box, played man-to-man coverage on the outside, and kept one safety deep.
They even sometimes left their base personnel on the field, even when the Eagles had their “zebra” package of three wideouts. Arizona might have limited the Eagles’ effectiveness on the ground, but it didn’t matter because Wentz – as he’s done better than any quarterback this season – kept converting third downs.
Overall, he was 11 of 12 for 225 yards and three touchdowns on third down.
“He does an outstanding job … redirecting protection,” Pederson said, “because there were a couple of extra blitzers today that Carson either sidestepped or got the ball out.”
In the first quarter alone, Wentz completed 7 of 9 passes for 121 yards, with touchdown throws to Trey Burton, Zach Ertz, and, lastly, Torrey Smith from 59 yards out.
Jim Schwartz’s defense held the Cardinals to one first down in the first quarter, and Kenjon Barner’s 76-yard punt return set up the second score, but Wentz and the offense were unstoppable.
“We can be dynamic,” Wentz said. “We can be explosive.”
The rest of the NFL is beginning to pay notice. The Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson, possibly the league’s best cornerback, said that it’s only a matter of time until Wentz is a “top-tier quarterback.”
“He’s a guy that had great pocket presence, and he understands where the pressure and blitzes are coming from,” Peterson said. “He knows the outlets, and he moves very well.”
Wentz escaped pressure a few times, but Sunday was hardly the best example of his athleticism. Most of his best throws came from the pocket, either on short timing routes – the 15-yard fade to Burton and the 11-yard slant to Ertz were early examples – or against blitzes.
The Cardinals sent the house midway through the third quarter on third and 19 – a dubious call by coordinator James Bettcher – but Wentz made them pay and launched a deep strike to Nelson Agholor.
“Carson is known to chuck it,” said Agohlor, who broke a tackle on the way to a 72-yard touchdown. “He’s going to chuck it, and you have to get under it.”
After a slow start this season on passes downfield, Wentz has completed four “deep” attempts in the last two games. For a quarterback known as a gunslinger in college, his inaccuracy on tosses more than 20 yards has been a concern.
And on Sunday, Wentz had a few cringe-worthy throws. Peterson nearly picked him off on an errant back-shoulder pass before the half. A play later, he lofted a fade to Ertz in the end zone, but Antoine Bethea cut it off for an interception.
“Safety made an unbelievable play,” Wentz said. “You never think he’s going to come from the middle of the field, but I got to keep my eyes on him and make a better throw.”
The interception took at least three points off the board. In the third, Wentz had Ertz open again on third down, but he awkwardly threw a pass behind his tight end.
“He said he wanted to go find a hole and bury himself in it,” Ertz said.
But Wentz avoided a turnover, and Jake Elliott kicked a 36-yard field goal for a 24-7 margin.
In a closer game, those errors are magnified. There will be days when the Eagles will need Wentz to strap them on his back or lead them on a last-minute, game-winning, touchdown-scoring drive (see: Aaron Rodgers vs. the Cowboys on Sunday).
But he’s already ahead of the curve, and, yes, ahead of McNabb at this point in his career – at least as a passer. They have similarities, but McNabb tried to avoid comparisons about their elusiveness.
“I had a little bit more pizzazz. I had more swagger,” McNabb joked (maybe). “It doesn’t matter how you get it done, he’s getting it done.”
Wentz is still a ways from McNabb’s career heights. But Donovan McNabb Jr.’s and Devin McNabb’s autographed footballs might save their father some college tuition someday.
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