Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder was feeling upbeat during an August Zoom meeting with members of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Commission, part of the application process for a retail sportsbook license at FedEx Field. He raved about his team’s “dramatically upgraded” stadium and promised “big-time attendance” would follow. He added that he was “very, very optimistic” about the coming season, at least in part because Washington had traded for Carson Wentz in March.
“We finally have ourselves a quarterback,” Snyder said.
It’s possible Snyder still believed that as he posed on the field for a photo alongside Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones before Sunday’s game at AT&T Stadium, but Wentz’s ensuing dismal performance must have at least sowed doubt in the owner’s mind as he left the building hours later in a police-escorted motorcade. It’s fair to wonder whether Washington’s search for a serviceable signal caller, let alone a franchise quarterback, is really over.
Through four games, Wentz has been underwhelming by almost any measure, including both traditional and advanced statistics. He has completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 1,031 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions, and he has been sacked 17 times, more than any other quarterback. Wentz’s completion rate ranks 21st among qualified passers, and he is 25th in completion percentage over expected (CPOE), which adjusts for the complexity of each throw based on factors such as the receiver’s separation from the nearest defender and where the receiver is on the field. His 82.3 passer rating is below the league average (90.2) and in the bottom 10 among qualified passers.
Wentz ranks 21st out of 31 qualified passers in ESPN’s total quarterback rating (QBR), which “values the quarterback on all play types on a 0-100 scale adjusted for the strength of opposing defenses faced.” Those who chart games at Pro Football Focus rank Wentz 27th — ahead of only Joe Flacco, Baker Mayfield and Justin Fields — among qualified passers through four games. The former measurement is objective, and the latter ranking is subjective, but both come to the same conclusion: Wentz has been a woefully below-average quarterback with Washington.
“I got to be better. I got to be more consistent,” Wentz said after throwing for 170 yards and two interceptions in the Commanders’ 25-10 loss to the Cowboys, which dropped Washington to 1-3.
For a franchise that cycled through 25 starting quarterbacks between when Snyder bought the team in 1999 and Wentz arrived in March, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft must at least be an improvement over many of the castoffs who wore burgundy and gold before him, right? Not exactly.
According to the expected points added (EPA) metric, which accounts for the down, distance and field position of each passing play, the Commanders have scored 19 points fewer than expected in four games with Wentz at quarterback, per data from the website TruMedia. Among Washington quarterbacks since 2000, the first year for which EPA data is available, only Dwayne Haskins had a worse cumulative EPA (minus-31 in 2020) over the first four games of the season. Haskins was benched after Washington started 1-3.
Wentz ranks just behind Mark Brunell in 2006 and Jason Campbell in 2009 among the Washington quarterbacks with the worst cumulative EPA through four weeks. Both of their teams started 2-2. Taylor Heinicke (6.5 EPA/game in 2021) and Kirk Cousins (6.3 EPA/game in 2014) had the best four-game starts to a season since 2000.
Despite the rocky start to Wentz’s tenure with Washington, his EPA through four games is far from the worst over a four-game stretch at any point in a season for a Commanders quarterback since Coach Ron Rivera was hired three years ago. That distinction belongs to Alex Smith, who led Washington to 39 points fewer than expected from Week 11 to Week 14 in 2020. (Incidentally, Washington won all four of those games.) Wentz had multiple four-game stretches with Philadelphia in 2020 in which the Eagles scored 21 to 50 fewer points than expected, volatility that led to his benching in favor of Jalen Hurts and eventually a trade to the Indianapolis Colts.
There is time for Wentz to turn things around, but if his level of production persists for the entire year, his full-season EPA would rank 23rd out of 25 qualified Washington passers over the past two decades, ahead of only Haskins and Smith in 2020.
In the pass-heavy modern NFL, an inaccurate quarterback who holds the ball too long can drag an entire offense down. In addition to being tied for the second-most interceptions, Wentz is tied with Detroit’s Jared Goff, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and Buffalo’s Josh Allen for the third-most turnover-worthy throws (eight) this season, per Pro Football Focus, and only one of those came in the face of pressure. That’s not to say Wentz hasn’t been under duress. Injuries along the offensive line, including to center Chase Roullier, have affected Washington’s ability to protect Wentz, who was sacked a career-high nine times against the Eagles in Week 3.
Wentz acknowledged responsibility for some of the sacks he has taken. Pro Football Focus rates Washington’s offensive line as an average pass-blocking unit and left tackle Charles Leno Jr., who is charged with protecting Wentz’s blind side, as the 12th-highest-rated pass-blocker. Still, Wentz’s time to throw has decreased in each of the Commanders’ past three games, and he has faced pass pressure on 36 percent of his dropbacks, the sixth most in the NFL. Haskins, by comparison, faced pressure on fewer than 30 percent of his dropbacks during the first four games of the 2020 season. Wentz’s completion rate is 23 percent when facing pass pressure this season, well below the league average of 47 percent.
“We’ve got to build on the positives,” Wentz said Sunday. “… Try not to think the sky’s falling or the world’s ending or anything crazy. What did we do well? How do we build on those [things].”
Wentz’s early chemistry with Terry McLaurin is encouraging, though Washington has struggled to get its No. 1 wide receiver involved in the first half of games. The two have connected on 14 of 27 targets for 250 yards and a touchdown, good for a 103.8 passer rating between them. Curtis Samuel has 26 catches on 37 targets for 219 yards and two touchdowns. It hasn’t helped Wentz’s cause that McLaurin, Samuel and rookie wide receiver Jahan Dotson all rank in the bottom 10 of ESPN’s new “Open Score” tracking metric, which, for every route run, assesses the likelihood a receiver would be able to complete a catch if targeted.
One of the reasons Washington’s front office traded for Wentz was his arm strength, which gave him the ability to throw the deep ball. Washington completed 32.4 percent of its passes deeper than 20 air yards last season, 23rd in the NFL. Wentz entered the season with a 36.3 percent career completion percentage on such passes and has completed 32 percent of his attempts of 20 or more yards with Washington. Wentz also has six “big-time” throws — a pass deemed by Pro Football Focus to have excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field or into a tighter window. That’s one fewer than Tom Brady, Lamar Jackson and Hurts and is part of the reason Wentz ranks 10th among quarterbacks in fantasy leagues using a standard scoring format.
For now, Washington remains committed to Wentz figuring things out and using his big-play ability to achieve real-world success. Don’t expect a potential switch to Heinicke to fix Washington’s offensive struggles. In 15 games with Heinicke under center last season, Washington’s offense averaged almost two fewer points per game than expected. He ranked 23rd among 31 qualified passers in QBR in 2021 and was rated 26th among 30 qualified passers by Pro Football Focus. Heinicke’s 2021 campaign is also proof that you can’t judge a quarterback’s season by a four-game stretch; his 26 expected points added over the first four weeks were the most by a Washington quarterback in the Snyder era.