Carson Wentz has accelerated Eagles’ timeline for contention

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ESPN – PHILADELPHIA – We’ll save you the passing-of-the-torch cliches, but it’s at least noteworthy that Donovan McNabb was in the building on the night that Carson Wentz broke out.

They chatted afterward by Wentz’s locker stall, where McNabb once resided; the old No. 5 now six years removed from his playing days and with his two sons in tow. The image was a reminder of how long it has been since the Philadelphia Eagles had consistent, high-level play at quarterback. With that stability came more than a decade of success, starting with an 11-5 record in McNabb’s second year.

While it’s way too early to suggest this No. 2 overall pick will have a similar impact as the old No. 2 overall pick, what can be said is it’s impossible to regularly contend in the NFL without a high-end quarterback. Wentz gives the franchise the most hope it has had since McNabb left town.

“He’s soon to be a top-tier quarterback as he continues to grow,” Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson said after Wentz threw for 304 yards and a career-high four touchdowns in a 34-7 victory on Sunday. “His ability to get his receivers open with his legs was the most impressive. … He’s a guy that has great pocket presence and he understands where the pressure and blitzes are coming from. He knows where the outlets are and he moves very well.”

Through five games, Wentz has shown the type of growth the coaching staff hoped for in his sophomore campaign. Situational football was an area of focus, particularly on third down. Entering Sunday’s game, Wentz was connecting on 65 percent of his throws at a clip of almost nine yards per completion on third down with a 107.2 rating, up from a 56 percent, a 6.1-yard average and 67 rating last season. He took it to another level Sunday, setting career highs in completions (11), yards (225) and touchdowns (3) on third down, per ESPN Stats & Information research, while also showing improvement on the deep ball.

Combine that with his enhanced pre-snap command, and there’s plenty of evidence Wentz is developing well.

“[He's] a confident guy. A guy that can make plays and a guy who does it on an every-week basis,” McNabb said, adding that Wentz “absolutely” has the mental makeup to succeed in this town. “And that’s very important in this league. When you see what’s going on with some of the quarterbacks going up and down … if he stays upright, good things can happen.”

That development, along with a drop-off within the division, has accelerated the timeline for contention. The Eagles are 4-1 heading into Thursday’s matchup against the Carolina Panthers. The other three teams in the division have a combined record of 4-10. According to ESPN Analytics, the Eagles have a 68 percent chance to win the NFC East and a 78 percent shot of making the playoffs.

The reason for the rather unexpected hot start goes beyond Wentz. He threw touchdowns to four different targets Sunday, which speaks to the upgrade in weapons thanks to offseason spending as well as improvement from homegrown players such as Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor. Jim Schwartz’s defense has held it together despite dealing with key injuries and working with inexperienced corners. And the special teams showed again on Sunday (76-yard punt return, blocked field goal) why they’re considered one of the best units in football under the guidance of Dave Fipp.

If they do prove to be ahead of schedule, many in the organization will deserve credit, from coach Doug Pederson on down. But the QB is the glue that holds it all together.

“In my opinion, this is a quarterback league. Everything runs through that position,” center Jason Kelce said. “This whole thing runs through him so he deserves a lot of credit. He’s putting us in a lot of good positions on the ground, and obviously today he was able to make a lot of plays through the air. By the same token, I think he does a good job of making sure that he appreciates everybody and what they’re doing. He’s the first person to come up to an offensive line and thank them for picking up the blitz so that he had time to throw it downfield, even if he was the reason why we picked up the blitz. I think he deserves a lot of credit, that goes without being said.”

Added Ertz: “He is the face of the franchise; as he goes, we go.”

Wentz has thrown for nearly 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns, with three interceptions, over the first five games. He has established himself as a leader and tone-setter. What the positive signs translate to for the long-term is unclear, but for the moment he looks to have the Eagles well-positioned for 2017 and beyond.

“Personally, I feel good. The game’s just continually slowing down. But as a team — I said it earlier in the week — we’re just built differently, we know what to expect, and we’re just hungry. We’re hungry,” Wentz said. “We know we’re a special team. We just have to keep it going and prove it every week.”