Carson Wentz's spring fills Washington Commanders with optimism

ASHBURN, Va. -- The first impression of quarterback Carson Wentz left the Washington Commanders excited for the next one. They saw what they had hoped to see this spring: a strong arm that should open up their offense. The work ethic, the brains.

These attributes made Wentz attractive to the Philadelphia Eagles, who selected him No. 2 overall in 2016, and the Indianapolis Colts, who traded for him in March 2021. Now they are the attributes the Commanders point to after trading for Wentz on March 9, hoping he can solidify a position that has been a revolving door for decades.

To recap: Since winning the Super Bowl after the 1991 season, Washington has started 31 different quarterbacks -- nine over the past three seasons. Also to recap: Wentz was traded in each of the past two offseasons, something that would have been difficult to fathom just a couple years ago.

Both sides need this pairing to work.

"I'd like nothing more than to play here for a long time and have a lot of success," Wentz said.

He is signed for three more years, but has no guaranteed money after 2022. Whether he becomes the long-term answer remains to be seen, but Washington liked what it saw this spring.

"There's a lot of different things he's capable of doing," offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. "Obviously a very skilled player. You see him out at practice, he's a big, physical guy. He can really push the ball down the field."

For Washington, Wentz is the latest example of a quarterback offering hope.

In 2018, Alex Smith arrived via trade following one of his best seasons with Kansas City. His career changed, and was nearly ended, with a broken fibula and tibia. In 2019 Washington drafted Dwayne Haskins with the No. 15 pick overall. He was cut before the end of his second season. Last year, the organization hoped veteran free agent Ryan Fitzpatrick would be the answer -- even if only temporary. He suffered a season-ending hip injury in the second quarter of the season opener.

But none of them had Wentz's arm. Wentz is also 29, so if it clicks for him in Washington he could be here a while.

If not?

"This is probably his last opportunity, just being blunt about it, to prove that he can be a franchise quarterback in the NFL," ESPN NFL analyst, and Hall of Fame quarterback, Troy Aikman said in May.

Said Wentz two weeks later: "I didn't know that was said. I'm fine with it. Everyone's got their own opinion. I don't try to put too much pressure on myself. I always have high expectations for myself and for the offense, but I don't try and play those types of games. I don't have enough mental space to kind of process all that, and it can wear on you."

What the Commanders have seen whets their appetite for training camp and the season. Coach Ron Rivera pointed to Wentz's work ethic, and how hard he was on himself this spring. After some plays, Rivera would hear Wentz talking. The coach would turn around and realize Wentz was talking to himself about what he could have done better on a particular play.

What Rivera hears in the huddle also pleases him.

"I really like his command of our offense," Rivera said. "When you listen to him in the huddle, you listen to him talk to his teammates about certain aspects of the play. I know it gives me confidence, but when he is in the huddle calling the plays the way he does, I know his teammates can feel the confidence."

The coaches also like how Wentz has worked through his progressions and thrown in rhythm. During one play in minicamp, receiver Cam Sims turned as the ball arrived. But, because he took too long to get into his route, the pass surprised Sims and the ball slid through his hands. It was a lesson for the wideouts.

"Cam was worried about footing on grass instead of the technique of the route," receivers coach Drew Terrell said. "That's a prime example of a great throw in rhythm that we have to be there to make the play. It was right on the spot."

Said running back J.D. McKissic of Wentz: "He learned the offense pretty fast. He's smart, he's intelligent, he's getting the ball out, he can move pretty well in the pocket, too. He's looking like that young Carson again."

Wentz wasn't perfect. The defense intercepted him on occasion and he misfired on some throws. And the questions about how far he can lead Washington will take time to answer.

"The beauty of coming to a new spot is you get to reinvent yourself," quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said. "You get to start from scratch, if there any things you didn't like about yourself at other places. I know for myself, I'd say let's make sure that doesn't happen [again]. ... No one is holding you to an old standard."

In Philadelphia, Wentz had to re-emerge after backup Nick Foles stepped in for an injured Wentz in 2017 and led the Eagles to a Super Bowl title. In Indianapolis, Wentz was being compared to quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers.

There's no such scrutiny in Washington, just optimism.

"He's just so powerful," Zampese said. "The ball gets up and down so fast to downfield targets. For most [QBs] on a 10-yard route it's easy; it gets to 15-20 yards and it's like, 'ah.' [Wentz] zips the ball in the same [on longer routes]. We can access the field at a quicker rate than maybe some other places can."

Said cornerback Kendall Fuller: "He's always asking questions: Why did you play it like this? How did you see it? Everybody knows his arm talent, but it's the little things."

Wentz's optimism stems from the quality of the players around him -- receivers Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson; running backs Antonio Gibson and McKissic; and tight end Logan Thomas. And it stems from changes in his personal life that he said have helped him grow. He's married (2018) and has two kids.

"Everything's changed. You mature a little bit, you see the world a little bit differently," Wentz said. "So, I'm always trying to learn and just build and grow as good of relationships as I can with everybody, both sides of the ball, coaches, equipment staff, training staff. I'm gonna make mistakes. I'll be the first to admit it. And so [I'm] always trying to grow and be self-reflective and be a better person."

Wentz's arm doesn't need to mature. The coaches also like how he operates their quick underneath game.

The Commanders have speed at receiver that can threaten horizontally or vertically, but at its core the Turner offense wants to go down the field. Since entering the league, Wentz ranks eighth in passing attempts of 20 air yards or more, 11th with 140 touchdown passes (eighth since 2017) and 19th in Total QBR (12th since 2017) according to ESPN Stats & Information research. During that same span, Washington's Total QBR ranks 31st and its 98 touchdown passes rank 28th.

That's why Zampese won't try to change a guy who likes to throw deep.

"I want that guy," Zampese said. "We've been looking for guys like this; there aren't too many like that. It's easier to get a guy to back off than to push a guy the other way. This is hog heaven for us. This is exactly what we wanted."