Matt Hasselbeck loves Carson Wentz. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback is now one of ESPN’s top NFL analysts and he’s in Philly for Monday Night Football as Wentz and the Eagles take on Kirk Cousins and the football team from Washington. The Eagles are 5-1 and in first place headed into MNF, but Washington is 3-2, already having their bye week. A Washington win would have the Eagles tied in the loss column atop the NFC East. A Philly win keeps the Birds a game up on the rest of the league.
This is huge for both teams, and for both quarterbacks.
I talked with Hasselbeck about the match-up, focusing mostly on how much he loves the Eagles star. (Hasselbeck’s replies are in italics.)
We first talked about the notion that coming into Week 7 Wentz is the frontrunner for NFL MVP. How’d Hasselbeck take that news?
I thought I was being controversial by saying he’s my second favorite. That’s classic. I thought I was really out on a limb.
For real, though, it’s only been six weeks against a few average defenses. Is Wentz really an MVP candidate this year?
I’m probably the wrong person because I’m so biased. I’m such a huge fan. I was a huge fan last year when everyone was ripping him.
We just did a thing [at ESPN] for next-generation stats for quarterbacks. We look [at success] every which way we can, and one way we looked at it was throwing into tight windows. And Carson’s percentage of tight window throws is in the 20-25 percent range. His completion percentage last year on those throws was under 40 percent. This year, it’s over 53 percent. His yards per attempt on that is like a two yard difference.
His touchdown-to-interception ratio on tight window throws last year was zero to nine. This year it’s two touchdowns and no interceptions.
We always talk about how there’s a fine line between winning and losing. They have tightened everything up a little bit. Whether it’s him or the route running or the size of the guys he’s throwing to or the eye distraction he’s giving the defense, whatever it might be, this guy is a completely different player from last year to this year, statistically.
This is going to be fun. pic.twitter.com/jKFjrgm4Z9
— ESPN (@espn) October 23, 2017
Several times during our conversation, Hasselbeck brought up the notion of Wentz being as good a person as he is a quarterback, bringing that up even when he talked about last year’s comparatively mediocre numbers.
See, Hasselbeck really likes Wentz. Loves him, even. And part of what he loves the most is how his personality is nothing like people from Philly, but he’s endeared himself to the city just by being who he is.
Hasselbeck likened him to a former teammate, that ol’ gunslinging Hall of Famer in Green Bay.
But for me, I liked him last year. Maybe I’m biased because I’ve met him as a person. When you’re around this guy in person you can’t help but feel like ‘franchise quarterback, franchise person.’
This is the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry, you want your team to be led by, you want whatever product you sell or company you work for you want him as your spokesperson. He’s…I love him.
And he’s so not Philly. His background is not close. But that’s like Brett Favre and Green Bay. Here’s a guy from Mississippi and he’s the chosen child of Wisconsin. The contrast is so cool. I sort of think that Carson Wentz has a little bit of that. Look, it’s Philly. It’s a tough place to play quarterback or head coach, because there are a lot of really, really passionate fans who are quick to criticize or boo their own.
Players and coaches always say they don’t read the paper and, yeah they do. Yeah they do. But when he says it, I believe him. He’s probably out in some deer stand in rural Pennsylvania or Jersey somewhere. I think I believe him.
Hasselbeck wasn’t just teammates with Favre in Green Bay, he was also teammates with Doug Pederson, and he spent a good amount of our conversation talking how Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and Wentz have set up their chain of communication.
I think he’s great. I think he’s unselfish. I love the setup there, where he had time to spend under Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel and now it’s his team. He’s coached by Doug Pederson — a former teammate of mine — and Frank Reich. I love how everything always goes through a quarterback lens.
A quarterback is only as good as his supporting cast. Hasselbeck talked up the balance LeGarrette Blount has brought to the team in the last few weeks, and how a strong running game not only helps a quarterback, but his offensive line as well.
I really love the LeGarrette Blount signing. Here’s a guy, Carson Wentz, they had thrown the ball way too much last year. Way too much. And it was flirting with disaster when you rely on throws that much. Not because it makes it harder for the quarterback. It might make it easier in a low of ways because you can get into a rhythm, but it makes it a lot harder on the offensive line.
