Just a Little Patience (With The Quarterback)
Jalen Hurts is below-average this year, but he's shown growth.
Statistically, Jalen Hurts probably played his worst game as a pro on Sunday against the Giants. It was a game the Eagles probably had to win to have any prayer of catching the Cowboys in the division, but it’s not a dealbreaker for the playoffs themselves. He threw three interceptions, one of which came on the last play of the first half as the team was knocking on the door for their first points of the game. It wasn’t a banner day for a lot of people within the organization, to be quite honest. Nick Sirianni deviated from his run-first philosophy that had gotten the Eagles in position to make a postseason run for too long and at odd times, even after it was clear Hurts wasn’t having his best game. Howie Roseman saw his 2020 first round selection drop two key passes that would’ve tied the game for the Eagles on the final drive while his 2021 first round pick got wide open as a routine without the QB so much as looking in his direction. You can blame Hurts for not seeing Devonta Smith or Jalen Reagor for dropping those passes, and to be quite honest, there’s enough blame to go around for Sunday. Still, Roseman saw CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy drop past their lofty projected draft positions and did not pull a trigger on a trade to get either one. He had the pick of wide receivers after those two were gone, including Justin Jefferson most notably but also Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman, Jr., Chase Claypool, Van Jefferson, Devin Duvernay, and Donovan Peoples-Jones. He chose Reagor, and with the sheer number of targets sent his way on Sunday, one wouldn’t be condemned if they thought the order to target him came from above the head coach on the organizational hierarchy. Point being, Hurts hardly deserves to be the magnet for all the criticism, but quarterback being the most important position on the field is a fickle thing.
When you turn the ball over, you tend not to have a good shot at winning the game. Performances like that of Lamar Jackson later that Sunday are rare in victories. The 2019 unanimous NFL MVP threw four picks, but he happened to be playing against a Cleveland Browns team that accounted for the most non-COVID medical expenditures in Northeast Ohio. One of Hurts’ interceptions directly cost the Eagles points. The other two miraculously did not lead to any Giants scoring, if only because their offense was so bad yesterday that it would make your average Pee-Wee team look like the 2019 Kansas City offense. Verily, the Eagles and Giants would have set football back a decade had it not been for the late window games. However, I digress.
The point is that while the Giants made no direct impact on the scoreboard from Hurts’ miscues, it’s clear that his carelessness with the ball allowed the Giants to be able to score only 13 points, four of which came as a direct result of questionable officiating1, and still win the game. Three points at the end of the first half would’ve allowed the team to kick a field goal to tie and send the game to overtime on the final drive. A field goal there and another one at the end of either drive ended by either of the other two picks would have allowed Jake Elliott to win the game on that final drive. Seven points there, and the entire complexion of the game changes. No one plays a perfect game all the time, but the key to winning ugly games is cutting down on massive errors. While the end-of-half interception was more on playcalling, the interception in the second half, a 50/50 heave to Reagor while he was in double coverage, showed the poor decision-making of Brett Favre at his most gunslinger-iest without the similar arm strength.
That all being said, I am asking you to look past the interceptions for one moment. There is a silver lining in all of this, one that would require people to take the knives from the precipice of Hurts’ metaphorical skin and see him not as a failed project in only his 16th start, but as someone who offers hope for development. The biggest knock against Hurts so far is that he’s a running quarterback who can’t throw on the run. That wouldn’t be so much of a problem given that perhaps only Jackson is a better runner at the QB position in the NFL than Hurts, but it makes his game predictable. The converse of that is that when he stands in and makes a throw while in the pocket, Hurts is accurate enough to start in the league. His biggest problem is that he has a tendency to bail on the pocket as soon as he feels the slightest bit of pressure, which causes his game to converge on one dimension. Granted, he can still make defenders look absolutely foolish when he’s got the ball with forward momentum, but there will come a time when he needs to be able to throw the ball for the team to be effective offensively.
What I saw yesterday, and granted, I was only able to watch the second half of the game, was that Hurts wasn’t bailing on the pocket at the first sign of the pass rush breaching his line. Even just a few weeks ago, the ball that he threw to Dallas Goedert on the last drive that was in his supposed catch radius but not right on the numbers was the ceiling of his effective accuracy. Goedert did drop the ball, but it was catchable. It also may have been an inaccurate outlier of most of the balls Hurts threw in that second half that weren’t the underthrown deep shot to Reagor. That fact alone screams to me that Hurts has shown growth. He can be coached. He can be developed. Patience isn’t something that cannot be taught or developed, like arm strength or footspeed. The mental aspects of the game are things that a quarterback with all the physical tools can absorb over time and use to become complete passers. Jackson himself underwent growing pains his rookie year when it seemed like he couldn’t run an offense more sophisticated than the triple option. Granted, his development was rapid, and no one should expect Hurts to be the unanimous MVP next year. However, it shows that with the right coaching and some semblance of confidence and continuity, a QB can make a leap.
