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The Cycle of Mediocrity and Despair Continues: Carson Wentz Trade Edition

Staging the brand reveal on Groundhog Day was no coincidence

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Tennessee Titans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

I was planning on writing a different article. A few weeks ago, I got the idea to do another contest entitled “Predict the Panic Move.” But a few things came up, including the city where I live being hit by a major flooding disaster. By the time I was back to being able to write articles again, Ron Rivera and the Marty twins had beat me to the punch.

Let me be clear. I don’t dislike the trade that sent the Commanders’ 2022 third-round pick and a 2023 conditional second/third-round pick to the Colts in exchange for Wentz and a seventh-round pick. I despise it, because it serves as yet another reminder that I am a fan of a team that has been trapped in a continuous cycle of mediocrity and despair by an inept owner and his incompetent front office staff for over two decades.

Two years into the Rivera experiment, signs of desperation were starting to show regarding the seeming inability of the Red Commanders to find a franchise quarterback. As I discussed recently, Dan Snyder’s team has never had the discipline and patience to pursue the highest probability strategy to find a franchise quarterback: regularly investing high first-round picks until they hit on one. They have tried everything else, including signing over the hill veterans, drafting in the second half of the first round or later, and bundling multiple first-round picks to make a single selection. As a result, Rivera, like many before him, found himself entering his third season without a starting QB.

In 2021, the Football Team attempted to trade for Matt Stafford. Then last week it was reported that the team continued to have some level of interest in Deshaun Watson, currently facing 22 civil suits for sexual misconduct with the possibility of a league suspension. If anyone was in doubt that the team was in full on panic about the quarterback situation, a few days later it was reported that they had offered Seattle three first-round picks plus additional compensation for Russell Wilson.

At that point, speculation became rampant that the team would make a move for one of the lesser remaining veteran options, such as Jimmy Garoppolo, Mitch Trubisky or Marcus Mariota. People even began floating highly unlikely options, such as the Cardinals parting ways with Kyler Murray. Even in that context, it never occurred to me that Ron Rivera would trade draft picks for a troubled starter like Carson Wentz, who was on to his third team in as many seasons.

One would hope that Rivera’s team did their due diligence prior to the trade. Even so, I am still struggling to grasp how they managed to get past the obvious warning signs that the Eagles took on a record $33.8m dead cap hit after trading Wentz to the Colts and, within a year, the Colts were ready to move on from the QB they had traded first and third-round picks to acquire. Even more alarmingly, the Colts made this move without any obvious replacement in place, in a thin free agent market and without a first-round pick to try to find one in the draft. An inside account, published in the Athletic, has reported that the Colts were prepared to eat a $15m dead cap hit to release Wentz. Fortunately for them, they didn’t have to, because the Commanders came to the rescue.

Let me review a few of the key reasons why I wouldn’t have imagined that Ron’s Commies would get so desperate that they’d trade for Wentz, and why I am baffled that they gave up what they did for him.

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Character and Culture

Perhaps the most irritating aspect of this trade is its sheer hypocrisy. Since his arrival, Rivera has preached to us the importance of building a winning culture by acquiring players with high character. Last season’s starting QB by default, Taylor Heinicke, may have had physical limitations, but there is no denying his natural leadership and commitment to winning. Is Carson Wentz an upgrade in this respect? Does he even fit Rivera’s model?

During his time in Philadelphia, Wentz had been dogged by reports that he is a bad teammate. In 2019, PhillyVoice journalist Joe Santoliquito published a report citing numerous NFL and team sources, which claimed there was a belief within the team that Wentz may have been the root of the Eagles’ offensive struggles in 2018. The report claimed that Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles was universally loved, but Wentz wasn’t. Numerous team sources described Wentz as selfish, uncompromising, egotistical, and that he plays favorites and lacks accountability.

More recently, it was reported that Wentz caused a locker room altercation by bitching to a group of other injured players before the 2017 NFC Championship game about the team’s success without him. Jason Peters had to step in to prevent fisticuffs.

Wentz’s selfishness, fragility, and lack of competitive toughness were put on full display when the Eagles drafted Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 draft. In contrast to quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, who shrugged off their teams drafting younger quarterbacks in the second round, Wentz’s confidence seems to have taken a nose dive following Hurts’ arrival, despite having recently been extended on a record contract.

