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Should We Blame Carson Wentz For The Eagles’ Struggles?

The ink on Carson Wentz’s four-year, $128 million (at least) contract extension is barely dry, and Eagles fans are already in the throes of post-purchase anxiety.

The prohibitive summer favorites to win the NFC East are foundering, having lost two games in a row and four of their last six. During that stretch, Wentz is 22nd in passer rating and 27th in yards per pass attempt, and he has fumbled eight times (losing five). Eagles fans, who once famously booed Santa Claus, have responded by turning their ire against the quarterback who was once viewed as a franchise savior. This is a shocking turn for a player who followed his injury-shortened 2017 breakout with a 2018 season that was arguably just as good (albeit also injury-shortened).

In Pro-Football-Reference.com’s adjusted passer rating index, where 100 is exactly league average and higher is better, Wentz scored a 116 in both his second and third seasons — rare proficiency for a quarterback that early in his career. Wentz became just the 13th quarterback since the merger to top an adjusted passer rating of 110 in career years two and three.1

Wentz is in elite quarterback company

Quarterbacks with adjusted passer ratings of at least 110 in their second and third full career years since 1970

Year 2 Year 3
Player Team Season Adj. rating. Season Adj. rating. Pro Bowls years 4+
C. Wentz Philadelphia 2017 116 2018 116 TBD
J. Goff L.A. Rams 2017 114 2018 114 TBD
T. Brady New England 2001 111 2002 110 13
P. Manning Indianapolis 1999 115 2000 123 12
J. Montana San Francisco 1980 123 1981 122 7
D. Marino Miami 1984 141 1985 113 6
K. Anderson Cincinnati 1972 110 1973 118 4
B. Esiason Cincinnati 1985 125 1986 118 3
K. Warner St. Louis 1999 128 2000 132 2
J. Garcia San Francisco 2000 127 2001 123 2
C. Palmer Cincinnati 2005 125 2006 117 1
K. O’Brien N.Y. Jets 1985 129 1986 115 1
B. Kosar Cleveland 1986 113 1987 127 0

For players with a minimum of 224 passes thrown per year.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Wentz is in exclusive company. Most of these passers went on to make multiple Pro Bowls after their third seasons — only Bernie Kosar failed to earn subsequent Pro Bowl honors.

But should Wentz’s performance in his fourth season make us reevaluate his future and question his ability to generate a sufficient return on Philadelphia’s multiyear investment?

His adjusted passer rating this season of 97 falls just below league average, as does his unadjusted passer rating of 89.6. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, his play success rate on dropbacks is 45.4 percent — identical to the leaguewide average after Week 12 — and it’s barely changed from his 45.7 percent rate in 2017 (his 2018 rate was higher). And his 2019 performance has been handicapped by Philly’s schedule, the league’s fifth-toughest so far, though the Eagles have the NFL’s easiest schedule from here on out.

But Wentz has struggled in areas that are within his control. A major complaint has been his apparent unwillingness to take quick, short completions to open receivers. He’s frequently chosen to look past easy short-yardage plays and ended up with forced incompletions or worse, sacks.

When Wentz does take what the defense gives him, the Eagles are much better off. On passes thrown within 5 air yards of the line of scrimmage, Wentz has the second-best QBR among qualifying quarterbacks.2 But on all other throws, anything 6 air yards or deeper, Wentz’s QBR is far below average, ranking 31st among qualifying quarterbacks. Yet Wentz throws a smaller share of short passes than the NFL average.

The Eagles also lack receivers who are able to get open downfield. Way back in Week 1, speedster DeSean Jackson seemed to be the perfect complement to the strong-armed Wentz. But Jackson has played only 15 snaps since and is out for the remainder of the season after core muscle surgery. And the status of the Eagles’ other veteran wide receivers, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, is up in the air, and both have been targets of the team’s aggrieved fans.

This rash of injuries is forcing the Eagles to play inexperienced wideouts. As detailed by former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, those receivers have run poor routes. So while fans may fault Wentz for bad throws, his receivers appear to deserve some of the blame.

But that’s hardly likely to chasten the team’s fans who vented Monday on local talk radio, criticizing Wentz not just for the errant throws, but for an Eagles season that has sailed badly off course.

Looking Ahead: Week 13

Best matchup:3 No. 5 Minnesota (-0.5) at No. 7 Seattle, 8:15 p.m. ET Monday

The Vikings and Seahawks have each essentially locked up their playoff spots — both teams’ chances are upwards of 93 percent — but this game still has plenty of divisional implications on top of its sheer quality. Seattle is trying to chase down the 49ers for the NFC West title. This could be a prime opportunity for the Seahawks to strike, as San Francisco’s schedule is getting significantly harder over the remainder of the season. Our model thinks Seattle would be more likely to win the division than not (55 percent) if it wins Monday. Similarly, the Vikings are currently tied atop the NFC North with the Packers, who have cooled down recently after a 7-1 start. Minnesota would have a 62 percent chance of winning its division if it beats Seattle. As for the matchup itself, both signal-callers might have a field day: Kirk Cousins (No. 5 in our Elo QB rankings) and Russell Wilson (No. 7) are among the top quarterbacks in the league, while both defenses have struggled at slowing down the passing attack. In terms of limiting opposing QB Elo ratings, Minnesota ranks 19th and Seattle ranks 22nd. Considering how evenly matched these two teams are, this could be the best game of Week 13.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 13