So now you’ve got LeGarrette Blount, and what have they done? They’re running the ball better. First and second down they’re running the ball more. So what does that mean? Your third-down average distances are manageable. Now Carson Wentz is No. 1 in the NFL on third down. If you’re No. 1 in the league on third down as a quarterback, you’re Pro Bowl, man. That’s guaranteed.
Wentz has been fantastic on third down this year, but for a guy with only a 60 percent completion rate this season, it’s remarkable that on 3rd and 10-plus this year he’s completing 70 percent of his passes. How is that possible, and more importantly, is it sustainable?
Well, no. It’s probably not. What I think is part of the reason, some of it’s chance and some of it’s great plays and scrambleability. He’s had some great runs on third down. He’s had some great zone throws. But teams are overthinking it. He does a lot of things at the line of scrimmage so they’re thinking, ‘oh, we’re going to outthink him.’ And they’re not.
Again, I go back to Doug Pederson and Frank Reich. They know what is simple for a quarterback in his mind. They’ll make the protection schemes simple so that you can just go play ball.
But, thinking defensively…if the Eagles are so good on third and 3-to-6 or 7-to-10, that’s where I’m spending all my preparation, I’m spending all my time there. So when you get to 3rd and 11-plus, you say, ‘eh, let’s just go Tampa-2.’
Tampa-2 is a pretty base defense, which Hasselbeck accounts for part of Wentz’s success on 3rd and long. Teams relax and he’s been able to pick them apart. But Hasselbeck also noted that Wentz has been good against the blitz on third down, which led to a lesson from an NFL quarterback about blitz pick-up.
This is where I credit Doug and Frank Reich. A blitz when a team only brings five people, no quarterback really cares about that. That’s not even a blitz to you. When you’re taking notes in the week of preparation and someone’s bringing five, you don’t even pick your pen up. That’s, ‘Next. Tell me something I care about. Next.’
It’s when defenses bring six or more, now I’m taking notes.
In the quarterback world, I’m not even blinking about [five]. I could be in an empty backfield and you bring five and to me, ‘I don’t care. Doesn’t matter.’
And so when a team is doing that, Doug is going to have the focus where the focus needs to be. If they’re bringing six or more, well now you’re going to do things differently in your protection scheme or play action.
The thing I love the most…against Carolina it was 3rd and 4 in the red zone and what does Doug do? He calls a run! He calls a run! And then they don’t get it and it’s 4th and 1. And then they do an unbalanced QB sneak on fourth down because of course they did. Because no one is thinking hard except the defense. The offense is like ‘yeah, QB sneak, whatever.’
The one part of Wentz’s game that people seem to laud the most is his ability to freelance and extend plays with his legs, be it for gains on the ground or to escape and give himself enough time to make a downfield throw. Hasselbeck sees that part of Wentz’s game a little differently, and thinks in just his second year, Wentz is one of the best at actually staying in the pocket to extend plays.
I really love Carson Wentz’s pocket presence. One of the things he doesn’t get any credit for that he does a really nice job of is he doesn’t cause sacks. Some of the game’s best quarterbacks — Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Super Bowl champs like Eli and Roethlisberger — they cause sacks. And you kind of just take the good with the bad.
But Carson does such a good job of instead of just bailing out of the pocket — these lineman, your left tackle does not have eyes in the back of his head, so when you bail out of the pocket and he’s blocked his guy perfectly because he thinks you are eight yards behind the center…I see guys say all the time, ‘ah many he didn’t even help his quarterback up.’ Yeah, because he’s pissed off because the guy scrambled outside the pocket. ‘I blocked my guy perfectly, and now I look like a chump and I look like I gave up a sack, but YOU gave up that sack. That’s not on me, that’s on you.’
Last year when the Eagles played the Steelers it was easy for everyone to compare Wentz to Ben Roethlisberger, given they’re both big dudes who came from small schools and like to extend plays. But Wentz’s game has evolved differently than Roethlisberger’s (that’s a good thing) and, perhaps in some ways he’s more like 2016 MVP Matt Ryan.
