For perspective on how far Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz has come since this time last season, just look at the opposite sideline Sunday. The Bears will start quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, this year’s No. 2 overall pick, who finds himself as Wentz did last Thanksgiving — a promising rookie on a struggling team without much offensive help.
“At this point of the year, we were on a little skid,” Wentz said. “I do know the feeling a little bit.”
One year later, Wentz is an MVP candidate. The Eagles have the best record in football. Wentz can reflect on his rookie year and realize his growth. Last Thanksgiving, the Eagles were coming off a loss to Seattle and were days away from a loss to Green Bay. It was part of a five-game losing streak in which Wentz threw eight interceptions and only four touchdowns.
Wentz has thrown only five interceptions this season and doesn’t have one since Oct. 29. He has two four-touchdown games this season. He needed the rookie experience that Trubisky is enduring to reach this point.
“I feel like mentally, it’s consistently just taken another next jump,” Wentz said. “Kind of every game last year, I thought it did. Throughout the offseason, though, was the biggest jump. Within the offense, just having command, knowing the ins and outs, having more freedom at the line of scrimmage as well. So that’s been the biggest thing for me. Really, every game, I thought mentally I just came along. Physically, things were maybe not always there. But mentally, I thought every game, every opportunity, every rep was helpful for me.”
Wentz added that he has learned how to accelerate his vision to better recognize his pre-snap and post-snap reads. He has a better understanding of his progressions and “knowing where the answers are.”
The coaching staff can also treat Wentz differently this season. Coach Doug Pederson said he likes to put much on a young quarterback’s plate to see what the quarterback can handle. If there’s too much, then the coach must back away to keep it “manageable.” Offensive coordinator Frank Reich acknowledged a “healthy tension” between protecting a young quarterback and giving him more responsibility even when he’s not ready. Reich compared it to a thoroughbred that you let run full speed, and then you pull the reins back.
“Some of these young quarterbacks who are playing this year, I can relate as a coach, obviously, and know what those coaches are going through and try to figure out how to win a football game even with the struggles,” Pederson said. “But we obviously saw incremental growth with Carson last year, and I think some of these teams are seeing the same thing with their young quarterbacks, especially this one.”
In Wentz’s second season, opposing defenses approach Wentz differently. Earlier this season, Pederson said Wentz has seen more blitzes than any quarterback in the NFL. But as Wentz shows he can beat a blitz, Reich said defenses begin to back off. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said before the season that a quarterback’s maturation comes from seeing all defensive styles. He mentioned different coaches — Vikings coach Mike Zimmer’s double-A gap package; Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s four-down Tampa-2; the odd-overload teams from the Rex Ryan-coaching tree — and how a quarterback can build a database. Wentz is only in his second season, but his 26 games have exposed him to different styles.
“The thing with Carson is if you pressure him, you’ve still got to tackle him, and he’s proven that he’s pretty hard to tackle,” Reich said. “So what I have experienced and seen over the years is just like there’s ebb and flow to offense and how it gets called, it’s the same thing with defenses.”
Wentz knows Trubisky because they share the same agency and spent time together before the draft. But Wentz has not followed the Bears’ season. Trubisky entered the starting lineup in the Bears’ fifth game. In six starts, he has completed 77 of 145 pass attempts for 988 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions. He’s been dangerous with his legs, rushing for 163 yards.
Like Wentz as a rookie, Trubisky could use more help around him. The Bears let Alshon Jeffery leave in free agency and didn’t replace him with a similarly productive player. Injuries crippled their top options at the position, and their leading receiver (Kendell Wright with 330 yards) would not even rank among the top three on the Eagles this season.
By almost every statistical measure, Wentz has improved in his second year. The one statistic that’s dropped is completion percentage. Wentz is down from 62.4 percent last year to 59.7 percent this year. But that’s also because he’s making more aggressive passes. His yards per attempt have jumped from 6.2 yards last season to 7.6 this season.
“It’s definitely a number I’d like to get higher,” Wentz said of his completion percentage. “I do think that’s a product of taking more chances down the field, taking more shots, being aggressive. I’m not going to get too hung up on that.”
It says something about Wentz’s development that he’s improved in just about every other area. With the way the Eagles are playing, it can be easy to forget the rookie growing pains. The other sideline on Sunday will offer a reminder.
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