For much of quarterback Michael Vick's scintillating stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, a major area of focus was the amount of hits he was taking and how to fix it.
During his main stretch as a starter from 2010 to 2012, he absorbed 323 hits over 35 games (more than nine per game), second most in the NFL behind only Cam Newton (342). That punishment led to various injuries for Vick, including rib and cartilage damage when he dove head first toward the goal line against Washington in 2010 and got walloped by a pair of defenders. Vick later revealed that, for as gifted as an athlete as he was, he didn't know how to slide. That didn't stop the requests from pouring in, including from President Barack Obama, who asked teammate Nnamdi Asomugha during an offseason fundraiser to: "Tell Vick to slide."
Vick's public response to the calls oscillated. He made a promise to the fans before the 2012 season he would make a conscious effort to protect himself, and then quickly abandoned that stance because it felt restrictive and unnatural. In the end, all that came from the conversation was wasted breath. Vick was who he was. The way he was wired as a quarterback made him both great and susceptible to injury and absence, and the team's fate was tethered to whether the coin landed on heads or tails.
Which brings us to Eagles starting quarterback Carson Wentz, whose performance in a distressing 27-17 loss to Washington on Sunday furthers the question: Is he capable of finding the balance that will provide the Eagles' offense with the adaptability and consistency or will his tenure be an endless roller coaster? The success of the Eagles' 2020 season appears glued to that answer.
Like Vick, one of Wentz's greatest attributes can also be a weakness when applied too liberally. Wentz loves the big play. He'll stand in there and give a route time to develop, as he did on the 55-yard heave to rookie Jalen Reagor early in the game, and is exceptional at navigating the initial rush and creating off-schedule plays with his arm and his legs. The flip side is he gets himself -- and the team -- in trouble by not always knowing when to say when.
This offseason was largely about making the offense more explosive and tailoring it to Wentz's big-play preferences, and it was clear the coaching staff and quarterback were hell-bent on starting with a bang. Wentz averaged 12.26 air yards per attempt Sunday, per ESPN Stats & Information research, far and away the league's highest number in Week 1. (Minnesota's Kirk Cousins was next at 10.56.) Nineteen percent of Wentz's throws were downfield 20 yards or more, second only to Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (20.5%).
That was fine early on when the Eagles' patchwork offensive line was holding up and Philly blazed to a 17-0 lead. But the unwavering methodology proved disastrous once Washington turned up the heat, overwhelming an offensive front that was down three starters. Wentz was sacked a career-high eight times -- double the amount of the second-closest quarterback (Deshaun Watson and Gardner Minshew II were each sacked four times) -- en route to two interceptions and a loss to what is supposed to be one of the league's worst teams. Next up is Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams (1-0), who are coming off a win against the much-hyped Dallas Cowboys (0-1).
Everyone knows I think @cj_wentz is spectacular-this is the first play I show him tomorrow. He's too good. He's too experienced. He's too mature to let this happen-— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) September 14, 2020
This is sack #2 in game
YOUR ORG NEEDS TOU TO GET RID OF THIS PLAY-TONIGHT! pic.twitter.com/JLCLpTXqYO
Playcalling and protection issues were a factor in how Wentz played, but on multiple occasions the responsibility for the negative plays fell on the quarterback.
"That's just the mentality I have: I'm always trying to make a play and extend a play when it's there to be made," Wentz said. "Sometimes you make 'em, sometimes you don't, sometimes bad things happen, you take a sack. I have to be better and get rid of the ball when I can, but my mentality on that front doesn't change within a game or within a week. But I've just got to know better and know when just to get rid of the ball."
Wentz has talked about the "fine line" between being aggressive and reckless for much of his four-plus seasons in Philadelphia. His attack mindset helped him to a near-MVP season in 2017. It's also left him vulnerable to injury and to bouts of uneven play. His coaches urged him last season to play within the system more and let the big moments develop organically.
When asked whether Wentz is listening to advice on being aggressive but also keeping the play alive, the Eagles coach Doug Pederson says it's something he's working on with his quarterback.
"We still have to continue to address him and to address those issues. It's part of the football game. We just have to keep talking that it's OK to throw the ball away. It's OK to dirt the ball on a screen pass or something of that nature," Pederson said.
Wentz entered this season feeling confident he was closer to achieving that state, thanks in part to the coaches and quarterbacks he's learned from through the years, including Josh McCown and Nick Foles.
"I came in as a rookie, and I was just slinging it all over, too many picks and forcing balls and always wanting to have the big play and take it down the field, and then just over the years learning that there's a time and place for both," Wentz told ESPN this month.
"That's the biggest thing is just understanding the game from a different perspective, a new perspective, not just always wanting the big play or always wanting to rip down the field and just knowing how to win football games."
He harnessed that for much of the four-game win streak to close the 2019 regular season, guiding a decimated offense into the postseason in the process. And it's possible he'll recalibrate and take off against the visiting Rams (1 p.m. ET, Fox).
Wentz needs to show the mastery of that balance soon, not just for the sake of the season but because it's Year 5 for Wentz, and at some point, you are who you are.