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Carson Wentz is at his best on the move

Not in the pocket

For many Washington fans, myself included, the images of a young Carson Wentz performing Houdini acts on the Redskins’ defensive line en route to one frustrating Eagles victory after another are not very distant memories. So his precipitous drop-off from apparent “next big thing” to “journeyman QB traded twice in two years” has been a little difficult to comprehend at times. And I decided to do some digging.

In watching Wentz against Washington, it always struck me how, unlike a lot of traditional QBs, he seemed to be at his best on the move. His ability to scramble strategically, similar to Russell Wilson, appeared to both allow him to gain his own significant yardage on the ground, but opened up the passing game for him as well.

During his best season, in 2017, Wentz rushed for around 300 yards (around 23 yards per game) and picked up 27 first downs with his feet (that actually mirrors Taylor Heinicke’s stats from 2021 pretty closely, 313 yds, 20 y/g, 20 first downs).

Somewhat paradoxically, Wentz put up similar raw rushing numbers (276/25/23) in his worst season, 2020. The apparent major difference between the two years? Wentz’s sack numbers. In 2017, he had a career low 28 sacks. In 2020, he had an incredible, career worst, 50 sacks in only 12 games. One might say, in 2017 he was running to keep drives alive, and in 2020 he was running for his life.

But rather than rely on my intuition of what had gone wrong with Wentz, I decided to see what I could find in the data. Wentz was terrible by just about any metric in 2020 - as was his offensive line - but he was in rarefied (stench-laden) air when it came to operating from a “clean pocket.”

I thought perhaps the 2020 data were the result of Wentz being gun shy, from taking so many sacks behind that line, and lacking the ability to focus in the rare moments he wasn’t running for his life. That doesn’t appear to be the case - or at least doesn’t appear to be completely the case. For much of his career, Wentz has been one of the least accurate passers in the league from a clean pocket.

And before you ask, no, things did not get substantially better in that regard last year with the Colts.

And I, frankly, find this whole thing a bit alarming, since at least one line of argumentation about why Wentz is well-positioned to succeed in DC beyond what he was able to do in Indianapolis is based on the fact that the Commanders’ offensive was both better at pass protection than the Colts in 2021 and appears to be better again in 2022.

But what if top-end pass protection isn’t what Wentz needs - and yes, I realize how difficult that thought is to comprehend. What if excellent pass protection could actually starve the best facet of Wentz’s game, or more directly, what if it’s not more time in the pocket that Wentz needs, but a little less?

Again, looking at Wentz’s performance over his career, I’d say that could very well be the case. Wentz’s performance when on the move, scrambling, getting outside the pocket couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to his performance stuck in the pocket. Left to his own devices, with plenty of comfort behind his offensive line, Wentz is among the worst QBs in the league. On the move, he’s very consistently been one of the best.

This is not - of course - an argument for worsening the offensive line, which might just be the best performing unit on the team at this point, but it is very much a call to Scott Turner and Ken Zampese to build an offensive scheme around Wentz that plays to his improvisational strength. Absolutely do not expect that Wentz is going to operate statically behind his robust line and improve dramatically. If they go that route, I expect him to struggle again, like he has his whole career.

The team also has to recognize that this more mobile style of play is necessarily going to put Wentz at greater exposure for injury and plan for that accordingly as well. I want Wentz to succeed in DC, but it doesn’t look to me like that will be possible without exposing him, and the team, to some risk. I look forward to your thoughts below.


Do you think Carson Wentz can be turned into a successful pocket passer in DC?

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