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November 27, 2016

What Eagles fans should hope to see from Wentz in season's final six games

Eagles NFL
112617_Carson-Wentz_AP Stephen Brashear/AP

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.

There are two ways of looking at the Eagles' final six games of the 2016 season. Some people see a team fighting for a playoff spot. Others, however, look at the same group of guys and see a team with obvious deficiencies at certain positions and a quarterback who, although he has shown ability, is still going through the ups and downs that nearly every rookie experience.

The truth lies somewhere in between, as it often does, but for the sake of this story, we're going to stick to the latter view and specifically examine Carson Wentz and what expectations should be put on him in the final month and a half of the regular season. 

"The biggest thing I think is just efficiency, being smart as a quarterback and understanding what we're trying to get done from a game plan standpoint," head coach Doug Pederson said Saturday when asked what he would like to see from Wentz down the stretch. "Completion percentage, all that is factored in there. How well he moves the team, first down, staying on the field, good decisions on third down, protecting the football. 

"Those are the things now down the stretch that you want to see from your quarterback and the leader of the team."

Do you notice anything missing from there? I've read it a few times, but I can't seem to find the word "win" anywhere in there. It's an approach more Eagles fans should adopt; it'll likely make your next six weeks a bit more enjoyable.

Because whether or not the Eagles make the playoffs, this season – and all that led up to it, for that matter – will be dubbed a success so long as Wentz continues to progress rather than stagnate or, worse yet, regress. 

Firing Chip Kelly. Re-installing Howie Roseman. Hiring Doug Pederson and offensive staff heavy on former QBs. Trading Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso to move up. Packaging that pick with several others for the second-overall pick. Drafting Wentz. Dealing Sam Bradford to the Vikings for a first-rounder that will likely be better than one you sent to Cleveland for the No. 2 pick. Letting the FCS rookie start in Week 1. 

All of it. Worked to perfection. So long as Wentz continues to develop and improve.

After all, finding a franchise quarterback is one of the most difficult -- and most important -- tasks for a rebuilding team to complete. Ask Cleveland. Too cliche? Ask the Rams, Texans, Jets, Bills, and the list goes on. Some teams have to go through hell before finding their guy, and it can often come at the expense of the team as a whole, which in turn leads to other personnel issues up and down the roster.

It rarely almost never* goes quite as smoothly as it has for the Eagles. 

*Unfortunately, lightning struck twice in 2016, as it appears Dallas fans can already riposte a question Eagles fans were hoping would be left unanswered for years after Tony Romo retires -- "What are you going to do next?" 

That being said, it hasn't been a perfect season for the 23-year-old QB from North Dakota State. It may have started that way, but over the past six games, Wentz has come crashing back down to earth, much like the rest of his teammates. The Eagles are 2-4 in that span, and after throwing seven touchdowns before throwing his first interception, Wentz has thrown just four TDs and six INTs in the last six weeks.

But it gets worse.

He's only completing about 60 percent of his passes, down from over 67 percent in his first four starts. He's also only thrown for more than 300 yards once and has just one game with a passer rating of 90 or better.

Neither of those games, however, was an Eagles' win.

@WAS L 11-22 179 0-0 77.7
MIN W 16-28 138 1-2 52.4
@DAL L 32-43 202 1-0 91.4
@NYG L 27-47 364 0-2 64.5
ATL W 25-36 231 0-0 86.7
@SEA L 23-45 218 2-2 61.2
-- 2-4 134-221 1,332 4-6 72.4

Therein lies the reason we're only going to focus on Wentz from here on out. Quarterback play, while often indicative of a team's overall success, will only take you so far when the player in question is a rookie. What constitutes a good game for Wentz does not look the same as one from someone like his opponent on Monday, Aaron Rodgers.

That's largely because the expectations for the rookie have, thankfully, not yet reached Rodgers-level. A "good game" right now for Wentz looks like the Dallas or Falcons games because you're seeing precisely the things you want to see from a developing player. For Rodgers (at least the pre-2016 version of him), 250 yards with a pair of touchdown passes and no interceptions is an average game. Average. And if you're getting that kind of production and consistency from your QB, wins are expected, even if the defense is a little subpar.