So who does Hasselbeck compare Wentz to? Wait…who?!?!
Any quarterback has to play the system the coaches ask you to play. He’s got a lot of Alex Smith in his game. He’s obviously bigger. And I think Alex Smith is outstanding. I’ve been saying that for years, I think he’s the most underrated guy.
I think the skillset is similar what I saw in Jake Locker. Now, Jake Locker went to a situation that was really, really difficult to be successful in, so some people might not take that as a compliment but I do believe that it is.
I think I’d classify Jake as a great runner who could throw and I probably would classify Carson Wentz more of a great thrower who can run. So I think maybe he’s more like Alex Smith’s style. The two who would probably be really nice together as a compliment: Matt Ryan and Alex Smith. But at the same time, it’s pretty awesome when there’s nobody really like you. You’ve got so much to you that you can’t just say, ‘ah, yeah he’s just like that guy.’
At this point the conversation veered back to how great a person Wentz is, his ‘it’ factor and how the Eagles are really a tight unit in part because of their leadership.
Truly and honestly for me, I think the thing that really really separates Carson Wentz is who he is as a person and in that locker room and the respect he has in that locker room.
When Jordan Matthews got traded and you saw the true brotherhood that they had: I don’t care, black guy, white guy, offense, defense…that team is a family. And that is what every coach, every team I’ve ever been on they try to create that. They try to almost fabricate it. You do all these team building tings, all this stuff. ‘We’re going to go bowling, we’re going to do paintball, this and that.’
This team has it naturally. It is so easy to see from an outsider looking in, this team has what every coach is trying to create, and then some. Tears shed because a guy is traded? That happens, but it’s rare. That’s a tight-knit team.
Being with Carson — I think I shared a lunch with him randomly last year — and it’s like, ‘this dude’s the real deal. I want to be teammates with this guy. I want to coach this guy.’
There’s something about him. There’s an ‘it’ factor. It just blows my mind, every time we talk about the Cleveland Browns I’m like, ‘what on Earth?’ For the life of me, when I’m around this guy or I watch him play, I can’t think of what you wouldn’t love about this guy.
Last, we talked about the Monday Night Football game, and what Hasselbeck thinks will happen when Wentz faces the Washington defense and Cousins goes up against the Eagles. But first, he talked about the entire division.
At the beginning of the year we had to rank the NFC East quarterbacks and I’m like, ‘already, what’s the metric?’ And my bosses were like, ‘just rank ’em.’ Well, based on what?
If you go by stats, I’m putting Kirk Cousins No. 1, which is crazy. If you go by the metric everyone always uses, which is Super Bowls (which is stupid) I’m putting Eli. If you go by marketability, I’m putting Dak. If you want a Swiss Army knife I’m putting Carson. What’s the metric, based on what?
So it’s kind of a fascinating division that way, because most of the guys on our show put Eli fourth, which is like treason because the guy’s won two Super Bowls and look at the weapons he had going into this year. But I don’t know how at the end of the day you can’t like the body of work of a Kirk Cousins or a Dak Prescott.
Having said that, Cousins has been, at times, more inconsistent than Wentz. In three of Wentz’s starts this year he’s completed more than 66 percent of his passes and in three he’s under 55 percent. But with Cousins, it feels like that inconsistency doesn’t go from game to game, but from drive to drive. Sometimes even throw to throw.
Kirk, I don’t know what it is about him, but it’s so easy for outsiders to criticize him. But the guy gets it done. I’m a fan of Kirk Cousins’ style of play, but I do think that his job’s a lot harder than, say, other quarterbacks where the whole building is in unison and everything fits together. Without getting too technical, they play such an aggressive style of defense, so I don’t know if that fits exactly with their style of offense.
The thing that I think will be good for this game for the Eagles, is what the Eagles do so well is they get a great pass rush with just four guys, and that’s what I think makes it hardest on a quarterback with Kirk Cousins’ style. That would be the best way to defend him.
Hasselbeck said he’s picking the Eagles, at least as of when we spoke late last week. Why? Well, the guy loves Carson.
How can you not?