No matter how you chose to look back on 2016, it’s important for disgruntled Eagles fans to remember this: Carson Wentz wasn’t even going to play this year.
It took an improbable confluence of circumstances — namely, Teddy Bridgewater tearing up his knee in Minnesota, the Vikings panicking and overpaying for Sam Bradford at the 11th hour — for the Eagles to start Wentz back in September. Even the hours after the Bradford trade, with Wentz still recovering from a preseason injury, many of us thought Chase Daniel would get at least three starts and first-year coach Doug Pederson would install Wentz around the bye week. Instead, Pederson and GM Howie Roseman pulled the parachute on a total reboot of the offense with a week to go before the season, creating enormous buzz in the city, but mitigating expectations all the same.
Yet after three weeks, Wentz looked like Brett Favre, and the Eagles were improbably 3-0 heading into their bye week. There was no more mitigating of expectations. The Eagles were, gulp, good.
Until they weren’t. Or at least not good enough.
The Eagles lost four of the next five games, including two games they should have won and two they could have won, as 3-0 quickly dropped to 4-4. A win over Atlanta calmed fans a bit, but three bad losses followed by two more close games they could and/or should have won left the Eagles at 5-9 with two meaningless games to play.
Still, finishing 7-9 and 2-4 in the division is vastly different than 5-11 and 0-6 in the division. Meaningless, in this case, has a very different meaning to us than the team.
Rookie year grade for Pederson: B-
Chip Kelly nearly single-handedly destroyed the talent level on the roster, certainly on offense, so it was clear from the minute Pederson was hired that Roseman would have authority over the roster and coaching staff hires. And yet, with a woeful lack of skill position players, predictable injuries to Ryan Mathews at running back and a wildly unpredictable situation at wide receiver — from trading for Dorial Green-Beckham, who didn’t do much, to an inconsistent year for Jordan Matthews, to the late-season emergence of Zach Ertz after he was absent most of the first half, to Josh Huff getting himself cut, to the excruciatingly mercurial Nelson Agholor — Pederson found his team in position to win games 13 times this season.
That the Eagles only won seven is a concern, but if the year was about growth and development it’s hard to say that with the lack of weapons at Pederson’s disposal, simultaneously saddled with a makeshift offensive line for much of the season after Lane Johnson’s suspension, Brandon Brooks’ anxiety issues, Allen Barbre’s injuries and Jason Kelce’s inconsistent play, there is certainly some silver lining on Pederson’s first year in here somewhere.
The Eagles led the NFL in time of possession, and were third in plays from scrimmage, despite a mediocre first-down rate and a below middle-of-the-pack scoring punch. For that, Pederson can thank his defense.
At times this season, Pederson’s defense — really Jim Schwartz’s defense — kept the Eagles in games. Other times they flat-out won them games. The Eagles had the best time of possession against in the NFL on defense and faced the third fewest plays from scrimmage of any defense in the NFL. So while the offense had four turnovers against Minnesota, it was the defense that forced four to secure that win. When Wentz and the offense had pedestrian numbers in Week 16’s win over the Giants for most of the game, it was the defense that forced three turnovers to help pull out the division victory.
And yet, it was the defense that let up 230 rushing yards at Washington in a seven-point loss. It was the defense that gave away the game in Dallas late and put the offense way behind early in Detroit. It was the defense that finished 12th in the NFL in points and 13th in yards after far better rankings through the first half of the season.
Like Pederson’s first year in charge, Schwartz had a bit of a roller coaster year himself, with questionable personnel decisions in the secondary and inconsistent play from high-priced players on the defensive line. The defense was good this year, but it had the chance to be great.
As for the offense, like Schwartz, there’s a slim chance Frank Reich may be up for a head-coaching job, but Pederson said he will continue to call the plays, something that seemed to distract him from other head-coaching responsibilities at times during the year.
In Philly’s 27-22 loss to Washington, Pederson admitted he didn’t notice Matt Tobin was injured on the second-to-last play from scrimmage, and would have shifted protection to that side. Instead, Ryan Kerrigan flew past Tobin for a game-securing strip sack of Wentz. Would a coach less concerned with finding another play to call have been able to see the bigger picture there? Was multi-tasking as the in-game OC and HC too much for Pederson?
From the outside, the answer was clearly yes. Maybe in year two as a head coach Pederson will find a better balance, or maybe Roseman will stress that in pressure situations late in games, Pederson should lean more on his coordinator on offense, like he does on defense.
There are things to fix, but in all, Pederson’s team ended the season where most of us thought they would: 7-9. He didn’t handle the off-the-field distractions with a ton of nuance, at least with the media, but he held the locker room together all season and found value and depth at positions on the offense few expected.
This was not a bad year for a first-time coach. But next year has to be better.
Rookie year grade for Wentz: A
Eight days before the season, while still recovering from an injury that had him miss most of the preseason, Wentz was told he was the starting quarterback. He wasn’t great this year, but for a rookie put in that situation, he was beyond what Eagles fans could have expected.
Yes, giving Wentz an A for a 7-9 season in which he had several chances to win games late is grading on a curve. Completing 379 of 607 passes (62.4 percent) for 3,782 yards and 16 touchdowns to 14 interceptions is not, by NFL standards, a good year.
Wentz finished 18th in the NFL in passing yards and 20th in completion percentage of quarterbacks who threw more than 100 passes. He was 25th in touchdown passes but tied for the ninth-most interceptions. His average yards-per-attempt was 6.2, 36th in the league for signal callers who attempted 70 or more passes.
As a rookie, he was certainly better than Jared Goff, taken first overall by Los Angeles, but Wentz was wildly overshadowed by Dak Prescott in Dallas, who finished the year with a 67.8 completion percentage, 8.0 yards per attempt and 23 touchdown passes to four interceptions.
Wentz had two rushing scores this season and three lost fumbles, putting his totals at 18 scores and 17 turnovers. Prescott had six rushing TDs and four lost fumbles, putting his totals at 29 scores and eight turnovers. Those aren’t just Rookie of the Year-caliber numbers, they’re borderline MVP numbers.
Granted, Prescott played behind the best offensive line in football, while Wentz duct-taped his line together most of the season. Prescott had Ezekiel Elliott to hand the ball to, the likely Rookie of the Year winner, while Wentz had to hope Mathews or Darren Sproles was healthy enough to even stay on the field, which neither were. Wendell Smallwood may be the Eagles’ future at running back, but he too got hurt, carrying just 77 times all season.
Prescott had Cole Beasley, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Elliott to throw to this season. Wentz had Sproles, Ertz, Matthews and a ham sandwich Pederson found in the tunnel before the game. Agholor and Green-Beckham finished the year with a combined — combined — 72 catches for 757 yards and four scores.
This was a long season for Wentz. He started out great then totally leveled off before playing better, despite modest numbers, down the stretch. His mechanics need work, as he still throws off his back foot and sails balls, leading to incompletions or interceptions.
Wentz was more mobile over the last three weeks, out of necessity mostly, but he showed that he can move in the pocket. He needs to learn when to throw the ball away and when to run, something great quarterbacks have to know, but it’s tough to be too hard on the rookie when his options were so mediocre. And all the drops.
If Wentz repeats this year next season, his grade will be a C+ at best. It was not, again, a good quarterbacking year by NFL standards. But for a rookie, thrust into the role he was told he wouldn’t have, let’s give credit where it’s due. The future may actually be bright in Philly.