His performance on the field cratered. His TD:INT ratio rose from 27:7 in 2019 to 16:15 in 2020. His sack total rose from 37 in 2019 to an amazing 50 in 2020, despite only playing 12 games. In adjusted terms, his interception rate rose from 1.2% in 2019 to 3.4% in 2020 (2.8x increase) and his sack rate from 5.7% to 10.3% (1.8x increase). His league ranking by total QBR dropped from 11th in 2019 to 28th in 2020.

The knocks on Wentz in Philadelphia for showing a lack of leadership and accountability were echoed by sources in Indianapolis.

Rebuilding or Win Now, Which Is It?

Another thing I hate about this trade is that it seems to be all about Rivera’s need to win right now and does not appear to have anything to do with the team’s future. In fact, it is not even clear what the plan is.

Heading into this offseason, it seemed that Rivera had two main options to find a long-term solution at QB. He could try to acquire a veteran franchise QB via trade or, seemingly less likely, via free agency. Alternatively, he could follow the lead of most of the best teams in the cap era and look to the draft. The latter option would likely involve signing a veteran on a team-friendly contract as a short-term bridge to allow a drafted QB to develop without the pressure to start him too early.

It’s not entirely clear to me which of these options Wentz is. Is he intended to be a long-term starter or a bridge to allow the team to develop a rookie? The facts that the team gave up significant draft capital to acquire him, and that they took on his full salary at the low end of premium starter money would seem to be strong signals that he was signed to be the starter.

However, the fact that Commanders gave themselves an out, by not committing beyond 2022, is hardly a vote of confidence in a new franchise QB. The contract structure is pretty much a one year prove-it deal, with an option to extend for two years. But the salary is mid-level starting money. What is that?

A Bridge to Nowhere

One thing it does not appear to be is a secure bridge to the future. This has more to do with the choice of Wentz, out of all the available options, rather than the contract itself. As I mentioned above, Wentz cratered in 2020, following the selection of Jalen Hurts in the second round of that year’s draft. At the time Wentz was coming off three successful seasons as the starter, and had been extended the previous season on a four year, $128m deal, with $66.5m guaranteed.

The Eagles extended Wentz, despite the fact that he had missed significant time due to injury in each of the previous two seasons. It might have seemed reasonable at the time to assume that Hurts was drafted to be a cost-effective backup, to cover any future injury time. Yet somehow this signing appeared to have shaken Wentz’s confidence, resulting in a sharp drop off in on-field performance.

Is this the guy you sign as a bridge? Were there any worse options? At this point in time, I’m still waiting for a coherent narrative to come together about how this signing helps to get us beyond 2022. Every story line seems to have a major continuity error.

The absence of an obvious cohesive rationale leaves me thinking that this was an expensive panic move to fix Rivera’s immediate problem this year with no thought to the future. Giving away draft picks is always a tell about where the front office is focused. That leads to the next question. Is this team really in win-now mode? Perhaps it is, in the sense of Ron Rivera retaining his job. It would be a stretch, though, to say that we are just one piece away from making a deep playoff run.

Washington Football Team v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

How Much Did We Spend for this Guy, and What Did We Get for Our Investment?

From a risk-value perspective, this trade is simply baffling. Whatever the issues were that led the Eagles to trade with Indy, something must have been bad enough to motivate them to take on a league record $38m dead cap hit to part ways with Wentz, a year after signing him as their franchise QB with $66.5m guaranteed money. The following year, the Colts were ready to move on, before the Eagles had even used the first and third-round draft picks that they acquired in the trade.

If those are not major red flags, what the hell are they?

How much should you pay for a former Bert Bell Award winner, on to his third team in three years, whose recent play has declined, amid constant rumors of attitude issues and resistance to coaching? That’s ultimately a market question. How did Wentz compare to the other available options?

DeShaun Watson

The remaining premium vet option didn’t play in 2021 because of his legal situation. At the time of the Wentz trade, a grand jury was considering criminal sexual assault charges. Those have since been dropped, but Watson is still facing 22 civil suits and a possible league suspension. Watson has a similar risk profile to Wentz, but for different reasons.

