PHILADELPHIA -- They don't throw you a parade for having a strong rookie season as an NFL quarterback; they give you more work.
Carson Wentz returned from an offseason in California with a trimmed down delivery and a variety of other mechanical tweaks, and his Philadelphia Eagles coaches knew what they needed to do. Last season was fun and established Wentz as the quarterback around whom the Eagles believe they can build their team. But this season is about the next steps in that construction project.
And that means drudgery. It means pulling one play out of the playbook and running it against five, six, seven different coverages, then pulling another play out of the playbook and doing the same thing. Good play, kid, but that was against Cover 1. Let's see it against Cover 2. Cover 4. Zero Blitz. 1 Blitz. Over and over and over and over. OK, next play. Same thing.
"By no means have we got it figured out yet," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said after a training camp practice earlier this month. "Last year, it was about just kind of getting his feet wet, understanding our offense, the terminology, kind of getting used to each other. And now, all that's kind of behind us and it's about, 'Let's peel the onion back one more time.' Let's talk about situations. Let's talk about third-and-1s and third-and-7s and -9s and first and second down, red zone situations. Let's dive into that now and hone in and see those incremental increases that you see from young quarterbacks, and just keep kind of drilling down in those areas. That's the biggest thing going into Year 2."
It's Year 2 for Wentz in Philly, and for Dak Prescott in Dallas and Jared Goff in Los Angeles. Three second-year starting quarterbacks with three very different stories so far. The common thread is that each of their stories is just beginning. And whether their 2016 season was as inconclusive as Goff's or as brilliantly successful as Prescott's, these are all still young players with a lot of work to do before we know how their careers will turn out.
"We're still learning and we're still growing and he's still developing and still working on a lot of things," Pederson said of Wentz. "But I think that's now where it takes time. I grew up in the true West Coast system with [Mike] Holmgren and Coach [Andy] Reid, and it's a three-, four-year process. Brett Favre was constantly learning, every year, even the older he got. I have a phrase: Don't get bored with completions. It makes us better. So that's what we're working on. That's what we're trying to get to -- to where it all becomes second nature for all of us, really."
So let's start there, in Philadelphia, and take a deeper look at three very different second-year quarterback situations and what each tried to do this offseason to improve:
Pick in 2016 draft: No. 2
A year ago at this time, Wentz was the No. 3 quarterback on the Eagles' depth chart behind Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel. The team had moved up to No. 2 overall in the draft to select him, but it wanted to be patient while it had better options, and Bradford the veteran was supposed to be the starter. That all changed when Minnesota's Teddy Bridgewater tore up his knee and a Vikings team with Super Bowl aspirations offered a first-round pick for Bradford. The Eagles tore up their quarterback plan, looked at the progress Wentz had made through the summer, and decided to roll with the rookie.
"Yeah, it was definitely tough in OTAs and in training camp," Wentz recalled. "I was walking a fine line a lot, you know, when I was with the [third team] -- kind of had to know when to make my comments and different things. So that was definitely hard, I'm not going to lie. But then, once I was the starter, there was no looking back. And I think, in that time, even though maybe I wasn't asserting myself as a leader vocally as much, you can still go out and work your tail off, show everybody how you care about people and just how you approach the game. I think that builds a lot of respect among your teammates."
That valuable behind-the-scenes groundwork laid, Wentz started the on-field portion of his career ablaze. He completed 64.7 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and no interceptions while the Eagles outscored opponents 92-27 en route to a 3-0 start. Wentz was the talk of the league before Prescott was.
It got messier from there, of course. There were predictably miserable days against teams like the Giants and Seahawks interspersed with more encouraging moments such as a victory over the Falcons. Wentz ended up 25th in passer rating, 26th in Total QBR and 29th in yards per attempt with 16 touchdown passes against 14 interceptions. Work to do, for sure, and he went out to California to drill specifics.
"A lot of it was footwork -- proper footwork, proper weight distribution, which leads to better efficiency with just throwing motion and everything," Wentz said. "So I worked on those things -- no mass overhauls by any means, but I definitely feel more efficient with my throwing."
Pick in 2016 draft: No. 135
If you're going to build on your promise, the first step is realizing that you have to. The Eagles' 2016 record and the downturn his own performance took after the hot September start were enough to prove to Wentz and his coaches that not everything got figured out in one rookie season. Out in Frisco, Texas, however, the story is a little bit different.
You needed eclipse glasses to watch Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys in 2016. With the help of fellow stud rookie Ezekiel Elliott and a star-studded offensive line in front of him, Prescott delivered a rookie season for the ages. He was third in the NFL in Total QBR behind Matt Ryan and Tom Brady, fourth in yards per attempt, fourth in completion percentage, and threw 23 touchdown passes against only four interceptions. The Cowboys went 13-3 before getting caught under the Aaron Rodgers steamroller in the playoffs, and Prescott was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
So what do you do to sow improvement in a player who had so much success? You focus on the failures.
