Before the season, the NFC East appeared to be a two-team race. First, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was ruled out indefinitely because of a back injury during the preseason. Then the Philadelphia Eagles stunningly traded starting quarterback Sam Bradford to Minnesota following Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s season-ending leg injury.
Both the Cowboys and Eagles had to rely on rookie quarterbacks, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz , to start the season, and both teams were written off before their first snap. The division crown would belong to the Washington Redskins, the defending NFC East champions, or the New York Giants.
A quick peek at the standings after five weeks — the Cowboys sit atop the division at 4-1, while the Eagles are second at 3-1 — suggests that neither team should be counted out. Wentz and Prescott have altered the dynamic of the NFC East this year — and possibly for years to come.
They have been the best quarterbacks in a division featuring Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl champion who has been wildly inconsistent, and Kirk Cousins, who has yet to put together a complete game while playing on the franchise tag this season. The biggest difference between the NFC East rookies and the veterans have been turnovers — in favor of the rookies. Manning (six) and Cousins (five) each have more turnovers than Wentz (one) and Prescott (one) combined.
Prescott, 23, holds the rookie record with 155 pass attempts without an interception, a mark still intact after five games. It was previously held by Wentz, 23, who threw an interception on his final pass of Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Lions. He had gone 134 attempts without an interception before that throw.
“When you have a rookie quarterback, that’s the biggest thing you worry about are the rookie mistakes that are the fumbles, the interceptions, but those guys have protected the ball extremely well,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said. “They made plays with their feet, and obviously they both have strong arms, can make all the throws. So they’ve been both very, very impressive and are going to be tough to deal with for a lot of years to come.”
The Redskins already got a sample of Prescott’s capabilities in their home loss to Dallas in Week 2, when he went 22 for 30 for 292 yards and a rushing touchdown. Now they face Wentz on Sunday at FedEx Field. The second overall pick out of North Dakota State played just one preseason game before his first career regular season start because of a hairline fracture to his ribs.
When they traded Bradford, the Eagles suddenly went from a veteran to an inexperienced quarterback under center. Philadelphia was quickly tagged as a rebuilding team, but it won three straight to start the year. Wentz has been one of the biggest factors in the Eagles’ early-season success, completing 67.4 percent of his passes for 1,007 yards, seven touchdowns and the one interception.
“I think at the beginning of the season no one really had expected us to do much, and we went out right away and won three games,” Wentz said. “Now we are 3-1. I think we’ve shown that we’re a good football team. We’ve got a long way to go, and we realize that, but we feel confident with this group of guys.”
Eagles Coach Doug Pederson, in his first season, would agree. Pederson had hoped Wentz would play well as the Day 1 starter, but he said the rookie has adapted quickly to the professional level because of his work ethic and weekly preparation.
“Nothing is too big for him,” Pederson said. “The spotlight’s not too big. He’s played in some big football games in college, and he just handles things so well. He’s very mature for his age. Has a good feel and command for the huddle. And guys even on this team that were probably doubting the decision early in the season have really bought into not only Carson Wentz but just have seen the way he prepares and the way he handles himself during the week.”
Washington wasn’t able to pressure Prescott earlier this year, and it must collapse the pocket to irritate Wentz and force bad throws. The front seven was able to rattle an opposing quarterback for the first time this season in the victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. The Redskins collected three sacks and nine quarterback hits against Joe Flacco and Baltimore’s porous offensive line.
It will be difficult to duplicate that success against the Eagles. They have allowed only seven sacks this season, which is tied with three teams for the second fewest, although right tackle Lane Johnson starts his 10-game suspension this week for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
“If you get to him often and you touch him often, some guys tend to fall off,” defensive end Ziggy Hood said. “That’s what we’re going to attempt to do out there. But he doesn’t look like a guy that if he gets hit, he’s going to rejuvenate and pretty much bounce back from it and go out there and stay poised and try to make a play down the field.”