Watson also has a no trade clause, so it is up to him whether he would play for the Commanders. The last season he played, he was a far superior quarterback to Wentz in 2021. If he does manage to clear his legal issues and any league suspension, there should be a market for his skillset as a top-tier franchise QB. The only question is whether teams would be willing to commit to him long term given the risks he poses as an alleged serial sexual offender and how he became disgruntled with Houston. Someone will trade multiple first-round picks and pay him over $35m APY.

Jimmy Garoppolo

If Watson is the Lamborghini of veteran QB trade targets, Garoppolo is the Toyota Corolla. He is good enough to get a really good team to the Super Bowl, but he might not elevate a team like the Commanders very much on his own. Garoppolo’s recent play is about on a par with the best of the journeyman FA options, but he has taken his team to the NFC Championship two times in the last three years. For that, he will cost you around $25m and, unlike the FA options, whatever draft capital San Francisco can extract from you.

Jameis Winston

The best available FA QB is Jameis Winston, who last season played on a cheap prove-it contract with New Orleans. He did prove something last season in seven starts for New Orleans, posting 95 completions for 1170 yds with 14 TD to 3 INTs and a respectable total QBR of 64.4. There should be a healthy market for his services if New Orleans were to let him go. But they would be crazy to not attempt to re-sign him given their second-worst cap position in the league. They would be hard pressed to replace his skillset for what they could probably pay to keep him. PFF projects his next contract at one year, $7m with incentives up to $12m, roughly 25-43% of what the Commanders will pay Wentz.

No draft capital or other assets would have been required to acquire Winston, if Rivera could have somehow lured him away from the far superior New Orleans squad.

Journeymen and Bridge QBs

After Winston, the next best available FA QBs, in about this order are Teddy Bridgewater, Mitch Trubisky, Marcus Mariota, Andy Dalton, Jacoby Brissett and Tyrod Taylor.

There is a widespread belief that there will be a bristling market for Trubisky’s services. I am not sure why his value has improved after a year on the bench, following being released by the team that drafted him. His play dropped off during his last two seasons in Chicago, following a Pro Bowl season in 2018.

The rest of the QBs on this list should be available on short-term contracts for less than $10m, some for much less, without trading draft picks. How does Wentz stack up to the best available free agents? Let’s compare the last two seasons as starters by total QBR, as well as actual (Wentz) or PFF’s projected contract value in 2022:

Jameis Winston seems to have a bit of an edge over Wentz and the rest of the available FAs. The other two FAs in this market have pretty similar numbers to Wentz. The most expensive of them is projected to cost about half what the Commanders are paying Wentz and you get to keep your draft picks.

I suppose the excitement about Wentz being a significant upgrade over Washington’s recent starting QBs must be predicated on an assumption that the change of scenery in Washington will magically return him to his 2019 form, because since 2019 he hasn’t played any better than the top journeymen. I have no idea why that same benefit of the doubt, some might say giant leap of faith, does not equally apply to Mitch Trubisky, whom PFF believes we could have had for half the price of Wentz.

Nor do I understand why Frank Reich, the coach who originally drafted Wentz, and put his reputation on the line to bring him to Indianapolis, was unable to turn Wentz around, but somehow Ron Rivera will.

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

What Should We Expect from Our New Starting QB?

I could be wrong about Wentz. Maybe the issues about his personality clashes with teammates in Philadelphia were overstated. Perhaps he learned from his experience and matured in Indianapolis. Some have suggested that his departure after one year in Indy was the work of a meddling owner. Maybe, but I doubt it.

Channeling Rich Tandler, this is how I would place $100 in chips betting on how the Wentz experiment will turn out:

1. Our Wildest Dreams Come True - $1

Faced with the realization that this is his last chance to be an NFL starter, Wentz finally accepts the need to change. Rivera is able to achieve the miraculous turnaround to pre-2020 form that eluded Frank Reich. The Commanders have found their franchise QB and would be crazy not to extend him on a long term deal.

2. Best Case Realistic Scenario - $5

Keep the bit about the realization that this is his last chance forcing a change of behavior. If Wentz can be convinced to act like a leader and listen to coaches, he might be able to correct his slide, and the Commanders could finally have a decent starting quality QB under center for a few seasons.

