The most important part of Carson Wentz’s return against the San Francisco 49ers was how quickly he got rid of the ball. Even though he had just 16 drop-backs and even though they were all in garbage time, it was significant that he never gave in to the impulse to hold the ball and look for a big play, a tendency that has hurt him over the years. Instead, Wentz played with urgency, as if on each snap a clock in his head was furiously tick-tick-ticking.
Though Wentz wasn’t perfect, his decisiveness stood out to teammates and Coach Ron Rivera. They suggested his 10-week absence had helped him get more comfortable in the offense, which improved his timing. Wentz seemed skeptical, but his progress, especially against the blitz, was undeniable. His average time to throw was just 2.07 seconds, according to TruMedia, his fastest rate in 92 career regular season games.
Wentz “played with a smile on his face, which he didn’t really do the first part of the season,” tight end Logan Thomas said, adding: “[The] ball [was] coming out of his hands at the right time or at an earlier time. Instead of processing, he’s just playing.”
It seems unlikely Wentz will reinvent himself in his seventh NFL season, and there are reasons to doubt he can sustain his performance from Saturday. San Francisco often protected its big lead with soft zone coverage, giving Wentz easy throws, and Washington’s offensive line is still struggling. But if Wentz can continue making quick decisions — if he can avoid sacks and hit check-downs — he could significantly raise the floor on his play, increase the odds of beating Cleveland on Sunday and boost the Commanders’ chances of snagging the No. 7 seed in the NFC.
There are a few reasons to believe in Wentz. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner now uses a run-first approach that’s friendlier for quarterbacks, and Wentz has in the past had games full of quick decisions, especially against the blitz, such as the Week 1 win over Jacksonville.
On Sunday, Wentz will face Cleveland defensive coordinator Joe Woods, who runs a similar scheme to San Francisco’s; he was a coach with the 49ers in 2019. Woods probably will generate pressure with his two elite edge rushers, Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, and hunt for big negative plays by blitzing. In two games against Wentz, Woods has sent pressure 31.9 percent of the time, which is a slightly above-average rate, according to TruMedia.
The approach will force Wentz to face a question that has dogged him his whole career: Can he consistently make quick decisions? Can he keep the offense on schedule?
“I’ve always tried to have that be my MO,” Wentz said Wednesday. “Obviously, there’s moments I’m kicking myself, where I should have got the ball out quicker. … Obviously, [when defenses are] bringing the pressure, I don’t want to go down with a ball in my hand back there — just get it to the playmakers. I’m going to continue to try and keep doing that.”
In San Francisco, Turner said, Wentz’s footwork and decision-making showed he has made progress in understanding the intricacies of the offense. Early in the season, many of Wentz’s problems stemmed from passing up easier throws because he thought he could get to something better. “You can’t do that,” Turner said. In his scheme, the quarterback’s feet, or “hitches,” are synced to the routes, which makes timing critical.
“Your feet are the clock in your head,” Turner said. “Like, we’re supposed to throw this route off one hitch, and then the next route is off your second hitch, and if you haven’t done that by then, then it’s fine to check down or throw the ball away. If you’re hanging too long on the route … that’s where it gets out of whack.”
In the first six weeks, when Wentz held the ball longer than 2.5 seconds, he was sacked 16 percent of the time, tied for the second-highest rate in the NFL. But against the 49ers, his urgency helped him avoid the rush and get the ball to playmakers. This was most obvious when he simply threw over the blitz, such as on one third and one, when, just before the snap, he noticed the slot corner shift from covering wide receiver Curtis Samuel to the edge of the offensive line. Wentz rifled the ball over the blitzing corner to the uncovered Samuel for a first down.
Perhaps the best encapsulation was his fourth play. Running back Jonathan Williams said Wentz told him while he was walking to the line, “Hey, make sure you get out.” Wentz was talking about what the Commanders call a sneak route. If Williams’s defenders didn’t blitz, Wentz wanted him to leak out of the backfield and become a check-down. To Williams, the comment was an acknowledgment of how quickly the 49ers’ pass rush was getting pressure, and Wentz didn’t want Williams to dally while reading the defense.
After the snap, Wentz read the routes, didn’t see anyone open and stepped up in the pocket as the rush closed in. Earlier in the season, the play would have almost certainly ended in a sack, but this time, he knew Williams would be there and got to him at the last moment. It was the longest he had waited to throw all game (three seconds), and it turned into the longest gain (21 yards).
this was Carson Wentz's fourth play back lol pic.twitter.com/JpT9CdK4H9— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) December 28, 2022
Washington’s passing unit will have to adjust to Wentz. Terry McLaurin said the receivers will acclimate quickly to his timing and arm strength, and he seemed excited by the bolstered confidence Wentz flashed against the 49ers. He pointed to the touchdown Wentz threw to him down the right sideline against cover-two in the Jacksonville game — “probably five to seven guys in the league can hit that” — and said Wentz can make the offense more vertical and explosive.
“For me, going into this week, you know, ‘Okay, on that kind of look, I got to be alive. I got to be expecting that kind of pass from him,’ ” McLaurin said. “That’s exciting for a receiver, when you know any route is pretty much live.”
Linemen must adjust to the cadence of Wentz’s voice and the depth of his drop-backs. Wentz, at 6-foot-5, can see over the line better than Taylor Heinicke, who is generously listed at 6-1, so Wentz’s drops are usually a yard or three shorter than Heinicke’s. Right tackle Cornelius Lucas said he doesn’t care how deep a quarterback drops as long as he’s consistent.
Against Heinicke, defensive linemen often tried outside speed rushes; if they could get to the top of the pocket, the quarterback probably would be there. But because Wentz takes shallower drops, Lucas said, defenders might try more inside moves or those with power.
In switching quarterbacks, Rivera is betting Wentz can sustain the decisiveness he showed against San Francisco. Things could go haywire — Wentz could have missed the pass to Williams by a split second, or the attempt could have ended in a turnover — but what he saw made him willing to take the risk. Recently, Rivera recounted watching the film and seeing the good decisions stack up.
“It’s all [about] understanding when to get it out and who to get it out to,” he said.