ASHBURN, Va. – The Carson Wentz experience started strong for the Washington Commanders. In the quarterback’s first game, he tossed four touchdown passes and the offense attacked the entire field, spreading the ball around and picking apart the Jacksonville Jaguars' defense.
The 28-point effort looked like the start of something fun.
It wasn’t. The experience has not been so good the past two games.
Wentz isn’t to blame for all of Washington’s failures the past two weeks. The Commanders (1-3) scored a combined 18 points in losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys in what can best be described as a group failure, from coaches on down.
Wentz's protection hasn’t held up, which has put more pressure on him to make quicker decisions in the pocket and to be more precise in an offense he hasn’t run before.
“He’s still feeling his way through it,” Rivera said.
Over his last three games, Wentz was considered under pressure on 53 passes and sacked 16 times – both NFL highs over that span. And he posted a combined QBR of 28.6 in those games – boosted by a 95.9 in the second half of a Week 2 loss at Detroit when he tossed three touchdown passes.
Despite those struggles, Washington has made a substantial investment in Wentz – its sixth starting quarterback in coach Ron Rivera’s three seasons. They traded two draft picks to the Indianapolis Colts – a second-rounder in 2022 and a conditional pick in 2023 that also will likely be in the second round. They also absorbed Wentz’s cap hit of $28.2 million.
They need to make it work with Wentz. They’ll give it time to work. And they remain optimistic.
“As he gets more and more comfortable, more and more in sync with what the offensive coaches are thinking,” Rivera said, “you'll see his comfort level start to rise more and more.”
The Commanders need that move to pay off to avoid a sixth consecutive losing season.
After facing two of the NFL's stingiest defenses the past two weeks – both Philadelphia and Dallas rank in the top 10 in yards, points and passing yards allowed – Washington receives a break Sunday against the Tennessee Titans (1 p.m. ET, CBS) ... it hopes. Tennessee’s defense ranks low in multiple key categories, including points allowed (25th), total yards (26) and passing yards (28).
“I've definitely missed some throws and missed some reads,” Wentz said. “We're all still growing and learning together. I have a ton of confidence that we'll keep getting better and keep seeing the explosiveness that we can be.”
They saw it in Week 1. Given time to throw, Wentz was effective. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Wentz was pressured on only six dropbacks and sacked once. He completed 27-of-41 passes for 313 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. He posted a total QBR of 58.4.
Since then, his performance has significantly dipped.
Washington needs to make sure this doesn’t become a repeat of his 2020 season in Philadelphia. After four games that season, Wentz posted a 37.6 QBR with four touchdowns and seven picks. The difference then: Wentz had been in that offense for five seasons as opposed to four games.
“It takes longer than a couple of weeks to get used to this offense,” Washington tight end Logan Thomas said. “The guy is going to be fine.”
But there will be growing pains.
“There are definitely frustrating moments, but you have to go forward,” Wentz said. “You’re going to make mistakes and have some bad plays. You have to remain confident in yourself, remain confident for the guys around you and have confidence in the guys around you if they make a mistake. By no means am I perfect in that regard, I try to stay even keel in the highs and the lows, but there are moments of frustration.”
Wentz's teammates have noticed his demeanor.
“He hasn’t been hanging his head,” receiver Terry McLaurin said. “He doesn’t point fingers at all, he takes a lot of that blame on himself. But also we can do a better job as his supporting cast of making his job a little bit easier.”
The tough part for Wentz is that Washington could be without 60% of its original offensive line due to injuries. And rookie receiver Jahan Dotson is dealing with a hamstring injury that could sideline him for a week or two, according to Rivera.
Wentz needs time to throw. The problem is, teams are getting to him with four pass rushers. He’s been sacked an NFL-high 14 times versus four-man pressure; teams have used only four rushers 68% of the time against Washington, which means they can drop seven defenders into coverage more often.
“I'd love to be able to have somebody out there protecting him because that'll help prop him up,” Rivera said of Wentz. “That'll give him a chance to get the ball to the playmakers that we have. It kind of works hand-in-hand, that if you don't have the protection -- he doesn't have the protection -- his numbers have dropped.”
It doesn’t help that Washington has faced 30 plays when it’s third-and-7 or longer – second most in the NFL. That’s not an ideal situation for any quarterback.
“We can’t put ourselves into a hole,” Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner said.
But the protection issues vary. Sometimes it’s a guard sliding the wrong way that leads to a free rusher, like what happened Sunday; other times it could be about a slower-developing play that isn’t blocked well.
Sometimes Wentz holds the ball too long – a habit that he showed in both Philadelphia and Indianapolis. Rivera said some of that stems from Wentz’s newness in the system. That can cause indecision. It can also result in holding the ball more and then getting engulfed by the rush. Rivera said that aspect will be helped the more Wentz gets comfortable in the system.
"A couple times when you do see him go through his progressions, you see almost to the point where by the time he gets to that second or third [option], he's under duress,” Rivera said. “And a lot of times you'd love to be able to say, 'Hey, if you haven't thrown it by your first one, you get to your second one, you've got to be ready to deliver it.' That's something he'll learn and get comfortable with over time, and hopefully it's a short period of time.”
Whether from newness to the system or feeling stressed by the pass rush, Wentz sometimes has missed an open target – perhaps moving on too quickly or not being patient enough.
Or he’ll try for the big play: On a second-and-9 from the Dallas 10-yard line Sunday with 8:51 to play in the game, he had both Thomas and McLaurin running slants on opposite sides. Both would have gained at least 5 yards.
Wentz opted for a corner ball to receiver Curtis Samuel off his backfoot while almost jumping to throw. It was nearly a perfect throw, but instead was caught out of bounds. One play later he was sacked, setting up fourth-and-15.
Then again, on Washington’s lone touchdown of the game, he connected on a 10-yard, well-thrown corner route to Dotson – with both McLaurin and Thomas, running a crossing route, getting open underneath. Waiting paid off.
“That's why you’ve got to pick and choose wisely,” Wentz said. “Play fast and trust your instincts. You're going to make the right decision and you're going to miss some, make the wrong one. … You try and make quick instinctual decisions, but there's definitely time and time again that I'll kick myself over missing one or two, but hopefully there's more good than bad at the end of the day.”
Or by the end of the season. There’s still 13 games remaining and Wentz has been prone to swings in the past. After the Jaguars’ win, Rivera was asked how he’ll deal with Wentz’s rollercoaster games.
“Take antacids,” he said.