Carson Wentz is an Indianapolis Colt: How can Frank Reich fix him?

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Mark Schofield
·17 min read
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We now have an answer to where Carson Wentz will play next year. According to Adam Schefter the Philadelphia Eagles are trading Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts for a third-round pick in 2021 and a conditional pick in 2022.

What will follow in the next few days and weeks are think pieces about how his new offensive coaches can go about “fixing him,” and many will point to schemes, designs and concepts that are pulled out of playbooks as the answer.

The answer to fixing Carson Wentz cannot be found in a playbook.

It lies in his mind, in his gut, and the same goes for those now around him entrusted with the task of fixing him.

Assuming that this day was coming, I spent the tail-end of Super Bowl week not studying the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Kansas City Chiefs – believe me Doug Farrar and I already had done enough of that – but watching Wentz. I looked at every big play of his from his entire career, and every mistake or interception I could stomach. I tried to see if there were schematic elements that worked more than others, or route designs that he simply could not hit anymore.

The more I watched, the more I became convinced that the answer would not lie in the designs, but in his mind and his gut.

Fixing Carson Wentz requires rebuilding his confidence more than anything else.

Confidence in a quarterback can show up in a number of ways, but for my money you see it when he lets the football go. Or doesn’t, as the case may be. Does he trust in those around him, or does he not? Does he trust what he is seeing in the secondary, or does he not?

Does he throw the ball when he should, or does he not?

Back in 2017 Carson Wentz was an MVP candidate, and the Philadelphia Eagles were the talk of the NFC. Watching Wentz from that season you find a completely different quarterback than the passer we see today. Take this throw against the Denver Broncos to tight end Trey Burton:

This is a confident quarterback. Burton runs a double-move on this play, starting to the inside before breaking vertically for the end zone. Wentz sees that Burton is working against a linebacker so he likes the matchup, and when he throws it, Burton is not exactly open. But Wentz trusts the tight end to get separation, and more importantly he is confident in the notion that if he puts the football in the right spot, the play is going to be made.

Timid quarterbacks might hesitate before making this throw, or pull the football down entirely and look to another option.

Now take this example, against the Chicago Bears from 2017. This is a Sticks/Curls concept out of a 3×1 formation with the trips side of the field on Wentz’s left. The quarterback looks at the middle receiver to the trips on his curl route, baiting the underneath defender to jump that route. When the defender does, Wentz comes to the tight end on the inside curl route, and completes this for a first down:

Quarterbacks that lack confidence do not move defenders like this with their eyes. Quarterbacks that lack confidence have to see the route come open before they will pull the trigger. Again, this is a confident quarterback.

Of course, we know how this chapter of the quarterback’s story ends. With Wentz suffering a knee injury in a win over the Los Angeles Rams, and being relegated to a spectator as the Eagles make a run to a Lombardi Trophy. Many have speculated that the injury – and subsequent injuries – are the main contributing factor to his regression. We will touch on that in a minute, but I wanted to at least end this brief study of his 2017 season with one of his final throws from that year, because it drives home the image of the passer he was then:

This is an anticipation hole-shot throw made against a Cover-2 defense well before the receiver comes open. The 2020 version of Carson Wentz does not make this throw, but the 2017 version makes it without batting an eye.

A few plays later, Wentz would suffer the knee injury. Now, now we wonder where that quarterback has gone, and if he can be found again.

The 2018 and 2019 version of Carson Wentz

Wentz would return to the starting lineup in Week 3 of the 2018 season, against the Indianapolis Colts. There was some rust, to be sure, but the confident and decisive quarterback was still present, and that player showed up on this throw to Wendell Smallwood out of the backfield:

Again you see the quarterback making an anticipation throw before it breaks open, but Wentz trusts in the coverage and in his reading of the play. Confident quarterbacks make this throw on time, while quarterbacks lacking that confidence wait to see it come clear, after Smallwood clears the linebackers.

That confident quarterback continued to suit up for the Eagles, throughout the 2018 season into 2019. But in the 2018 season he suffered another injury which eventually cut his campaign short, a fracture in his back that dated back to his time in college. Wentz would be shut down at the end of the 2018 season, giving way to Nick Foles yet again, but he would return to the lineup and play the entire 2019 season.

Yet when he returned, while the confidence was there to attempt some of these anticipation throws into windows that he succeeded in attacking in 2017, the execution was not on the same level. Take this incompletion against the Green Bay Packers, which comes on the same type of double-move highlighted earlier against the Denver Broncos from the 2017 season. Wentz’s throw hangs a bit – and the QB makes this fading away which we are starting to see more of – and the defender recovers to prevent the completion:

Or take this missed opportunity against Washington, as you again see Wentz fading away after making a throw. The hesitation and the feel of pressure is starting to creep into his game with each snap:

Perhaps the most glaring example of the difference between 2017 Wentz and the 2019 version is this interception against the Seattle Seahawks:

This is very similar to how he ended his 2017 season. A hole shot against Cover-2 along the boundary. Only this time, the throw hangs, and it gives time for the defender to recover and make the interception.

