But he ended that day riding a golf cart out of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with a black brace on his right knee. Torn ACL. Never the same. Wentz rebounded in 2018 and ’19 — his stats hovered around the top 12, the Eagles gave him a four-year, $128 million extension — but he cratered in 2020, by every measure one of the worst quarterbacks in football.
Now, the Washington Commanders have bet on Wentz after he played relatively well for the Indianapolis Colts last year — at least until an epic, end-of-season collapse. The Colts traded him away without a clear plan to replace him, a signal of how far his stock has fallen since 2017. In Washington, Wentz is a clear upgrade over Taylor Heinicke, and at the cost of two third-round picks, he’ll be expected to have a major impact on the offense.
The question for Wentz and Washington — both coming off two years of below-average quarterback play, both with potential — is how high each can push the other. And the question for Wentz specifically may be, “What changed since 2017, and is it fixable?”
Football analysts say it’s more complicated than that. At the most basic level, Wentz is a good fit for offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s vertical scheme, said ESPN’s Matt Bowen said. Even though the quarterback turns 30 in December, even though he’s dealt with back, knee and foot injuries, Bowen said Wentz still has strength and talent to make the deep, difficult, tight-window throws the Commanders have lacked since Turner arrived with Coach Ron Rivera in 2020.
“Ultimately, I think when you have him in Washington, this is what you want: You want him to stretch the field,” Bowen said. “You want him to make the big-time throws, the game-changing throws down the field to the third level. You want him to be very productive in critical game situations, third down and in the red zone. That’s what you want.”
Kevin Cole, a data analyst for Pro Football Focus, argued Wentz shouldn’t be judged against his 2017 performance because he overperformed in key situations that year, such as third down. By the metric Expected Points Added, Wentz had the fourth-best third-down season of any NFL quarterback in the last decade, according to TruMedia. Cole said a more realistic target is his 2018-19 form, when Wentz was a “fringe top-10, fringe top-12” player.
Last season with the Colts, Cole said Wentz was “pretty close” to that level statistically but poor play in high-profile games — the New England win in Week 14, the Jacksonville loss in Week 18 — made him seem worse than he was. Wentz is a high variance quarterback, capable of making throws others can’t but carrying the risk of extreme downside that could manifest in a season, like 2020, or a game, like Jacksonville.
“You have to be able to live with that [variance],” Cole said, “and that’s difficult for fans and for coaches and for everyone else to do.”
On film, Bowen said, there are a few explanations for Wentz’s inconsistency. The most glaring is poor mechanics with his lower body and release point. This causes him to miss layup throws and keeps the offense from staying on schedule.
The other, Bowen said, is Wentz’s penchant to trust his physical gifts. Instead of checking down, Wentz tries to extend plays, which can lead to explosive gains or losses, such as sacks or interceptions. Wentz’s ball security has been a problem his entire career — his 58 fumbles from 2016-20 were 11 more than any other player in the league — but from 2017-19, he was hitting on enough big plays to make up for it.
The turnovers, after his improvement last season, are not his only persistent mistakes. Wentz’s commitment to extending the play gets him sacked often. In the last two years, he’s been sacked 82 times, second only to Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow (83). Of those sacks, only 33 — about 40 percent — happened in less than three seconds, according to TruMedia.
“We have to see more consistency in terms of the decision-making, in terms of when to take the throws that are available and [how to keep] the offense out of negative situations,” Bowen said. “There’s no question about the talent. It’s just been very inconsistent the last couple years, and that’s why he’s on his third team in three years.”
It will be Turner’s job to get Wentz to find that balance. This may be tricky because multiple reports over the years in Indianapolis and Philadelphia have described Wentz as a poor leader who doesn’t react well to hard coaching. Colts Coach Frank Reich, the former Eagles offensive coordinator who was seen as the one who could fix Wentz after the disastrous 2020 season, acknowledged to The Athletic last fall that Wentz likes to be in control at the line of scrimmage.
“There’s uncomfortable moments,” he said. “We’re both pretty stubborn. We get in a disagreement, and it goes a step further than, ‘Oh, that feels weird. We really don’t agree on this.’ But it’s always fine. We work through that stuff. Obviously, as the coach, I’m always gonna have the last say. But I never try to use that position. I want it to be a collaborative thing. But there is a chain of command. That chain of command has to be followed for it to work.”
If Turner can work with Wentz, Bowen said Washington has enough talent at the skill positions and on the offensive line to get the best out of Wentz. He’d be able to stretch the field with tight end Logan Thomas. He can take vertical, one-on-one shots down the sideline to receiver Dyami Brown. He can exploit the middle of the field with gadget receiver Curtis Samuel or find Antonio Gibson coming out of the backfield. And he can deliver a well-timed ball to star receiver Terry McLaurin on a number of routes.
“How we judge Carson Wentz this year will be … those throws,” Bowen said. “You’re going to have to be consistent and accurate and throw with anticipation from the pocket. Because the scheme works. There’s no question the scheme works. It’s just going to come down to his ability to function and produce in that offense and make the plays in critical game situations.”
Despite the potential pitfalls, despite the unlikelihood of Wentz returning to 2017 levels of production, Cole argued Washington is better with him than it was with any other quarterback from the last two years. The variance roller coaster may be difficult to ride, and the public opinion of Washington’s trade will likely depend on whether Wentz can ever recapture his form from 2018-19, which Cole said might be more a realistic expectation.
“At least there is some upside, if everything is going right for him,” the analyst said. “If the team is willing to take that chance, it could pay off.”