PHILADELPHIA — Carson Wentz looked like a terrific young quarterback in the first two games of his NFL career, playing error-free football and leading the Philadelphia Eagles to two victories.
But that could be dismissed, perhaps, because the competition was far from overwhelming, with the Eagles beating the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears. Things got decidedly more serious Sunday, however, and the inferior-opponents disclaimer was shoved aside rudely. Wentz was oh-so-impressive again, and the Eagles improved to 3-0 by overpowering the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field.
Make that the first-place Eagles.
Maybe outplaying the Browns’ Robert Griffin III and the Bears’ Jay Cutler was no big deal. But being the best quarterback on a day when he shared a field with the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger is entirely different.
Wentz completed 23 of 31 passes for 301 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions as the Eagles overran the Steelers, 34-3. That makes it three wins and no interceptions in three NFL starts for Wentz, the rookie chosen second overall in the NFL draft out of North Dakota State. According to the league, Wentz is the first rookie in NFL history to go without an interception in his first 100 passing attempts.
“He played great and won the game,” Roethlisberger said. “He managed the game. He makes throws. He does the checks and audibles. I’m not sure how much freedom they have. But shoot, look at the score.”
The Browns’ decision to pass on Wentz in the draft, by trading the No. 2 pick to the Eagles, looks more and more ridiculous by the week.
Make that the winless Browns.
It remains worth noting that this almost didn’t happen, that the Eagles were set to have Wentz begin his rookie season on the bench until Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater got hurt and Sam Bradford was traded to the Vikings eight days before the season. It is worth reminding everyone that Wentz is doing this after missing almost the entire preseason because of a hairline rib fracture.
He is the real deal. Make no mistake about that. This isn’t just about avoiding mistakes and letting his teammates do all the work. He had a highlight-reel play Sunday when he sidestepped the Steelers’ pass rush, moved to his right and lobbed an on-target throw to veteran running back Darren Sproles, who did the rest of the work on his way to a 73-yard touchdown.
“I was actually reading the other side of the field,” Wentz said. “I think somebody stepped across my face from the Steelers and I stepped up and just turned into scramble mode. I came out there and saw [Sproles], and he made a sweet turn up the field. Anytime you can put it in 43’s hands, anything special can happen on any play. And he did the rest of it.”
Wentz’s numbers Sunday would have been even better, too, if not for a number of dropped passes by his receivers.
“You just put on his college film,” Eagles Coach Doug Pederson said. “Just watch him. We exhausted his college tape. Those are the plays he made at North Dakota State. That play tonight was just a tremendous play by both he and Darren Sproles. Those are the types of things that we know he can do. He just keeps gaining confidence every single week.”
The rookie rarely has looked confused in his first three games. He has gotten rid of the football quickly and seems to know where the ball needs to go. He has stood in the pocket and absorbed hits willingly when needed. He has moved adequately. And he has shown plenty of arm strength and an abundance of composure, to boot.
Pederson deserves plenty of credit as well. The team’s first-year coach has put Wentz into situations in which Wentz could succeed. No one here seems to miss Pederson’s predecessor, Chip Kelly, too much.
“He did a nice job of executing their offense in similar ways that he did the first two games,” Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said of Wentz. “Like I said leading up to the week, he’s done an awesome job. But they’ve also done an awesome job of managing him and managing that group.”
This came against a Super Bowl hopeful, a Steelers team that had not missed a step in the season’s first two games despite the suspensions of wide receiver Martavis Bryant and running back Le’Veon Bell. Roethlisberger didn’t play horribly Sunday. He just didn’t play that well. And he couldn’t keep pace with Wentz.
The Eagles lead the NFC East after three games of a season that looked like, when Bradford was traded, it might be about what the future could bring. That future has arrived extremely quickly for Carson Wentz and the Eagles.
“I told the team way back in OTAs that it just takes a little bit of belief — belief in themselves, trust the process, believe in the coaches, coaches believe in one another,” Pederson said. “And that’s what they did tonight. Am I surprised? A little. But at the same time, I know that locker room. I know those guys. And I know what they’re building. By no means have we accomplished anything yet. The season is still extremely young. But what they did tonight just proves that they’re coming together as a football team.”