FORD: Philadelphia Eagles must keep QB Carson Wentz from running into trouble again
Halfway through their regular-season schedule, the Philadelphia Eagles are still as much of a mystery as they were when they broke training camp.
Given the injuries that have hampered them on both sides of the ball, it isn’t surprising they reach this point with a record that suggests they are also halfway between great and awful.
Which way they will go from here makes for an interesting guessing game — and certainly a more entertaining one than a week ago — but it is a guessing game nonetheless. This is a team on the other end of Atlanta’s only win and Green Bay’s only loss, so make predictions at your own risk.
The temptation after Sunday’s win over Buffalo essentially saved their season is to decide the Eagles will go forward with an offense that might not be totally run-oriented, but one that relies more heavily on the ground game than the presence of Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson would suggest.
With a full gale blowing off Lake Erie and across New Era Field, the passing game was at a disadvantage in any case. Even if the Eagles had DeSean Jackson to augment the receiving corps, this wasn’t a day to rely on getting the job done through the air. Plus, in a major upset, the Eagles didn’t trail by more than four points in the first half and the coach had the luxury of patience.
Pederson elected to run the ball consistently, which was prudent given the conditions. The Bills helped somewhat by remaining in nickel coverage nearly 60 percent of the time, and you can factor that into your Sean-McDermott-is-a-defensive-genius argument.
It went well enough for one afternoon, but, as the stock brokers like to say, past performance is not a guarantee of future return. On this day, however, the Eagles did run the ball 41 times, their most rushing attempts in exactly 41 games, dating back to Oct. 1, 2017 against the Chargers (42). They gained 218 yards on the ground, their most since Chip Kelly’s second season when they had 256 rushing yards in a Thanksgiving drubbing of Dallas to climb to 9-3. It doesn’t get much better than that, and, as things turned out for Kelly, it never did.
The ground performance against Buffalo on Sunday can’t really be measured until the season is over. Was it an outlier or the start of a trend? Jordan Howard gained 96 yards, but also carried the ball 23 times. His 4.2 yard-per-carry average was lower than his previous 4.5-yard average this season, so it wasn’t crazily efficient, just persistent. Howard and Miles Sanders combined for 170 of the team’s rushing yards, but Sanders only had three carries, one of which went for a tidy 65 yards and a touchdown. It was one great play, but, again, one play. Make of all that what you will.
Troubling aspect: One potentially troubling aspect to the running game — for those with decent short-term memories — was that quarterback Carson Wentz was a part of it. Pederson said none of Wentz’s carries were designed, and that might be true, but they still happened. Wentz took off in earnest four times, of his eight total attempts, running with an abandon that seemed to predate his 2017 knee injury.
His mark on the game in that regard was made on the first drive of the fourth quarter when he converted a third-and-5 situation with a 13-yard run, then went for 11 yards on an ensuing third-and-10 situation. Wentz slid at the end of the first run, but was spun by high-low hits from a pair of Buffalo defenders on the second, and his head snapped as he landed. Fortunately, on this occasion, nothing else did.
The game of football is rough, and it is risky, and Wentz is apparently healthy at the moment. But with the Eagles clinging to mere hope this season, there is no point in finding out what Josh McCown has left at 40 years of age.
The coaching staff probably feels the same way, although praising the quarterback’s gutsy leadership given the backdrop of recent locker-room back-biting is an understandable public stance. Behind closed doors, it would be a surprise if Wentz is encouraged to run. That doesn’t mean he won’t, of course.
The numbers this season: So far this season, Wentz has 33 rushing efforts attributed to him. Ten were low-risk quarterback sneaks, one was a fumbled snap at the line, and six times he has taken a knee. The other 16 were runs, either on purpose, or as scrambles away from pressure. Compared with his first three years in the league — when the percentage of actual runs in proportion to sneaks and kneel-downs were likely similar — Wentz is running as much or more than ever. It is certainly more than post-surgery 2018, and appears to be more than 2016 and 2017 as well.
Look, the young man was drafted in part because mobility and being able to run were appealing aspects to his game. That was three injuries and 13 missed games ago, however, counting regular-season and postseason games. At his best, his athleticism makes him an X-factor on the field. But it has also made him an X-ray factor too often.
Maybe Carson Wentz can help run the Eagles back into true contention this season. He has the tools for that. But as the team crosses the halfway mark, nothing is more important than making sure he gets to the finish line with them this time.