Sorting Out Carson Wentz's Deep Ball Struggles
Carson Wentz is the man. Let’s just get that out of the way.
Three games into his second season, he’s continued to exhibit the raw talent and leadership traits that convinced the Eagles to trade up to get him in the 2016 draft. For the most part, he’s improved on the mechanical flaws from his rookie season and continues to dazzle in his ability to keep plays alive and make a big splash when his team needs it the most.
At this point, there’s little doubt that Wentz is a franchise quarterback. The question becomes, what kind of franchise quarterback can he be? Is he one you win with, or one you win because of?
To move towards the latter, there are areas of his game that he needs to improve on, namely the deep ball. There are certainly other flaws, but finding the ability to consistently connect with his receivers downfield is the one thing keeping him from being great.
Wentz’s deep ball woes have been well documented this season, but just how bad has it been? That depends on who you ask.
If you’re just looking for something to fit your narrative, you can completely ignore all context to the situation, like Football Outsider’s Scott Kacsmar (noted Wentz hater and leader of the Air Yards faction).
Wentz is 3-of-13 on passes thrown 20+ yards, including that fluke completion to Ertz yesterday.
— Scott Kacsmar (@ScottKacsmar) September 18, 2017
This tweet was sent prior to week three, so the statistic itself is no longer relevant, but, then again, it was never relevant in the first place. Not mentioned here is fact that of those 13 attempts, one was a Hail-Mary, two more were Torrey Smith drops, and two others were YOLO balls that Wentz left up for Alshon Jeffery to go grab.
The other important factor to consider is the specifics of each play. No two deep balls are the same. Some are launched from a clean pocket and a perfect throwing platform. Others are quite the opposite.
To bring a more nuanced perspective to Wentz’s downfield accuracy, I broke down every one of his deep balls from the first three weeks and classified them as either on or off-platform throws.
Note: For better perspective, I didn’t include designed intermediate routes and throws. I only included legitimate vertical shots (13 by my count).
Off-Platform or Impacted Throws
Of the 12 downfield passes (excluding the Hail-Mary in Kansas City), eight of them fell into this category, which is slightly encouraging given the significant increase in difficulty that these throws carry with them.
More specifically, there were two passes where Wentz was either hit or was unable to follow through due to defensive pressure. One came on the throw to Smith, which drew the questionable pass interference call:
The other was on a YOLO ball to Jeffery that Wentz actually put in a good spot:
Given the circumstances, it’s difficult to take too much from these two plays because it’s hard to blame a quarterback who is hit while throwing.
Six other throws were either made under duress or came while Wentz was magically evading pressure like Chip Kelly dodging human interaction. This is particularly important to note because very rarely, in these situations, is a quarterback able to throw from a prototypical upright position and get the same trajectory on the ball.
(This is also one of many reasons why I think quarterback mechanics are vastly overvalued by most Twitter quarterback “gurus.” How many times does a quarterback get to throw from a perfect platform in an actual game? Less than we think, but I digress.)
One of the six throws was the touchdown to Nelson Agholor and another drew a pass interference call on Jeffery, so they’re not all bad, but let’s take a look at some of the others.
On this one, versus Kansas City, Wentz rolls out, does a good job ducking under the pressure of the edge defender, and lofts the ball to Smith. The ball hit the receiver in the hands, but, in fairness, this was not a very good throw:
Again, he’s under duress, so I don’t want to kill him too much here, but the fact is that Smith had to make a pretty big adjustment and deal with arguable pass interference because of the ball placement. A well-placed ball leading Smith down the sideline could’ve been a touchdown.
In the next one, Wentz again moves outside the pocket and launches the ball like a sixth grader at recess, but gets nowhere close to Jeffery:
This is a really difficult throw. All of Wentz’s momentum is carrying him to his left and he has to try to push the ball back across the field to his right. However, an argument can also be made that Wentz had more time to settle his feet and throw a better ball. Maybe he made the throw harder than he needed to. Then again, that’s easy to say when I’m not the one about to get destroyed by a 300-pound defensive lineman.
The other four off-platform throws were all similar to the two above. In reviewing them, I came across another theme and potential weakness in Wentz’s game that I thought showed itself a bit in 2016 as well: finishing broken plays.
In fairness, this criticism is a little “nitpicky.” After all, the only reason Wentz even has the opportunity to struggle in these situations is because he’s a magician in the pocket. Not many other quarterbacks can do what he does.
In fact, the only downside to this weakness is the opportunity cost of not making a bigger play. With that said, the ability to make those plays is a real differentiator for a quarterback. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson are known for consistently capitalizing on these sequences. Neither of them would be considered as good as they are without their ability to dunk on these plays.
Wentz doesn’t have to strike on these plays with the same consistency as Rodgers or Wilson to be a good quarterback, but improving in this area could really elevate his game to the next level.
These four throws were generally more concerning than the other, more difficult, throws discussed. On these, Wentz had decent protection and a good opportunity to set his base and drive the ball to the receiver. This is where mechanics can come into play.
On this first play, versus Washington, Wentz is throwing from a crowded pocket. I actually struggled classifying this one because it looked like he wasn’t able to follow through on his throw. If you look closely, however, there does appear to be room to follow through. Wentz, for whatever reason, didn’t do it:
Not driving his hip through the throw was something he struggled with last season that he needs to continue to be more consistent with.
The next one, from Sunday’s game, is more concerning. Jeffery beat his man and streaked down the sideline while leaving a very nice five-yard space for Wentz to fit the ball into. The route was a quarterback’s dream.
Obviously, Wentz missed the throw, but when watching, pay particular attention to his lead foot as he makes the throw. He pushes it way too far outside towards the sideline and, in turn, so went the ball:
This mechanical error, while small, correlates to some of his struggles from his rookie season.
Is it the end of the world? No, absolutely not. In fact, overall, Wentz’s footwork and mechanics have been much improved this year. These things take time and repetition, but this may be something, similar to Donovan McNabb’s worm killing habit, that we have to deal with on occasion.
The other two throws were the underthrow and overthrow to Smith in the season opener versus Washington. From a mechanical standpoint, both of these plays were fine:
This seems more a matter of Wentz getting on the same page with his new receiver, which, hopefully, will come in time:
While Wentz’s inability to hit the deep ball has been a hot topic of late, I don’t think it’s cause for huge concern just yet. After all, deep shots are a low percentage play for all quarterbacks. When factoring out some of the more difficult, off-platform throws, we’re talking about a sample size of just four throws for a quarterback working with brand new receivers.
The importance of those vertical shots cannot be understated though, both for Wentz and the overall offense.
For Wentz, being able to hit those deep shots will take immense pressure off of him throughout the course of games. As the Giants demonstrated on Sunday, it’s very difficult for any offense to continually move the ball in small chunks. It’s unsustainable, keeps opponents within striking distance, and puts unnecessary pressure on the quarterback.
For the overall offense, striking on these big plays can open up a game and flip that pressure back onto the opposing offense. A good offense has to be able to work the short and intermediate areas of the field while mixing in an effective running game. Generally speaking, the Eagles have done a good job in this area, but adding a quick strike element to the offense can take it to the next level.