The Baptism of Carson Wentz

Everyone said he wasn't ready for this. Here's why everyone was wrong.

By Dan Pompei

September 19, 2016

Bleacher Report

Rich Schultz / Getty Images

If you wanted to create the illusion that a quarterback wasn't possibly going to be ready for the first game of his NFL career, this is how you would do it:

You would take a kid who was 5'8" and 125 pounds as a freshman in high school.

You would make sure he didn't become a starting quarterback until his senior season and that he wasn't highly recruited.

You would hide him at an FCS school in college, make him sit for his first three years and limit him to 23 starts.

You would have his NFL coach make an announcement before training camp opened that he would not start and probably would not even dress for the first handful of games of his career.

You would give him 39 snaps in his first preseason game. You would have him finish with 89 passing yards on 24 throws, an interception, a 41.8 passer rating and a hairline fracture in his rib. You would keep him on the sidelines for the rest of the preseason.

You would wait until six days prior to the start of the regular season to name him your starter.

You would give him red hair and make him blush easily.

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Mitchell Leff / Getty Images

At this point, no one could possibly believe the quarterback could be any more than chum for circling NFL defenders.

No one, that is, except the people who really knew him.


Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich started to see through the illusion in February. That's when they embarked on a thorough, exhaustive evaluation of draft-eligible quarterbacks. Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, Connor Cook, Dak Prescott—the Eagles went through the process with all of them.

One of them stood out in his preparedness for the NFL. It was the redhead—Wentz.

"As far as learning, he's in the top one percent of quarterbacks. He's really, really, really smart."

— Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich

"He was further along in his understanding of football than anyone we talked to," Reich said. "There was a myth that he hadn't been exposed to anything. Nothing was further from the truth."

Rich Schultz / Getty Images

When Wentz was at North Dakota State, he was doing many of the same things Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Kirk Cousins had been doing in the NFC East. Among college quarterbacks, that made him an outlier.

Jon Gruden came to know Wentz—and the other top quarterbacks in the draft class—through his Jon Gruden QB Camp series for ESPN. He has become familiar with all of the highly rated quarterback prospects since the show began in 2012.

"Wentz was better prepared than just about anybody we've had come through here from a football standpoint," Gruden said. "He's been in a huddle. He was in multiple personnel groupings. He was calling the shifts, formations, motions and multiple snap counts. He wasn't looking to the sideline for the coach to wave some board.

"They gave him the information and put it on him at the line of scrimmage to get them in the right play. He audibled, he hand-signaled. He did a lot of things quarterbacks aren't doing in NCAA football."

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David K Purdy / Getty Images

The important difference between Wentz and many of his peers coming into the NFL is the training he received on recognizing defenses and then communicating adjustments.

In March, the Eagles worked out Wentz privately in North Dakota, and then Roseman, Pederson, Reich and owner Jeffrey Lurie took him out to dinner. Then they hosted him for a predraft visit at their facility, where quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo also became involved.

"We walked out of the interviews saying he talks like an NFL quarterback, the way he understands coverages," Reich said. "The way he would talk about those concepts, it was like he was already in the NFL. When you have been around as many quarterbacks as Doug, John and I have, it was easy to tell this guy was advanced in his thinking, beyond his years."

That gave Wentz a head start, but he still had to learn the elements of the Eagles offense that were specific to their playbook. Reich said Wentz figured out how to speak the Eagles' language in about three days.

Wentz was the valedictorian of his high school class. In college, he had a perfect grade point average and took the most difficult courses he could to challenge himself, according to his agent, Ryan Tollner of Rep1 Sports.

"As far as learning, he's in the top one percent of quarterbacks," said Reich, a former quarterback himself who has been part of the NFL for 23 years. "He's really, really, really smart. But that's book smart. There is another kind of smart. There is processing-speed smart. Some people are book smart and they can't process real quickly when everything is on the line.

"It's like a computer. There is hard drive memory, which is information your computer stores, and there is RAM, random access memory. When I buy a computer, I want a lot of RAM, because now I can have a lot of programs open at the same time and it doesn't slow down the machine. Playing the position of quarterback, there are a lot of things happening at one time and you had better be able to process it quickly. You need RAM.

"We felt he scored very high in that area."

Joe Robbins / Getty Images

Reich said his quarterback also scored high in maturity, toughness and charisma. Gruden said Wentz has "five-star intangibles," and referenced his faith, work ethic, leadership and love of the game.

As for physical qualities, that 5'8", 125-pound freshman in high school now is a 6'5", 237-pound freshman in the NFL. His 40-yard dash time of 4.77 seconds was tied for second fastest among quarterbacks at the combine. He has arm talent like Bruno Mars has vocal talent.

