CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carson Wentz had a choice to make, and you kinda had the feeling which one he was going to choose. Rolling out to his right on a second-and-goal play from the Panthers' two-yard line, the second-year quarterback found all of his targets covered and tucked the ball to run. As he scrambled across the line of scrimmage, Panthers safety Mike Adams floated into his field of vision, squaring up one yard in front of the goal line. Wentz had already spent two quarters absorbing blow after punishing blow from a Panthers pass rush that was taking full advantage of Lane Johnson's absence at right tackle. But instead of preserving his body and flopping down to the turf, Wentz lowered his head, zeroed in on Adams, and delivered a crushing shoulder to the safety's chest.
If not for the swarm of Panthers who converged on the scene and halted the momentum of both men, Wentz might have knocked Adams clear through the end zone and into the padded portion of the goal post. As it happened, Wentz was gang-tackled at the one-yard line, and the Eagles would have to wait one more play to reach pay dirt.
Still, there was something in that second-down play that made it worth recording. It's something we've seen ever since Wentz first trotted onto a football field in an Eagles uniform in a preseason game last August. He fractured his ribs that night, and afterward he and head coach Doug Pederson fielded a deluge of questions about a quarterback's need to protect himself. Yet we would soon learn that asking Wentz to ease up was like inviting a woodland animal indoors and then asking that it behave itself. There's an instinctual element to Wentz's game that is impossible to tease out, whether through coaching or learned common sense. Maybe it results in an injury some day. But, man, it's fun to watch.
Make no mistake, though. That predatory X-factor is not what makes Wentz good. Perhaps it will be the thing that makes him great. We'll see. But the thing that makes him good is that arm.
Wentz is one of those rare quarterbacks for whom there is no third-and-too-long. Heading into the night, Wentz had thrown for 30 first downs on third-down plays, six more than the next-closest quarterback (Tom Brady). Of those 30 first downs, nine came on plays in which the Eagles needed 10 or more yards for a first down, again, the most in the NFL (only two other quarterbacks had thrown for more than five first downs in those third-and-long situations).
Last night, he had two more first-down throws on third-and-long, including a 20-yard rope to Mack Hollins while stepping up in the pocket to avoid a free blitzer on third-and-16. It was one of the more difficult passes you'll see, and Wentz made it look easy.
"No matter where you are on the field, he can find you," Hollins said. "He can dot you with the football. Not every team has that."
With each game, it seems to get more and more difficult to identify his most impressive throw.
Maybe it was the one he made on the very next play after the strike to Hollins, a perfect 37-yard strike that sailed over Alshon Jeffery's shoulder and into his waiting hands. Or, there was that third-down throw to Nelson Agholor on the Eagles' first drive, a laser on third-and-5 that found the receiver in a soft spot between two defenders for a 24-yard gain. Or maybe it was the 14-yard pass he zipped to Marcus Johnson in tight coverage by the sideline, this while rolling to his left and throwing across his body for a first down.
It probably wasn't any of Wentz's touchdown passes, and that's saying something, because he threw three of them: two to Zach Ertz, one for one yard, another for 16, and a 24-yard pitch-and-catch-and-run with Agholor in the middle of a wide-open field.
Apart from the touchdowns, Wentz's numbers won't jump off the stat sheet and smack you in the face. He finished 16 of 30 for 222 yards, his only turnover coming on a first-quarter play in which he was hit while cocking his arm to throw by Julius Peppers, who dusted second-year right tackle Halapoulavaati Vaitai and knocked loose a fumble that the Panthers recovered near midfield.
Still, on a night where the Eagles faced off against a former NFL MVP who has appeared in a Super Bowl, Wentz was the best quarterback on the field by a wide margin. Cam Newton made enough plays to keep things interesting down to the end, but it was the Eagles who triumphed in this battle of 4-1 teams, and it was Wentz who made the difference.
"At this point, a lot of the things he does don't amaze me," Johnson said. "It doesn't surprise me, it doesn't surprise us, but it's a beautiful thing to see him play."