Wentz, Eagles ready to soar?


(Carson Wentz photo courtesy Philadelphia Eagles)

At 6-1, the Philadelphia Eagles have the best record in the NFL. But do they have the best team?

On Monday night they looked the part, beating division-rival Washington for the second time this season to continue what is now a five-game winning streak. That left them 2 ½ games ahead of their competition in the NFC East and in firm control of their playoff chances with the division’s only winning record. But is a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013 for real? Perhaps more to the point, is sophomore sensation Carson Wentz?

Redskins’ coach Jay Gruden has seen enough of the Eagles’ young quarterback to come to at least one firm conclusion.

“I think he’s progressed at a rate as fast as anybody I’ve seen, really,’’ Gruden said before Wentz reinforced that opinion by riddling his team with four touchdown passes Monday night. “I think he’s already proven this short in his career that he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the league, quite frankly, and he’s going to be for a long time. I don’t know how he got to Philadelphia but I’m very upset about that.’’

Gruden is as mad at the Browns as Cleveland’s fans are for not drafting Wentz last year when they had the chance. That’s when baseball-failure turned football-failure Paul DePodesta concluded Wentz didn’t have what it takes to make it in the NFL. He probably didn’t think Jose Altuve would hit in the big leagues, either.

Despite the winless Browns’ doubts about Wentz, he has already thrown 17 touchdown passes this season, one more than his rookie total and an Eagles’ club record for the first seven games of a season. He leads the league in that category, is the NFL’s fourth-rated passer and a rising force to be reckoned with, just as the Eagles hoped when they traded up to get him.

He has beaten teams with the deep ball, with clutch throws to tight end Zach Ertz  (7-of-13 on throws of 20+ yards) and with his legs (he has 26 rushing first downs in the first 14 games of his career and ran for 63 yards and three first downs against the Redskins). But it has been his improvement in the red zone that has done much to put the Eagles in the position they now find themselves.

A year ago, Philadelphia was 24th in red-zone scoring, producing touchdowns just 49.1 per cent of the time. Thus far this season, they are third in that statistic, scoring 65.2 per cent of the time. The biggest reason for that jump is Wentz, who is the driving force behind an offense ranked fifth in the league.

Yet the Eagles are more than Wentz. They’re a well-balanced offense ranked in the top 10 in rushing, passing, scoring and third-down efficiency (4th, 9th, 5th and 3rd respectively). The latter two categories are the best measure of a successful offense, for it is points that win and ball control that makes those points possible.

Thus far, Wentz’s Eagles have produced both.

The loss of perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters to a knee injury is a problem they’ll have to resolve, likely with the installment of Halapoulivaat Vaitai there, though they could move Lane Johnson from right tackle to left and put Vaitai on the less demanding right side. Initially, it appears they will stick with Vaitai, under the well-established theory that one change is less disruptive than two.

Protecting Wentz is critical, of course, but a larger issue may be the question of whether the Eagles’ defense can match its offense with two starting linebackers sidelined — with one of them, Jordan Hicks, gone for the season with a ruptured Achilles. Depth at that position is a concern, and being ranked 29th against the pass would seem to be a potentially fatal weakness in this day and age. Yet if one delves deeper into the Eagles’ defensive numbers, there is a reason to think otherwise.

The Philadelphia defense is not only ranked first against the run but, more importantly, 12th in points allowed and 3rd in defensive third-down efficiency, which are the two true measures of a defense. Can you get opposing offenses off the field and keep them out of the end zone? Thus far at least, Philadelphia has done both.

Opponents are averaging only 17.6 rushes per game against the Eagles in large part because Wentz has gotten the offense off to crackerjack starts. Philadelphia has outscored its opponents 44-9 in the opening quarter this season, thus putting opponents in predictable chase situations. If the offense can continue to do that, the defense will benefit greatly, although its secondary will also find itself dangerously busy.

Although the Eagles have a tough road stretch ahead with back-to-back games against the Seahawks and Rams, they play five of their final nine games at home and are looking at consecutive home games against the lowly 49ers and struggling Broncos. Then comes a bye, leaving them 14 days to prepare to face the Dallas Cowboys in a potential NFC East showdown next month.

Philadelphia could be 8-1 by then, holding a nearly insurmountable division lead if Dallas slips in road games against the Redskins and Falcons or at home against the Chiefs.

How you start in the NFL often is not how you finish, and things seem to be changing this season when the discussion centers on who should be atop the weekly power ratings. But this is the Eagles’ best start since 2004, and, if Jay Gruden is right and the Browns were wrong about Carson Wentz, they may be soaring toward unexpected heights.

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