Wentz hasn't had one of those games recently. But he hasn't been particularly terrible either. That puts the outcome of the game largely on the shoulders of the defense and special teams. They have to be the difference makers, and as you can see this season, that's held true throughout. In their 10 games so far, the Eagles have scored in the 20s in all but two of them -- so when the defense holds opponents to fewer than 20 points, they're 5-0; when they allow 20 or more, they're 0-5.

Oh, and in the four games this season when Wentz has posted a 90-plus passer rating, the Eagles are 2-2. In the six games when he's been under 90, they're 3-3, including a win over the Vikings despite his season-low 52.4 rating.

With that in mind, let's take a quick look at five things all Eagles fans should want to see out of their rookie before the end of the season, especially after his aforementioned struggles in recent weeks.

1. Win a division game (or two)

I know, I know. I said the wins and losses don't have a whole lot to do with Wentz, but it's a proverbial monkey he needs to get off his back before the end of the season. You really don't want to carry that one over to your second season. 

There's good news on this front, however, given that the first half of the Birds' NFC East schedule was full of road games. Their remaining three division games will all be at home, where they're undefeated in 2016.

2. Win a road game

That brings us to our next point -- and I swear the last three will have nothing to do with the outcome of the games. The Eagles may be 4-0 at home, but they're just 1-5 on the road and have lost five straight away from the Linc. This, like the last one, is more of a milestone to check off his rookie to-do list than proof that he's developing into a more mature quarterback. Still, finishing a season 0-8 on the road (and 0-6 in the division) is a bad look, no matter how you play.

3. From third to first

The Eagles are tied for the third-worst conversion rate on third down in the NFL (33.6 percent). They average 7.81 yards to go on third down, which isn't great, but here's where Wentz can help: STOP THROWING SHORT OF THE STICKS.

I get it, you need to do it every once in a while as a safe alternative to throwing a potential interception. But just take a look at how their third down numbers break down:

RUSH 3434 3.2 1338.2
*Nine plays ended with a sack
**On 51 completions.

As you can see in the fine print, Wentz actually completed 19 passes that didn't go for a first down. That means that on over 37 percent of his third-down completions, the receiver didn't even make it to the line-to-gain. It's no wonder they're near the bottom of the NFL in that category. 

Improvement there would be a good start, although he can help himself by gaining more on first and second down, main those third down situations more and more manageable. 

4. Hold on for dear life

Carson Wentz leads the NFL in fumbles with 10 in his first 10 games. And while half of them came in two games (DAL/MIN), it's still a concern. It's not just that you're giving the other team a chance recover the ball – luckily Wentz has recovered half of his fumbles, and a few times has done so with style – but you're also increasing the chances you get injured on the play. 

If the ball was simply dropped, the QB is often one of the first to dive on the ball, but there's usually a few 300-plus-pound defensive lineman champing at the bit for a chance to bellyflop right on top. And that's if you're lucky. The other options are that the ball was knocked loose on a blindside hit or his arm was hit as he reached back to throw. It's often just the interceptions that are discussed when talking about quarterbacks, but Wentz has actually turned the ball over nine times this year if you add in his two lost fumbles, a number he's lucky* isn't much higher.

*By comparison, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston have each fumbled seven times, but have lost four of them.

5. Air it out

You're probably tired of hearing this one, but Wentz needs to go deep more often. Since the addition of Bryce Treggs, it's seemed like Wentz has been under throwing his deep passes, specifically those to the speedy rookie out of Cal. I don't think it's that Wentz lacks the arm strength, but it does seem like his timing is off.

A few times in their last two games, he's hesitated in the pocket for an extra second or two before letting it fly and as a result, Treggs is out-running the throws, which is allowing the defensive backs to either catch up to a now-waiting Treggs or, worse yet, get better position to make a play on the ball.

Whether or not he has the receivers to get the job done, it's something you should hope to see down the stretch. You can't accurately match the speed and timing of these plays in practice. But if Wentz can improve that accuracy on deep throws – whether or not the receivers are able to make the catch – it'll pay dividends next year after Howie Roseman has some time to get his quarterback a real weapon.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin