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David Murphy: The Eagles have a lot of problems, and Carson Wentz is the least of them

By David Murphy, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Football

There was a play in the third quarter of the Tampa Bay-New Orleans game Sunday that is worth considering in light of the hullabaloo surrounding Carson Wentz's performance against Washington. It wasn't either of Tom Brady's interceptions, because that would be too easy of a point to make, and deep down inside I think most of us realize that even Hall of Fame quarterbacks make poor decisions and inaccurate throws. Besides, Brady is 97 years old and Wentz isn't.

Rather, the play in question was an innocuous incompletion thrown by the game's other Hall of Fame quarterback, who walked away with the win despite throwing for just 160 yards (and despite being 97 years old himself). Before the snap, the Bucs were showing Drew Brees some sort of Cover 1 blitz look, with a couple of linebackers looming in the B-gaps alongside three down linemen. Because New Orleans was lined up in a five-wide, empty-backfield set, the veteran quarterback knew that his pass protection would have little margin for error. He also knew that he would have single coverage across the board, with a lone safety in the middle of the field providing the only possible deep help to either side.

Fortunately for Brees, he also knew he had Michael Thomas lined up in the slot to his left, and that Thomas would be releasing into a wheel route around tight end Josh Hill. The Saints receiver's matchup was an imposing one, with physical third-year cornerback Carlton Davis squaring up across from him. In a perfect world, Thomas would shake the 6-foot-1, 205-pound defender at the line of scrimmage and have a clean look at an over-the-shoulder catch while running vertically downfield. But even if Davis stayed with the play, Brees could be confident in making the throw. After all, the 6-3, 212-pound Thomas is on a very short list of the NFL's strongest pass catchers. Even in the event of tight coverage and a subpar throw, the Bucs would be unlikely to make a game-changing play.

These are the sorts of considerations that quarterbacks make at the line of scrimmage before every play. They are like point guards, particularly in situations like this: five-on-five, man coverage, identify the best matchup, and make sure the help defender is out of the play. The better the matchups, the easier the considerations. After Brees took the snap, he took three steps back, reached the top of his drop, and lofted a high, arcing pass in Thomas's direction.

That the pass was incomplete is beside the point. The Saints took a shot and the Bucs covered it perfectly. But disaster did not strike, and the drive lived on.

From the perspective of an Eagles fan, the question to consider is what might have happened had Brees not had confidence in the matchup to his left. Suppose, instead of a 6-3 rampart of a veteran receiver, he saw Davis matched up against a rookie receiver who was giving up a couple of inches or 15 pounds. And suppose that the offensive linemen responsible for blocking the five oncoming rushers had already allowed him to take a month's worth of hits. Suppose, in other words, that Brees' considerations were the same ones that confronted Wentz throughout the Eagles' disastrous 27-17 loss Sunday afternoon. Is it really that far-fetched to think the result would have been the same?

 

In the 338 years since William Penn founded the city of Philadelphia, there have been a lot of ridiculous things said about quarterbacks in this town. But none of them is as slaphappy as the notion that Wentz deserves the lion's share of the blame for a loss in which he was sacked eight times and hit hard on numerous other occasions. Even if he could have avoided half of those sacks by throwing the ball away, that would still have left him on the ground with the ball on his hand on four occasions. In Week 1, there were 12 quarterbacks who were sacked at least three times. Eight of the 12 lost their games. One of the four quarterbacks who won their starts despite being sacked three or more times was Dwayne Haskins, who played against Wentz and was sacked five fewer times than him. This was a bad loss, but let's not make it more complicated than it needs to be. Since 2001, there have been 82 games in which a team allowed at least eight sacks. The team allowing those sacks has won exactly eight of them. Neither Brady nor Brees nor any quarterback of any skill level would have won that game on Sunday.

Really, I think people understand this. In blaming Wentz for the loss, they aren't blaming him for the sacks or the interceptions, but for his inability to make the sort of elite plays that might have made up for the sacks and the interceptions. It's a valid line of criticism, and it is fair to say that we saw much more of it from Wentz in 2017 than we have since.

At the same time, look around the NFL, and look at the quarterbacks who make those plays, and then look at the guys who are on the receiving ends of those plays. Then, when you find yourself yelling about Wentz holding onto the ball, take a moment to consider why he might be doing that. Do we really think Wentz would choose to hold onto the ball instead of giving Michael Thomas a chance to make a play in man coverage? Do we really think he'd be helplessly scanning the field if Davante Adams occupied a portion of it? What would that field look like if Tyreek Hill was taking the top off it? On Sunday night, Dak Prescott targeted Amari Cooper on 14 of his 39 throws. Kyler Murray targeted DeAndre Hopkins on 16 of 40. With all due respect to Greg Ward, he ain't it.

Can Wentz play better? Sure. We've seen it. Problem is, the Eagles' offensive personnel in Week 1 required him to play perfectly. Maybe that personnel will improve. Maybe Reagor will become the go-to target on the outside that Alshon Jeffery once sort of was. Maybe Wentz's blockers will, you know, block. Until then, the Jalen Hurts pick is looking shrewder by the day. Because the Eagles are a bonfire and some fixins away from staging a good old-fashioned human sacrifice.

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