However, having Wentz as the starter will make it difficult to draft his eventual replacement. Unless he has fundamentally changed since Philadelphia, his fragile ego is likely to pop again as soon as he perceives a competitor on the roster.

Whenever the Wentz experiment does finally end, the team is likely to be right back where it started at the QB position. That could be as early as 2023, if the team picks a QB in the first or second round of the upcoming draft, which leads us to the next scenario.

3. Most Likely Scenario - $94

Wentz continues to be who he is. The Commanders’ experience is similar to the Eagles and Colts. Hopefully, by the end of the first season the team is ready to move on. Another year goes by without meaningfully addressing the need for a franchise QB and we are down a 2022 third round pick and a conditional second/third in 2023.

The reason I said “hopefully” is that I have very little confidence in the Commanders’ decision makers to take decisive action when it becomes clear that Wentz is not working out. If 22 years of experience watching Dan Snyder’s club has told me anything it is that, when signs of trouble do emerge, they will kick the can for at least another season (think RG3, think Kirk Cousins). Net result, whether it is next January or 2024, is that the team will end up a hot mess and be back to square one at QB, minus two day-two draft picks.

Combining scenarios two and three, I am betting that there is a 99% likelihood that the Wentz era ends within one to three years without Washington being any closer to finding a long-term solution at QB. This fanbase is so used to losing that, if they do manage to win a playoff game before parting ways with Wentz, he will probably be considered a great success.

I would have much preferred if the team had kept its draft picks, signed one of the journeymen FAs and drafted a QB 11th overall.

Summary and Conclusion

I have argued that, instead of pursuing quick fixes and making splash moves, Rivera’s team needs to finally get serious about drafting a QB, and take a disciplined approach to investing high first-round picks until they hit on one.

The Wentz trade is just the latest in a decades long series of sideways and bungled moves that have got us nowhere. This trade aggravates my Snyder Era Washington Fan Traumatic Stress Disorder (SEWFTSDTM) because:

  • It is a panic move to address an immediate need with no view to the future. Rivera may have found himself in win-now mode, but this team is far from being one QB away from making a long playoff run.
  • Wentz reacted very badly to his previous team drafting rookie a QB, raising serious doubts about his suitability to act as a bridge to a young starter, not to mention his competitive toughness. Trading for Wentz and signing him as the presumptive starter moves us in the opposite direction from drafting and developing a franchise QB.
  • Carson Wentz is now a mediocre starting QB, dogged by serious concerns about poor leadership and bad attitudes. I can see no reason to expect Ron Rivera to fix anything that Frank Reich couldn’t.
  • The trade was a massive overpay relative to the market of similarly talented QBs. Even acknowledging the challenge of attracting top FA talent to a perennially losing franchise, the Commanders should have been able to sign a journeyman QB with comparable 2021 performance to Wentz without surrendering draft picks, and for half the cap hit or less.

But other than that, I thought it was great.

Acknowledgement: Thanks, as usual, for skillful editing by James Dorsett.


Poll

What stage of grief are you at following the trade for Wentz?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Denial – We got our franchise QB. The 2020 slump was due to poor coaching and substandard receivers. Reports of selfish behavior and poor leadership are just grumbling by jealous teammates. Carson was railroaded in Indianapolis by a meddling owner.
    (56 votes)
  • 12%
    Anger - What Matt said
    (155 votes)
  • 25%
    Bargaining – I’m OK with it. We can still draft a QB at #11, and if Wentz doesn’t work out, move on in 2023 with no dead cap. I’m happy to give up two third-round picks for a shot at a franchise QB. Who have we ever drafted in the third round, anyway?
    (308 votes)
  • 27%
    Depression - this is how I felt when I heard (pick one): we released Brad Johnson and signed Jeff George, we drafted a CB instead of Aaron Rodgers, we traded for Donovan McNabb, we traded for RG3, we tagged Kirk Cousins again, we traded for Alex Smith
    (337 votes)
  • 29%
    Acceptance - I have seen this show before. The Commanders may not win a Divisional Round playoff game under current ownership, but I still have my friends and family and that is what really matters.
    (361 votes)
1217 votes total Vote Now