NFL matchups for Week 13, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
5 Vikings at 7 Seahawks 51.4% 3 1 7 1
2 Patriots at 9 Texans 59.7 2 5 5 6
15 Colts vs 13 Titans 57.5 6 3 2 10
8 Cowboys vs 11 Bills 62.7 4 8 4 2
18 Steelers vs 16 Browns 52.7 8 2 1 13
1 Ravens vs 3 49ers 68.0 1 10 12 5
12 Rams at 26 Cardinals 61.8 10 6 6 9
6 Chiefs vs 25 Raiders 83.4 7 16 3 4
21 Jaguars vs 23 Buccaneers 59.6 9 4 11 8
4 Saints at 24 Falcons 70.3 5 12 14 3
10 Packers at 30 Giants 74.8 11 13 9 7
14 Eagles at 29 Dolphins 70.2 12 11 8 11
17 Bears at 28 Lions 65.4 14 9 10 12
19 Chargers at 27 Broncos 62.2 13 7 13 16
22 Panthers vs 31 Redskins 79.4 15 15 15 15
20 Jets at 32 Bengals 75.6 16 14 16 14

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s Importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Biggest playoff implications: No. 16 Cleveland at No. 18 Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. ET Sunday

Potential shift in playoff odds: 38.5 total percentage points

As great as Minnesota vs. Seattle looks on paper, this clash between the Browns and Steelers looks ugly. Neither QB is considered elite; in fact, Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield is still below average in QB Elo despite a recent four-game hot streak, and Pittsburgh’s newly minted starter, Devlin Hodges, is one of the worst QBs in the league. But what it lacks in matchup quality, this game makes up for in playoff importance and unadulterated bitterness. According to our predictions, Cleveland has a 30 percent chance of snagging a wild-card spot, while Pittsburgh is right behind at 27 percent. (Neither team has any realistic chance of catching Baltimore in their shared division.) In both cases, the winner’s playoff odds would surge to nearly 50-50 with the victory — specifically, Cleveland would have exactly a 50 percent chance, and Pittsburgh would sit at 45 percent. But both teams’ chances would drop below 10 percent with the loss: 9 percent for Cleveland and 8 percent for Pittsburgh. With such long odds for the loser, that makes this a kind of playoff elimination game … and we also can’t forget the terrible scene that played out when last these teams met two weeks ago. Although it looks like neither Myles Garrett nor Mason Rudolph will play this time around, there is even less love lost between these two clubs than usual — and that is saying something.

Best QB duels: No. 5 Kirk Cousins (MIN) vs. No. 7 Russell Wilson (SEA); No. 3 Dak Prescott (DAL) vs. No. 11 Josh Allen (BUF); No. 4 Drew Brees (NO) vs. No. 10 Matt Ryan (ATL)

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here.) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 12

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 12 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
PHI 51% SEA 58% SEA 17, PHI 9 +6.1
ATL 70 ATL 65 TB 35, ATL 22 +5.1
BAL 58 BAL 66 BAL 45, LAR 6 +3.8
NO 81 NO 81 NO 34, CAR 31 -1.6
HOU 60 HOU 60 HOU 20, IND 17 -1.8
PIT 77 PIT 76 PIT 16, CIN 10 -2.8
CLE 78 CLE 76 CLE 41, MIA 24 -3.2
NE 73 NE 70 NE 13, DAL 9 -4.3
TEN 63 TEN 59 TEN 42, JAX 20 -5.1
BUF 78 BUF 71 BUF 20, DEN 3 -6.1
CHI 76 CHI 68 CHI 19, NYG 14 -6.6
SF 60 SF 54 SF 37, GB 8 -7.9
NYJ 51 OAK 60 NYJ 34, OAK 3 -13.7
WSH 50 DET 62 WSH 19, DET 16 -15.9

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Another week, another big win for Elo. The algorithm beat the field for the eighth straight week, this time by a margin of 54.0 points on average. Although the readers picked up points for believing in Seattle and Baltimore more (and believing less in Atlanta) than Elo, that was more than offset by massive losses in their disagreements with Elo over Washington and the Jets. Those results alone cost the average reader 29.6 points; the rest were made up by small differences where Elo hedged more in the correct direction. The algorithm’s record on the season against the field is now 10-2.

Congratulations are in order, though, for David Johnston, who led all readers in Week 12 with 203.8 points, and for Aaron DiGenova, who kept hold of the full-season contest lead with 917.3 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 12.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Minimum of 224 pass attempts in those full seasons; career years start with first game played.

  2. Quarterbacks with at least 100 total pass attempts this season.

  3. Based on a combination of matchup evenness, or how close to 50-50 odds the game has; matchup quality, in terms of the harmonic mean of both teams’ QB-adjusted Elo ratings; playoff impact; and the quality of the opposing starting QBs.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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