For the Cleveland Browns, Sunday’s 29-10 season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles wasn’t the end of the world, but it sure was sinister.
The organization most starved for stability at the quarterback position waited for months to try out its off-beat approach with Robert Griffin III, the former No. 2 overall draft pick they signed during the offseason. Before they could get started, they had to sit back and watch yet another talented player they could have had pick them apart.
Carson Wentz’s first start for the Eagles, who traded with the Browns to select the North Dakota State product at No. 2 overall this spring, was in just his second game of any kind in almost 11 months. The other one was in college in the FCS national championship .
His opening NFL drive Sunday provided some excitement to one of the biggest draft gambles of all-time: The third-down cadence to force an encroachment penalty and a first down was one feat. The perfectly placed fade route to Jordan Matthews down the left sideline for a 19-yard touchdown was the real thing of beauty.
So much for not being NFL ready.
It’s Week 1. Teams with new coaching staffs, as both of these have, need time for their systems to gel. Sometimes newcomers have an edge because the NFL tape isn’t out there on them yet.
Wentz just put his out there for the first time, and it involved far more good than bad. The opposite was the case for Griffin’s first start away from Washington. The scoreboard isn’t always an accurate measure of the quarterback battle within, but on Sunday, it wasn’t that far off.
Philadelphia 29, Cleveland 10.
The outcome is also indicative of the challenges both quarterbacks faced. Philadelphia’s defense, while in transition to the 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, is in such a better place than Cleveland’s, which has spent the offseason unloading almost every key veteran it had.
The Eagles had the benefit of unleashing proven pass rushers Fletcher Cox and Connor Barwin after the nimble Griffin III, knowing that if he got the throw off, a proven veteran safety such as Malcolm Jenkins or Rodney McLeod would be back to make a play. After an impressive enough start in which he showcased the ability to zip and loft passes to all ends of the field that too often resulted in drops, Griffin III started taking hits when he held the ball too long and then rushed throws to try to fix the problem.
His mediocre stat line — 12 of 26, 190 yards, zero touchdowns, 1 interception and 37 yards rushing on 5 carries — doesn’t show the progress he displayed in moving through reads and in looking to throw rather than run. But with his usual shaky pocket presence, it wasn’t the kind of day to show that Cleveland is any closer to solving the puzzle.
The Browns used first- or second-year players almost exclusively to rush Wentz while relying on stop-gap safeties to prevent big plays deep. It was a bad combination against a quick-strike scheme led by a quarterback with a big-time arm, and it allowed Wentz to ease into his new NFL job.
But the No. 2 pick helped himself out with the early fade to Matthews, grabbing a lead and forcing Cleveland to respect his downfield ability. A majority of his throws were crossing routes or quick patterns as the Eagles looked to limit both the risk and the pressure.
The rookie still faced some, and that’s when his foibles came out. He took a few blow-up hits while trying to create throws and missed some passes in the middle of the field when he did have to move his feet.
His numbers were impressive — 22 of 37 for 278 yards and 2 touchdowns to zero interceptions in a 19-point win — but given his soft game plan and the defense’s inability to alter it, it wasn’t his crowning moment. Not yet.
But what Wentz did show is that it’s not too early to roll with a rookie from North Dakota State who has barely played in the past calendar year. He was more in command of the offense than should be expected to be just more than a week after he watched Sam Bradford command the first-team reps in practice. Wentz was able to mix in the rainbow tosses into deep coverage that forced the Eagles’ hand on the blockbuster trade in the first place.
And so, when the lows and the losses do arrive for Wentz this season, the Eagles should remember his introduction and the bang he delivered. If he pans out, you can bet the Browns will, too.