Of course, Wentz did not finish the regular season on a down note. Instead the quarterback willed his team to the playoffs, throwing to a hodgepodge of weapons in the passing game as injuries mounted around him. It might have been some of his best work as a quarterback, but it was papering over the issues that were creeping into his game. The hesitation, the fading away in the pocket, the lack of execution that we once saw from Wentz. Gone was the fearless quarterback in the pocket. There were still flashes of him to be sure, but not with the same level of consistency we saw in 2017. This was a different player, and the concern was growing.

A year later it would all crumble around him.

The floor falls out in 2020

(James Lang-USA TODAY Sports)

The 2020 season for Carson Wentz has been described by many as regression.

In reality, it was more of a collapse.

Perhaps nothing highlights that more than a Monday Night Football outing against the Seattle Seahawks. In front of a national audience, Wentz struggled mightily. His confidence shattered, the Eagles sputtered to get anything going on offense. No play illustrated that more than a failure to see what was there to be seen on a vertical concept, something that was brought to light by both Brian Griese and Louis Riddick in the booth, and something that brought my mind back to his days at North Dakota State:

It all came crashing down the next week against the Green Bay Packers. Amidst reports that Doug Pederson and the offensive staff were trying to simplify the offense for him, Wentz struggled again. It even showed up with Wentz running one of the staple Philadelphia passing concepts, a day one installation termed “Arizona” that combines two in-breaking routes with a slant route on one side of the field.

Again, this is a day one install play.

Watch how slowly the quarterback works through his options on this play:

In a light most-favorable to him, Wentz is trying to work through his reads and get to the best option. The problem is how deliberate he is, unsure of what he is seeing, similar to the above video breakdown. The confidence is gone, the quarterback sure of what he is seeing has disappeared.

Wentz would be benched in the second half after this final attempt:

Hesitant and unsettled in the pocket, Wentz passes up an open route right in the middle of the field to force this throw in the direction of John Hightower late in the down. The pass sails high and falls incomplete.

It would be his last throw in an Eagles’ uniform.

But the question looms: How did this happen? Many have tried to address that, and there are multiple answers you can choose from. You can make it about the injuries, and how the back injury and the knee injury and the head injury from the previous playoffs finally reared their ugly heads. You can also point to injuries compounding mechanical problems. I’m Mister “mechanics don’t matter until they matter,” but as we saw from Wentz this season, the mechanics mattered:

So there is a mechanical issue with him, but it is fixable according to Quincy Avery, who knows a thing or fifteen million about coaching quarterbacks:

Speaking of Benjamin Solak, there is also a more global issue with Wentz, and whenever Ben writes about the Eagles quarterback, I listen. I quote at length:

Wentz hates the players to whom he’s throwing the football, as they reward his targets with poor routes, drops, incompletions, and interceptions. He plays like a quarterback in fear of his teammates and how their failures will reflect on him, in a locker room he has never won over, to a fanbase that has forever wondered if a better option is on the bench — an idea only encouraged by the same front office that considered his current weapons sufficient when they drafted Jalen Hurts. When he throws to them, he throws beyond them and behind them and below them.

And the throwing itself? Wentz’s sudden and steep decline in accuracy is partially, but insufficiently explained by a regression in his mechanics. His throwing base is wider than ever, all of his velocity generated by his arm, his lead foot closed to his target. Every throw looks laborious, forced, fearful of consequence. Wentz has never had the cleanest throwing motion, but he was accurate then — he is inaccurate now, which puts his entire process into question.

What, then, is the problem with Carson Wentz? Everything is. He isn’t healthy, his mechanics are worse, he doesn’t push the ball down the field, he isn’t responding well to pressure, he has no playmaking ability, and he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. He is not on the same page as his offensive designers, he hasn’t taken coaching to improve his game, he has no rapport with his wide receivers, and he doesn’t think his offensive line will protect him. There is nothing redeemable about his 2020 play, save for the exasperated utterance that he has to be better than this.

What solves these problems? Everything does. Better receivers, better game plans, better coaching, better protection, better quarterback. There is no chicken nor egg when Carson Wentz’s disastrous 2020 is considered: everything is bad around him, and finally, he is bad enough to reflect it. The offense cannot improve by stepping back into 2019, when the same stale designs and poor receivers were buttressed by Wentz’s quality play — that quality play is no longer there. The offense cannot improve by stepping back into 2017, when the designs were fresh and supporting cast was healthy — those coaches are gone and those players are hurt. There is no lighthouse beyond this fog of uncertainty, this thick and layered haze.

There is a lot to fix. Everything to fix. Perhaps rather than trying to fix everything, the Eagles just took a different approach. Fix everything by eliminating the need to fix everything. Fix everything, by moving on from Wentz.

He is no longer their concern, but his new team has to believe they have the answer.

What is that answer?

Now what?

(AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

That is the million-dollar question. Now what? How do you repair the broken quarterback? What can Frank Reich actually do now?

