Steve Spagnuolo was excited. The Giants’ defensive coordinator had not done much scouting of Carson Wentz when Wentz came out of college this past offseason, and he couldn’t wait to sit down and study the kid.
Study him the way a tiger studies a three-legged gazelle.
“Everyone gets excited about playing a rookie quarterback if you are on defense,” Spagnuolo said.
That licking of the chops ended pretty quickly, though. It took watching only a few plays. “He doesn’t look like a rookie quarterback to me,” Spagnuolo said. “He really doesn’t. Not the way he functions.”
Wentz certainly has made an effortless step from North Dakota State to NFL starter. The second overall pick in this year’s draft wasn’t even in line to be the starter for most of the preseason. He was hurt and veteran Sam Bradford was taking all the reps.
But then a series of events unfolded. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater injured his knee in practice and was lost for the season. The Eagles traded Bradford to the Vikings. All of a sudden, Wentz was under center for the opening of his rookie year.
“I think there was a little bit of risk, obviously,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “I think there is a little bit of a calculated risk, but what we had seen throughout OTAs and training camp also gave us confidence that Carson was going to be OK and that he was going to be able to handle anything that came his way.”
Wentz has completed 150 of 228 passes (65.8 percent) for 1,526 yards, nine touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 92.5. After starting 3-0, he and the Eagles are 4-3 and in a tie with the Giants for second place in the NFC East.
“It’s felt pretty smooth for me,” Wentz said. “Coming from North Dakota State, we did a lot of pro-style schemes and I did a lot of things that translated to the game in the NFL. So for me, it was a pretty smooth transition. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve been very fortunate. A really good supporting cast, really good coaches around me. It’s gone pretty well.”
Now it’s up to the Giants to change that Sunday.
This will be the Giants’ first time facing Wentz. First of how many? A decade’s worth, perhaps? Maybe more? It’s important to send a message to the kid that this division isn’t his for the immediate taking. The Giants already have said they believe they have an advantage because of their 36-year-old quarterback. The immediate reaction to that sentiment was that Eli Manning had to go out and prove it. More and more, though, it’s clear the Giants’ defense needs to prove it as well.
Wentz showed early in the season that the usual stuff — blitzes, pressures — does not work on him. He’s too poised in the pocket, too athletic to have it hamper him. So the Giants likely will go to Chapter 2 in the book on antagonizing rookie quarterbacks, which is what other teams have done for the past month with a better success rate. They’ll confuse him with their coverages.
“He’s not making the average rookie mistakes that most guys make,” cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said, “but you definitely can disguise him a little bit, kind of get him off rhythm and bait him into throwing some things. That’s definitely fun.”
When the Vikings played the Eagles, they did it without sacking him and using a zone package in the secondary that held him to 138 passing yards and forced three turnovers. The Cowboys did it last week by forcing him to throw mostly checkdowns for short gains.
That approach likely plays better for the Giants’ defense, anyway. They are near the bottom of the NFL in sacks but have a healthy pool of cornerbacks — including wily veterans Rodgers-Cromartie, Janoris Jenkins and Leon Hall, plus rookie Eli Apple returning at full strength — who should be able to handle the quick costume changes required to disguise their intentions.
Even the Eagles seem to know this is Wentz’s weakness.
“Sometimes we rely a little bit on his smarts, using his brain and all that, and sometimes that can bog any quarterback down, especially a rookie quarterback with the first few starts of the season,” Pederson said. “If anything, it’s just a matter of limiting a lot of the extra things, checks, audibles, things of that nature, and just letting him play.”
Play right into the Giants’ hands, perhaps?
“Sometimes you see rookie quarterbacks that worry more about getting the ball somewhere than worrying about moving a safety with his eyes, and he does that,” Spagnuolo said. “I think he is well-coached. I think they have been real efficient with what they have been doing with him. And he obviously was ready to go out there and play.”
A NEW ERA?
A few years ago, the Giants felt they were in a similar position, on the verge of facing a seismic shift in the division. A rookie quarterback came in and looked as if he would be the dominant force for a generation to come. The Giants braced for it, even changed the way they drafted and signed free agents, in anticipation of dealing with this phenomenon.
But Robert Griffin III didn’t turn out to be that kind of player. At least not in the long term.
Wentz could be, though. And so could the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott. Both have had early success as rookies. The Giants beat Prescott in the opener.
The last Eagles rookie quarterback to face the Giants as a starter was Randall Cunningham on Sept. 29, 1985. The Giants and Phil Simms won that game in overtime, but Cunningham became a player the Giants had to adjust to during the next series of years. A Giant antagonist.
Time will tell whether Wentz has that kind of impact on the division and the Giants.
For now, it’s just one game — but one of the biggest of the year for both teams. With the Cowboys facing the Browns, the loser of Sunday’s meeting likely will slip three games behind first-place Dallas.
“Obviously, it’s a big division game,” Wentz said. “When we’re 4-3 sitting in this division, everyone has a winning record right now. These divisional games are pretty important. We realize that. We’re coming off a tough loss and we really want to just focus on getting back on track.”
That’s a lot for a rookie to deal with. But Wentz has shown enough for the Eagles to be optimistic about their future . . . even if it turns out their future doesn’t start Sunday.
“They made the move, pulled the trigger,” Spagnuolo said of the Eagles’ decision to go with Wentz, “and it has worked out pretty good for them.”