So the Eagles traded two first-round picks, one second-round pick, one third-round pick and a fourth-round pick to the Browns to acquire the second overall pick of the April draft, which they used to select Wentz.

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The initial plan was for Wentz to sit behind Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel, but the Eagles prepared him as if he would play. They taught him about 70 percent of the offense at the initial rookie camp. They gave him the rest during OTAs. Then they went over everything again in training camp. By the time the preseason started, he had been through the entire offense three times.

Practice reps were split evenly between Bradford, Daniel and Wentz. So up to the point of the first preseason game, Wentz had as much teamwork as any of the other quarterbacks.

The Eagles knew what they had in Wentz before anyone else did. That's why they were receptive to the Vikings when trade talks for Bradford began. Without hesitation, they traded Bradford for a first-round pick and another conditional pick, leaving Wentz at the top of the quarterback depth chart.

In their first possession of the season a week ago, Wentz led the Eagles on a 75-yard drive that culminated with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews. He threw another touchdown pass and ended the game with 278 yards in a 29-10 victory over the Browns.

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On ESPN's Pardon The Interruption, former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski called it "the best performance I've seen by a rookie quarterback on opening day ever."

Like Wentz, Donovan McNabb was the second overall pick of the draft. He also was the last Eagles rookie quarterback to win a game in Philadelphia, and that was in 1999.

"I'm a fan," said McNabb, who now does radio for ESPN. "The things I saw in the first game were impressive. They brought the house to him a little bit, and they brought some four weak, four strong. He handled it well, got the ball out of his hands. It was a good start for his confidence and for the Philadelphia Eagles organization."

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Wentz's performance was how unflappable he appeared. He said he has been overwhelmed by nothing.

"For some guys, learning a new system and the pro style things can be a lot," he said. "But going back to my college days, we did a lot of the same stuff. I was calling protections, making run checks, making audibles, playing under center. So that came pretty naturally."

There is a maturity about Wentz that is unusual for a rookie. Unlike many elite prospects who leave school after three years, Wentz stayed at North Dakota State for five. He will be 24 in December. He is older than 2015 first-round picks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota and nearly two years older than Goff.

Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who will try to kill the buzz about Wentz Monday night at Soldier Field, said he could not tell Wentz was a rookie by watching him play last week.

"He's very smart, very savvy, very poised and confident, and that came out in his first game," Fangio said.

"For some guys, learning a new system and the pro style things can be a lot. But going back to my college days, we did a lot of the same stuff."

— Carson Wentz

Wentz has benefited from having three quarterback specialists overseeing him. Pederson, an Andy Reid disciple, was a 12-year NFL quarterback who backed up Dan Marino, Brett Favre and McNabb, among others. Reich played behind Jim Kelly in Buffalo for nine seasons, and at one point held records for leading his college and pro teams to the biggest comebacks in history. He also has coached Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. DeFilippo has been working with NFL quarterbacks for eight-plus years.

At times, all three coaches are in the quarterback room. DeFilippo focuses on the nuts and bolts of the position. Reich handles the big picture and schemes. Pederson oversees all of it.

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Mitchell Leff / Getty Images

"[That is] a really big factor is this coaching staff," Tollner said. "It's very unusual that you have three excellent quarterback mentors in Doug, Frank and John. They all really understand the position mentally and physically. Carson is a really coachable guy, and they are really good coaches."


Of course, coaching will take Wentz only so far. As the season goes on, he also will need a little help from his friends who share the huddle with him. The Eagles offense didn't produce many high-round fantasy football picks, but Gruden thinks the team has talent that can enhance its young QB.

"It's a good situation for him," he said.

Mitchell Leff / Getty Images

He likes the Eagles' running backs. He said former first-round pick Ryan Mathews is running like he did when he came out of Fresno State. He said Darren Sproles might be the best receiving back in the history of the game.

Understand something about Wentz: He will go up against better defenses than the Browns defense this season—maybe 15 better defenses. Opponents will come to understand him better. He will take hits that leave marks. He will throw an interception that will draw boos from his own fans, even those wearing the suddenly popular No. 11 green jerseys.

The season will seem long at some point, and fatigue will set in. His coaches will point out his mistakes in front of the team, and rewind them a few times, making him blush.

That's when we'll really begin to learn about Wentz.

"Being a quarterback in Philadelphia, how he handles adversity will be the major thing," said McNabb, who should know. "He needs to be able to go out and stay focused on his job."

If Wentz can do that, he can prove his NFL debut was not just an illusion.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @danpompei.