The first touchdown of the Eagles' season came in the first quarter of the opener, when Zach Ertz plucked a Carson Wentz pass out of traffic in the back of the Washington end zone. The 5-yard TD looked effortless and familiar, exactly what fans have come to expect from their franchise quarterback and his most familiar target.
The Eagles ultimately lost that game after blowing a 17-0 lead, and very little since then has looked effortless or familiar — for the team, now 1-3-1, or for the Wentz-Ertz connection.
When Ertz spoke with reporters Thursday, his theme was a familiar one: My stats don’t matter, we need to find a way to win. The easy counter to that is with so many weapons not healthy, finding ways to win really ought to involve finding ways to get Ertz more catches and yardage.
Ertz knows this, and he seemed to acknowledge, obliquely, that something is way off with the Wentz-Ertz partnership.
“Whether that be getting as bunch of reps between [practice] periods, like Carson and I have been doing for years to be on the same page, talk about it, watch film together, whatever it takes to try to get on the same page, and try to win football games for this team, that’s what we’re focused on,” he said.
In the third quarter Sunday at Pittsburgh, Wentz threw a quick pass to Ertz, just as the tight end was being bumped out of his pattern by a linebacker. The result was a particularly ill-timed interception. ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said he thought Wentz might have been trying to force the pass, trying to get Ertz going on a day when the offense scored a season-high 29 points, but Ertz finished with one catch, for 6 yards, on six targets.
Heading into Sunday’s Week 6 encounter with the visiting Baltimore Ravens, Ertz has 20 catches for 145 yards and just that lone touchdown, from the first quarter of Week 1. He caught a two-point conversion pass at San Francisco, but those plays don’t figure into official totals.
Last year at this point, Ertz had 29 catches for 312 yards, though only one was for a TD. The year before, when Ertz set the Eagles' season record for receptions, with 116, which also was an NFL record for tight ends, he had 41 catches for 337 yards through five games — again with just one touchdown.
In the Super Bowl season of 2017, Ertz had 32 catches going into the sixth game, for 387 yards and two TDs. In 2016, the year Wentz arrived, Ertz missed the second and third games with a rib injury, so those stats don’t make for good comparison.
Ertz averaged 11.1, 10.0, and 10.4 yards per catch in 2017, ’18 and ’19. Right now he is averaging 7.3.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said earlier this week that watching the game film from Pittsburgh, he saw chances for Ertz to make plays, particularly a potential touchdown designed to go to the tight end that was blown dead by a false start. Pederson seemed a little puzzled, as well. He mentioned that for whatever reason, Wentz isn’t hitting Ertz in the hands as often as before.
“Carson and Zach, they have to continue to work,” Pederson said. “I haven’t seen the ball travel as high toward Zach [as] it is right now, and those are things as we continue to work through during the week, those two guys will be on the same page.”
Ertz was asked about this perception.
“I don’t think it’s one person’s fault. I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Carson’s missing me all the time,’ or — there’s times I’ve got to be better, it’s just plain and simple.”
Pro Football Focus has Ertz with 33 targets, but rates only 21 of those as catchable balls, and gives Ertz just one drop this season. (It was a memorable one, on fourth down in the fourth quarter at Washington.)
“Sometimes it’s how a defense is playing us. Sometimes it’s part of the game plan,” Wentz said this week, when asked yet again about his inability to sync up with the receiver with whom he has had an almost extrasensory bond. "We’re confident in Zach’s ability to get open, his ability to separate, his ability to be where we need him to be. He’s a playmaker. Defenses still know that. Whether he’s catching 10 balls a game or one, defenses still know he’s a playmaker, and he’s someone they’ve got to be aware of.
“I’m confident that he’ll still get his. And as far as chemistry, I feel good about it. It’s something that we’re just going to keep building. Every practice, every time we step on that field, he and I always get extra work in. It’s not something I’m overanalyzing by any means. I’m confident he’ll have big games ahead.”
All this would be a lot less fraught if the Eagles weren’t 1-3-1, and if Ertz weren’t publicly at odds with the front office, which has declined to make him one of the league’s highest-paid tight ends, something he believes he was promised when he reworked his contract to provide salary-cap relief in 2019.
Ertz says his contract isn’t a factor in his play. He takes pride in his work ethic. There are no reports of any sort of falling out between the quarterback and the tight end who might be his best friend on the team.
“I’m not worried about that. Whatever happens, happens, at this point. I’m just trying to win football games,” Ertz said.
But this is not like any other situation Ertz has encountered since arriving as a second-round pick from Stanford in 2013. The Eagles seem fine with letting Ertz believe he likely will be traded this coming offseason, which, for the team currently more over the projected 2021 cap than anyone else, would save more than $4.5 million in space, on that final year of the Ertz deal. (There are automatically voiding “dummy years” of 2022 and 2023, according to Spotrac.com.) Ertz found the Eagles' most recent contract offer insulting. It sure seems that the team is prepared to go with Dallas Goedert as the No. 1 tight end.
Wentz isn’t going anywhere, at least not right away, after signing that $128 million contract last season. When he can’t lock in on Ertz the way he has in the past, he isn’t helping his buddy get that state-of-the-art deal, here or elsewhere.
Last month, Ertz conceded that during training camp, he’d let the situation bother him.
″I’m kind of an emotional guy when it comes to football," Ertz said then. “I kind of play with my heart, as much as I can. Obviously, it’s been frustrating at times, it’s been difficult. I’ve said all along I want to be here for the long run. I don’t know for sure if that feeling is mutual.”