From sunrise after the Eagles' epic Super Bowl parade to the moment Carson Wentz emerged out of smoke clouds during the pregame introductions last week, there was endless anticipation about when the franchise quarterback would return for his third season. His practice participation during offseason workouts became breaking news. His seesawing status during training camp offered excitement before concern. The phrase "cleared for contact" entered the Philadelphia lexicon.
It overshadowed what would have otherwise been the Wentz story line entering this season: what the Eagles quarterback who took such an enormous leap from his rookie year to his sophomore campaign has in store for Year 3.
"A, Pick up where we left off as an offense," Wentz said, starting a checklist. "We had a lot of big plays last year. Situational football, third down and red zone, those things we really excelled in. Those things we want to keep building on. Situational football is something we've always harped around here. That's something I'll always be hard on myself [about]. And then protecting myself, knowing when, and just keep finding completions."
This is a critical time in Wentz's development. He improved so dramatically last season that it would be difficult to maintain that trajectory, completing 265 of 440 passes for 3,296 yards, 33 touchdowns, and seven interceptions in 13 games. His passer rating jumped from 79.3 to 101.9. He was a strong contender for MVP.
It all happened even sooner than anticipated. Former Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, who is now Minnesota's offensive coordinator, said before last season that it's not usually until a quarterback's third year when a full sense develops about what that quarterback can become. So if Wentz was only scratching the surface last season, there's reason to be excited in Year 3.
"I think, personally, three to four years in this league is when you really start to know exactly what you're going to get," DeFilippo said in 2017. "I think by then, barring injury, you've played a lot of football. You've seen a lot of looks. … Situational football, you've been in a lot of games. And hopefully by that time, you've played in some high-pressure playoff games. I think by that time, Year 3 into Year 4, you really start to know what you're going to get on a day-to-day basis with a guy."
The "barring injury" part precluded Wentz from playing in those high-pressure playoff games, and this year could offer clues about his development. But a quarterback's development is not always straight line.
Look on the other sideline this weekend, where the Titans start Marcus Mariota. At this time one year ago, Mariota appeared on the verge of entering the class of the top quarterbacks. He threw for 3,426 yards, with 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions, and a passer rating of 95.6 in 15 games in his second season, bringing the Titans to the verge of the playoffs. He also rushed for 349 yards.
But his production declined in his third season, when he had more interceptions (15) than passing touchdowns (13). His passer rating dropped to 79.3. Even though Mariota led the Titans to the playoffs and won a playoff game, the Titans changed their coaching staff this offseason. Now in Year 4, it remains unknown if Mariota will break into the class of the top-level quarterbacks as the Titans expected when they selected him No. 2 overall in 2016 – and when the Eagles couldn't trade up to acquire him.
Frank Reich was on the opposing sideline for Wentz's first start this season, but the Colts coach was on the Eagles sideline for every start during Wentz's first two seasons. Reich noted that Wentz "obviously has a very high ceiling" and that Wentz's starting point was so much higher than that of other quarterbacks, yet he also thinks Wentz has another level to reach.
"Absolutely," Reich said. "You've got to keep getting better. You can always become better in your game. Better passer, always make improvement on accuracy."
The accuracy part is important to watch this season. When Wentz first discussed what he could improve in 2018 during the spring, he mentioned his completion percentage. Wentz completed 60.2 percent of his passes last season.
Completion percentage is not always an indication of accuracy because an aggressive quarterback who throws downfield often has a lower percentage than a quarterback who throws shorter passes. But Wentz admitted that "I expect more out of myself in that area." When asked this past week, Wentz would not divulge what his target completion percentage is this season.
"I don't really dive into stats a lot," said Wentz, who completed 67.6 percent of his passes in Week 3. "Obviously, would love to see that number go up. Don't really have a number for a goal. But definitely want to see that number keep climbing."
Coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Mike Groh offered an ambitious high-ceiling mark: 70 percent. Drew Brees led the NFL last season with a 72 percent completion percentage. Six quarterbacks topped 65 percent, including MVP Tom Brady.
"If you're pushing close to 70 percent, that's extreme, I think, that's a high number," Pederson said. "But if you're in the upper 60s, I think is a realistic goal in that 67, 68, even 69 percent. You see some of the top quarterbacks each year, they are 70ish, 71, somewhere around there, and that's exceptional.Those can always relate to even sometimes just pulling the ball down and hitting the back in the flat or a back over a check-down situation where maybe the throw is not there and you pull it down, which he did last week. And all that stuff from an offensive standpoint keeps us ahead of the chains."
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Groh pointed out that a quarterback's situational stats are similarly important, and the Eagles place an emphasis on third down and red zone. Wentz completed 65.3 percent of his passes on third downs – he was below 60 percent on first and second downs – and 65.5 percent of his passes in the red zone. That's evidence that he's best when it matters most.
He also threw 23 touchdowns and no interceptions in the red zone, and 14 touchdowns and three interceptions on third downs. If Wentz can have that type of production on early downs and between the 20s, there will be a spike in Year 3.
"The No. 1 job of a quarterback is to lead his team to victory," Groh said. "That's where it all starts and ends, and I think that if you were to ask him what he wants to improve on … there's probably little nuanced things that he feels like he could get better at. He has tremendous command of the system right now, and the way he sees us operating offensively and the way we'll do it when he's in there."
No player wants to spend nine months rehabbing, but the injury forced Wentz to stay at the team facility throughout the offseason. And because Wentz was limited physically, he had more than enough time to review film and study the Eagles offense. It's Wentz's third year in the system, but the time he had away from the field offered him a chance to gain an even deeper understanding of the scheme.
"I made the most of that," Wentz said. "Studied the offense, studied what we did schematically and myself, where I can improve. That's something I'll always do whether I'm hurt or not, to find a way to get better."
In a twisted way, that time could help him this season – whether it's adjusting at the line of scrimmage, discussing the game plan with Pederson, or maximizing his teammates in the offense. Wentz also said his time wearing the headset on the sideline gave him a different perspective of the offense that can help, too.
Wentz also spent his rehab time strengthening his body. Teammates have remarked how hard Wentz was throwing the ball during the summer. The Eagles track data on all their passes during training camp. In August, Pederson said that Wentz's "velocity has been up, accuracy has been up" from the previous year. Pederson would not reveal how his data matched up in Week 3 compared with last year.
"I do feel like now, because of the injury, he's focusing a little more on lower-body strength," Pederson said in August. "It's really correlated to velocity and overall speed of the throw."
The Eagles have another chance to see Wentz's improvements on Sunday. For nine months, the focus had been on Wentz's returning to the lineup. Now that he's back, the focus can be on how he plays.
The quarterback on the other sideline regressed in Year 3. The Eagles would gladly take a repeat of Wentz's 2017 season, when he played at an MVP level. If he reaches another level, though, then the Eagles' prospects for the next decade will become even brighter than they already appear.