Murphy: Carson Wentz and the uncertainty inherent in young quarterbacks
PHILADELPHIA -- Shortly after his first training camp practice as an NFL head coach, Doug Pederson fielded a question about Carson Wentz and said something interesting. The words themselves were rather ordinary. Alone on a blank page, they read l...
PHILADELPHIA - Shortly after his first training camp practice as an NFL head coach, Doug Pederson fielded a question about Carson Wentz and said something interesting. The words themselves were rather ordinary. Alone on a blank page, they read like a standard-issue quote. But when considered within the context of what we’ve seen and heard from the Philadelphia Eagles since draft day, they represent a perfect distillation of their future at quarterback.
The set-up was a question from a reporter who wondered whether anything stood out about Wentz’s performance during a soupy two-hour practice session at the NovaCare Complex on Monday morning. Currently, the Eagles have just 38 players in camp - per the NFL collective bargaining agreement, only rookies, quarterbacks and veterans coming off injuries are allowed to participate - so it isn’t exactly a great replica of Sunday afternoon. The majority of those on the field won’t even be on the roster come September; fourth-string quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson spent much of the morning lining up in the slot because the Eagles didn’t have enough players to fill out a depth chart.
Pederson began his reply with the same string of adjectives that he often uses to praise Wentz.
“You just love everything about this kid: his energy, his work ethic,” the first-year coach said.
But then he pivoted a bit, introducing a new line of analysis.
“It’s just little things now,” he said, “detailed things, with his footwork in his drop, his progressions, where are his eyes - those are the things that in the National Football League from a quarterback standpoint become really important on game day and those are the things that you have to continue to work on with him.”
Again, pretty basic stuff. The worthiness of the quote lies in the juxtaposition of its two main ideas. When the Eagles drafted Wentz, they emphasized a lot of abstract personal qualities that don’t require a ton of game tape to ascertain. He’s tough. He’s a winner. He’s poised. Those are all important personality traits for a leader to possess, but a person who possesses them isn’t necessarily any better suited to lead a football team from under center than he is to lead a company from the corner office, or to lead a search and rescue operation from the command center. This country is full of 22-year-old men with characteristics similar to Wentz. But it isn’t full of great quarterbacks.
Which brings us to the second main idea, the one that focuses on the concrete abilities that Wentz must possess and/or develop before we find out if he is an NFL quarterback at all, much less a great one. Peterson began this second line of thought by attempting to place it within the category of “little things,” but by the time he’d finished, those “little things” were squarely in the realm of “really important” things.
That, in a nutshell, is the Wentz Issue. Regardless of the intangibles, regardless of the physical tools, Wentz will be a failure if he can’t drop back, identify a coverage, recognize his receivers, position himself within a maelstrom of flailing bodies, set his feet, and execute a mechanically sound throw, all within the three seconds or so that an NFL pass rush affords a quarterback. Think about the variables involved in that equation, and think about how little exposure Wentz had during his express ride from I-AA backup to No. 2 overall pick. That is where the uncertainty lies.
When 30 other teams in the league allowed the Eagles to outbid them for the right to draft Wentz, it wasn’t an automatic sign that they had any less regard for his gumption and grit or his throwing ability or his physical measurables than the Eagles did. Chances are, at least one or two of them decided that the amount of uncertainty and risk that they’d be acquiring was not worth the price they’d be required to pay.
There is a quality that all great quarterbacks possess, but it isn’t strength or grit or size or heart or agility or leadership. It’s the ability to summon and deploy all of those tools at once with mechanical perfection in an environment where a second of hesitation can be the difference between a great play for the good guys or a great play for the bad. It’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach and answering random math problems while being chased by a 300-pound man who is allowed to throw you to the turf. It’s a situation for which there is no smaller scale version that one can use to prepare himself.
Pitching coaches talk a lot about the need for a pitcher to repeat his mechanics, and that’s what Wentz needs to be able to do, except he needs to be able to do it in a window of time that is much smaller than any he’s experienced before. Even guys who have been in the league for five years and prior to that faced BCS-level competition can look like they’ve never thrown a football before when the speed of the game throws their mechanics out of whack. We saw it early last season with some of Sam Bradford’s underthrows, and we saw it late last season as his footwork in the pocket improved.
Even in the relatively uninformative environment of the first day of training camp, you could see some of the things to which Pederson alluded in his breakdown of Wentz. On a couple of occasions, Wentz ended up sailing a throw well over his intended target thanks to a hiccup in his footwork at the top of his drop that affected his weight transfer from back foot to front during his delivery. Whether it was a case of Wentz rushing his feet or a simple lapse in concentration or muscle memory, it was a reminder that it doesn’t take much to knock a throw out of whack.
The Eagles are understandably excited about Wentz. Monday, somebody asked Pederson to comment on his decision to essentially red-shirt Wentz for his whole first season.
“We don’t know for sure that it is going to be for the whole season,” Pederson quickly replied.
Whether or not the Eagles have accurately judged Wentz’s chances of success, they seem eager to find out.
David Murphy is a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer