High flyer Carson Wentz piloting Philadelphia Eagles' ascent to NFL superiority

Carson Wentz's Year 2 breakout has made him an MVP candidate and the Eagles a Super Bowl contender

Last Updated:

The Philadelphia Eagles have passed almost every test they’ve faced this season, and their second-year quarterback, their star pupil, has been at the front of the class.

This season is exactly what the Eagles envisioned from Carson Wentz when they boldly traded five draft picks, including two first-rounders, for the right to take the North Dakota State QB with the second overall pick last year. It was a deal that looked highly risky at the time — the Eagles technically didn’t know who they’d get when they made it, Wentz or eventual No. 1 pick Jared Goff — but it’s one that appears to be an outright theft now.

Wentz might be the best young quarterback in the NFL, however you define “young,” and the Eagles might be the NFL’s best team. They’ve scored an NFL-high 320 points and own the league’s best record at 9-1 after dispatching the Dallas Cowboys and Dak Prescott in Week 11.

Last year, the hot debate was whether the Eagles made a mistake spending so much on such a largely unproven commodity in Wentz when the rookie standout, Prescott, had been the 135th pick in the 2016 NFL draft. Nothing against Prescott, who is not solely to blame for the Cowboys’ woes this season, but no one seems to be backing that hot take as much nowadays.

Wentz's 25 passing touchdowns are tied for the 15th-most by a second-year QB in the past 20 seasons — and he’s got six more games to pad that total. Right now, he’s on pace to challenge Kurt Warner’s second-year mark of 41 TDs.

Over the past six games, Wentz has thrown 19 TDs and three interceptions. He holds the league's longest current multi-TD game streak at six. Only Warner and Dan Marino threw more touchdown passes in their second NFL seasons through 10 games. All the while, Wentz has maintained a pollyannaish demeanor but a Job-like resolve to become a legitimate MVP candidate.

In Sunday’s 37-9 throttling of the Cowboys, Wentz’s passing numbers actually were pretty pedestrian — 14-of-27 for 168 yards. He’s now actually below the 60-percent accuracy mark for the season, whereas the league leaders are sitting north of 68.

But more than anything what has made Wentz successful is that he passes the eye test. He makes athletically marvelous plays and turns would-be sacks into backbreaking completions. He delivers clutch, statement drives. He distributes the ball like a man intent on pleasing everyone he possibly can. Fourteen different Eagles have caught passes and eight have caught TDs. Tight end Zach Ertz (45 catches) is the only Eagle who cracks the NFL’s top 25 in receptions.

That’s what made the Cowboys victory so impressive: The Eagles were sloppy in the first half, trailing 9-7, prone to dropped passes and stalled drives. They had totaled a mere 80 yards after 30 minutes. Then, surgically, Wentz and a strong Eagles run game dissected the Cowboys one possession at a time. Three straight touchdown drives spanned 75, 90 and 85 yards.

Just like that, it was a rout. After the game, Wentz offered up one of his typically milquetoast, ho-hum quotes for how the Eagles got it done in yet another statement victory.

“There wasn’t really anything big or crazy,” Wentz said. “We just kind of came out … once we got the running game going a bit, we kind of relied on that. We knew that we had a great game plan and we just had to stay with it.

“We left some plays out there in the first half. We just had to make them in the second half.”

After facing the Chicago Bears in Philly in Week 12, the Eagles head to the West Coast for road games against two playoff contenders in the 6-3 Seattle Seahawks and 7-3 Los Angeles Rams, followed by a third straight road game against a New York Giants team that almost beat them earlier in the season.

Although Philly might have the division wrapped up by then, they likely will see a Cowboys team with Ezekiel Elliott back from suspension that could be playing the role of spoiler or trying like heck to scrap their way into the playoffs at that point. The Eagles also know they can’t put it into cruise control with the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings, both sitting at 8-2, breathing down their necks.

Still, securing home field throughout the playoffs is very much in grasp from their pole position right now.

"We don't really think about all that, we just think that we got the Bears next week," Wentz said. "Win the day, that's what it's all about. So hopefully we can just keep this thing rolling."

The Bears can look at the Eagles team from 2016 and see what the future might hold. In some ways, it’s apples to oranges in that unlike with Bears QB Mitch Trubisky this year, Wentz was thrown into the fire to start his rookie season — and played well early — after the team traded Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings just prior to Week 1.

But Wentz also came down to earth hard after that. In his final 12 starts in 2016, he had nine touchdown passes, 14 interceptions and averaged 5.9 yards per attempt. The Eagles went 4-8 in those games, and Wentz suffered through a particularly tough spell from Weeks 10 to 14 in which he threw at least one interception in each game and the Eagles lost all five of them. That’s when the trade looked its worst and when the seat of head coach Doug Pederson actually started roasting despite being on the job a mere nine months.

The final game of that run ended on a failed two-point conversion against the Baltimore Ravens in which the Eagles had battled back from a 10-point deficit in the final three minutes. Pederson called for Wentz to throw the ball — with leading rusher Ryan Mathews on the bench — for the conversion and the win.

It was a highly questioned decision at the time, even for a 5-9 team, as the loss clinched a last-place finish. But the Eagles have only lost one game since. They finished with two straight victories last season, with Wentz playing well in each, and only fell at Kansas City in Week 2 when the Chiefs appeared to be at the height of their prowess.

For the people in Chicago openly wondering now about the ceiling of Trubisky, a fellow second-overall pick, all they need do is look at the progress Wentz has made in Year 2 — and how the Eagles helped buttress him for success.

They surrounded him with a cavalcade of former quarterbacks and sharp offensive minds in Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and QB coach John DeFilippo, the first two of whom were highly respected longtime NFL backups. It was a move straight out of the playbook of former Eagles head coach Andy Reid, under whom Pederson served as a top lieutenant in Kansas City.

The Eagles then beefed up the receiving corps with free-agent additions Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and drafted two more wideouts, Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson. They also added more power to the backfield — signing LeGarrette Blount on the cheap, then trading for Jay Ajayi at the deadline this year — and bulked up an already talented defense. It might be the best pass-rushing front in the NFL, and the rebuilt secondary is getting healthy just in time for the stretch run.

A similar path for Trubisky and the Bears would be music to many Chicago fans’ ears, and it’s possible that the organization looks hard at either Reich or DeFilippo as a possible successor to John Fox if the team moves on from its head coach at the end of this season, with Chicago having won only eight of its past 28 games.

The Eagles have established great balance on offense, ranking 26th in pass attempts with 319 and second in rush attempts with 316. Having Wentz allows them to cover every inch of the field with a college-like attack that incorporates read-options and run-pass options and employs Wentz (50 rushes, 224 yards, 17 runs for first downs) to make plays on the move.

They’ve been held below 100 yards rushing just once all season (in Week 1), have only turned the ball over six times the past eight games and have averaged 36.2 points the past six games. The Eagles are first in red-zone conversions and convert fourth downs (8-of-11 this season) with regularity.

How exactly do you defend this unit? They’ve gone from a fly-by-night offense in Wentz’s rookie season to a sky-high group in Year 2.

“We’re having a blast. I love winning in this league, and I love doing it with these boys.”

Pro Football Weekly