"You look at how people might study you," Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said in a phone interview Tuesday. "We sit him down and we show him, 'This is something someone might try on you, because someone else had success with it.' The Giants, for example. They're going to look at some of the stuff they did and feel good about it, especially the second game we played them."
Which is why Linehan has made Prescott study that second Giants game -- a 10-7 loss in New Jersey on Dec. 11 that was easily Prescott's worst game of the season. He was 17-of-37 passing for 165 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. (Remember, he threw only two other interceptions in the entire regular season.) Prescott's QBR for that game was 14.8. His next lowest single-game QBR was 50.6, and that came in a meaningless season finale in which he played only two series.
So Prescott has had to watch that second Giants game over and over, and while doing so he has been asked to imagine the way opposing defensive coordinators are watching it, looking for clues about how to attack him. When training camp opened last year, Prescott was a fourth-round pick sitting behind Tony Romo and Kellen Moore on the Cowboys' depth chart. It wasn't until Aug. 25 of last year that Romo hurt his back in a preseason game against the Seahawks and Prescott took over.
He's not sneaking up on anyone this time.
"We feel like everything was kind of day-to-day last year, the way it all unfolded," Linehan said. "So it's a little bit of, 'OK, take a breath, step back and look at what you were doing this time last year.' Last year, Dak was the No. 3 quarterback until the third preseason game. Now, you've got to carry your team as a starter."
So it goes beyond just that Giants game. Anyone who had any kind of success against Prescott in any situation gets studied. Anyone who stopped him on a given drive with something he might see again. He played Washington twice, and now a few of that team's coaches (including last season's defensive coordinator) are with the Rams. The Cowboys play the Rams on Oct. 1. In advance of that game, they'll watch tape to see what Washington tried to do against Prescott last season. Mix that level of study with the work he was already doing to make sure Year 1 wasn't a fluke.
"Mechanics, he's certainly worked on those. That's one of the best things he's done," Linehan said. "Footwork, timing, all of those things -- he's head-and-shoulders above where he was when he got into the league."
For Prescott, it's about knowing how they're going to come after you.
Pick in 2016 draft: No. 1
Prescott was the 135th pick in the 2016 draft. Goff was the first. Their rookie seasons couldn't have been much more different. Prescott started from Week 1, never looked back and won awards. Goff had to wait until Week 11 to wrest the Rams' starting quarterback job from Case Keenum. He played in seven games, lost them all, and posted a 22.2 Total QBR that ranked just behind that of Arizona backup Drew Stanton and just ahead of Cleveland wide receiver Terrelle Pryor.
Goff's best game from a QBR standpoint was his first, and his next best was his second game. Of his five touchdown passes for the season, three came in one game against a Saints defense that allowed more points than any other team in the league outside of San Francisco. Yes, one of the other two touchdown passes came against San Francisco.
Four games into Goff's tenure as starter, the Rams fired coach Jeff Fisher. After the season ended, they also let go of offensive coordinator Rob Boras, passing game coordinator Mike Groh and quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke.
To replace Fisher, the Rams hired 31-year-old former Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay, who helped make Kirk Cousins a star in his last stop but has no connection to Goff. McVay and his staff had nothing to do with drafting Goff. Washington wasn't evaluating quarterbacks before the 2016 draft, and neither were the Atlanta Falcons, for whom new Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur was working at the time.
So yeah, if you want to say Goff is starting from scratch in Year 2, no one's going to tell you you're nuts.
"I don't ever want to say starting from scratch, because he obviously learned a lot from that last staff," LaFleur said. "But yeah, anytime a quarterback has to learn a new system, new terminology, how you're asked to execute fundamentals, there is a learning curve there."
The key with Goff, the Rams believe, is the strength of the group around him. Adding veteran offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan, drafting wide receiver Cooper Kupp, signing free-agent wideout Robert Woods and, most recently, trading for wideout Sammy Watkins should help put Goff in a position to maximize what he can do well at this point in his career and minimize the areas where he struggles. The Rams are likely to lean heavily on a run game that features 2015 first-round pick Todd Gurley, but that assumes he and the linemen have picked up the zone blocking scheme McVay & Co. brought with them and installed this summer.
"I don't want to say you treat him like a rookie, but I think anytime you're in the first year of a system, especially with a younger player, you almost have to," LaFleur said. "It sounds terrible, but that's what it is -- just knowing you're in the developmental phase of a young player's career."
In the meantime, though, the Rams will be trying to win games. Goff has abilities they believe can help them do that. LaFleur called him a "natural thrower with pretty good accuracy," and the team has been happy with some of the decision-making they've seen from Goff so far in this year's preseason game action, including a 16-for-20 passing performance against Oakland in Week 2. But fundamentally, Goff is entering Year 2 without the benefit of the same kind of Year 1 those other two guys had. And as a result, expectations have to be more modest.
"I think he's definitely improving," LaFleur said. "He's got a much better understanding of what we're trying to accomplish and what the expectations are for him. He's just got a much better understanding of football."
That's a good place to start. And when you look at these three second-year quarterbacks, the one who was drafted the earliest is the one who's still the least removed from the starting line.