I truly wish I knew the answer. Both because I could pass it on to Wentz and his new coaches, but also because it might have helped me years ago, when I struggled with my own shattered confidence as a failed Division III QB.

Unfortunately, tough times are a part of playing the position, whether against Amherst College on a fall Saturday in New England, against the Green Bay Packers in the NFL, or wearing a Notre Dame uniform in the shadows of “Touchdown Jesus.” In his book “Art and Magic of Quarterbacking” Joe Montana talked about his own days at Notre Dame, and his struggles with a lack of confidence:

Let’s debunk some myths about successful athletes having an easy time of it…There’s one thing I can guarantee any young quarterback: you will face adversity. For every “magic moment” I’ve had, I’ve been picked off, benched, thrown down, or knocked cold. Every athlete has doubts and low points. Looking back on it, I guess I have my parents and my coaches to thank for my never quitting and never whining when things got rough.

Myth: You Never Lack Confidence

I had to deal with the controversy created by my erratic play. Some people thought I should be the starter, while others pointed out how I only seemed to play well coming off the bench. The other quarterback, Rich Slager, was my buddy, so at least I had someone to talk about all the pressure that this was putting on the two of us. It’s hard to play when you’re worried about your next mistake meaning a spot on the bench. Football is hard enough without having to look over your shoulder, and you can’t play quarterback without confidence. (Emphasis added).

There it is, from one of the greatest to ever do it. It’s hard to play when you’re worried about your next mistake meaning a spot on the bench. Football is hard enough without having to look over your shoulder, and you can’t play quarterback without confidence. It is not a position for the timid, or the afraid. Fearlessness is a prerequisite, not a nice thing to add to the list of traits. Scared quarterbacks do not make throws when they should. Scared quarterbacks are easy to defend.

Scared quarterbacks fail.

Some might argue that if Wentz was shattered enough by the selection of Jalen Hurts to perform well then perhaps being an NFL quarterback is not for him. But there you have it from Joe freakin’ Montana. Sure, it was before he became “Joe Cool,” but the quarterback that grew up to win Super Bowl still had to deal with that lack of confidence in college, and yes even in the NFL. Who can forget the end of Montana’s time in San Francisco, as he gave way to Steve Young.

Consider what Solak wrote about Wentz, quoted earlier:

He plays like a quarterback in fear of his teammates and how their failures will reflect on him, in a locker room he has never won over, to a fanbase that has forever wondered if a better option is on the bench — an idea only encouraged by the same front office that considered his current weapons sufficient when they drafted Jalen Hurts.

That environment is not conducive to confident quarterback play.

Quarterbacks are tough to coach, and not every quarterback is the same. Some need tough love and harsh criticism, others need a more gentle approach. A wise man wrote once that:

[d]eveloping the quarterback is at the heart of a team’s ability to compete in the NFL. As such, the quarterback position should receive a substantial amount of attention from the coaching staff. This attention should be well-planned and should focus on sequential learning

The need for a comprehensive and well thought-out plan for developing the quarterback has been heightened by the fact that the ‘process’ of developing players in the NFL has changed more for the quarterback position than for any other position since the advent of free agency. The traditional approach of a team drafting a quarterback, developing him over a period of three to four years, and positioning him to be that team’s eventual starter is no longer consistent with the philosophy of many teams.

The same man also said this about the quarterback position years before putting that into writing:

I might talk to you a little bit about quarterbacking–I’ve coached quarterbacks individually for the last 12-14 years. Without doubt, if you are going to coach a football team you almost have to treat this man individually. Unless he really has a good idea of what you’re doing prior to the rest of your team beginning practice, you’re going to have your problems. So, I believe that an awful lot of a coach’s work in the off-season is related to his QB.

The man that put both of those statements? Bill Walsh, who wrote the first two paragraphs in Finding the Winning Edge. The second segment came from a coaching presentation he gave in May of 1977, right around the time that his future quarterback was struggling with a lack of confidence at Notre Dame.

If Walsh and Montana are not enough evidence to this point, consider Paul “The Bear” Bryant. The legendary Alabama coach also went to lengths to coach his quarterbacks differently, much like Walsh outlined. Consider this:

But that is what Wentz’s new coaches have to grapple with. Treating him individually and building up his confidence to where it was back in 2017. That begins now, by instilling in him the belief that this is his team now, and removing that feeling of looking over his shoulder that Montana wrote about. When your confidence is shattered and you’re afraid that the wrong throw is going to make you lose your job, you won’t make the right throws that will allow you to keep it. That is the biggest difference from Wentz in 2017 – and even into 2019 – and the Wentz we saw in 2020.

The schemes and the routes and the designs are not the answer, but the relationships are. That is how Wentz can be fixed, by finding that confidence again. That belief that this truly is his team. Building that foundation will take time, but it must be in place before Week 1. Hopefully, for the Colts’ sake, they can fix what ails him and put that into place. Otherwise, we might be right back here by next winter.