Conversely, Michael Vick may have been the purest and most gifted athlete ever to play the quarterback position. While he showed flashes of being able to revolutionize the game during his stint with the Falcons, he never put it together completely, mainly because the Falcons never had a cohesive plan to develop him, mainly because they had no continuity at the coaching positions to finish his development. Vick had a different offensive coordinator every year between his rookie year and his stint in prison for racketeering stemming a dogfighting ring he ran. It’s telling that he started to realize his potential under Andy Reid, but by the time he had a consistently competent support staff around him, he was too far advanced in his career to realize the massive, untapped potential he had coming out of Virginia Tech.
Hurts showed that he can learn and develop even in the span of a few short games in the same regular season. Now, two more questions have emerged that will drive and shape the Eagles franchise for this year and probably next year. The first is “what is Jalen Hurts’ ceiling?” The answer to this one is still unknown, but it’s not as high as Carson Wentz’s before the Jadaveon Clowney hit let alone as high as Jackson’s. Still, it’s higher than what he’s showing now. That much is certain. He also doesn’t necessarily have to be as good as Jackson in 2019 for the Eagles to be effective. No quarterback is flawless this year, and even the best players, guys like Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson, have looked human. Even in their best years, elite quarterbacks aren’t defined by having complete perfect seasons. They just have to be good enough to keep their teams in it so they can lead a game-winning drive at the end. If Hurts can reach that zenith, he can delay the need for the Eagles to spend assets on that position.
The second question is whether the Eagles have the personnel in the coaching staff to develop Hurts. Can Sirianni, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson be the conduit for Hurts to travel from raw but flawed runner to a more polished passer? If they’re not, then the clock is ticking on getting guys in who can. The odds of Hurts going down the developmental path of Vick is far more likely than him turning it around in one year like Jackson did. It’s on the Eagles to find a support staff that will nurture Hurts so to minimize the shuffling of deck chairs to get a guy in there who can lead the offense on the field. But there are also signs that perhaps Sirianni and his staff deserve time to get aligned with whatever Hurts has to give on the field. The growth he showed between his cup of coffee last year under Doug Pederson’s staff2 and the opener in Atlanta was huge. The growth he’s shown from there until now is just as important to note.
Of course, with the smoothing of one lump in his game, another one popped up. Even Mark Schlereth, whose acumen as a color commentator is limited mostly to folksy enthusiasm over guys playing old-style football, pointed out that Hurts rarely if ever took his eyes off his first read. It shouldn’t be surprising that he threw three picks. Defenses were able to read his eyes and not necessarily cover the receiver as much as they could play the ball from release to downward arc. Whether or not that is something that can be coached is up for debate, but much like patience, it feels like a mental coaching exercise, one that can be remedied for someone with the physical tools.
It's not like the Eagles won’t have time to figure it out either. The 2022 quarterback class in the NFL Draft is not nearly as highly regarded as in prior years. Great quarterbacks rarely ever hit the free agency market, and the ones available in trades seem more expensive than what they’re really worth. Russell Wilson is the prize, but he’s shown signs of slowing down. He might be the only option worth acquiring over Hurts at this point. Deshaun Watson should never play in the NFL again unless the slim possibility that all 22 women who have filed criminal and/or civil complaints against him are lying is true. Newsflash, it probably is not, and those women are all telling the truth. Aaron Rodgers is in the definite twilight of his career and is a bad teammate anyway. Anyone else is probably not demonstrably better than Hurts at this point to jump at the chance to replace him.
NFL teams want their quarterbacks to be patient but have shown decreasing returns on organizational patience as the years have passed. This restlessness has grown exponentially to the point where Peyton Manning’s bumpy rookie year feels like an anachronism 22 years later. The funny thing is that I wouldn’t be opposed to the fast and furious merry-go-round of players at the QB position if there were a rock-solid option available. I don’t think one exists. Therefore, it probably makes sense for the Eagles to do this the old-fashioned way with Hurts. Players do not come out of the womb fully formed, and even though most development happens before their first NFL snap does not mean a player cannot get better throughout their career. Hurts isn’t a S-Tier prospect, but he’s an intriguing one who already has shown signs of improvement, even in his worst games. With this special set of circumstances, the Eagles might be foolish to give up on him after one full season as the starter.
Now Jalen Reagor, on the other hand…
On the Giants’ only touchdown drive, they appeared to be stopped short of the end zone on a third-and-goal only to be given a new set of downs on a questionable defensive pass interference call. On the next play, Daniel Jones threw a pass to Chris Myarick. It was called a touchdown, even on review, even though it appeared the nose of the ball hit the turf after he bobbled it before he “gained control.” I’m not saying officials scored a touchdown for the Giants. I am saying that officiating in this league stinks across the board, and that the Giants offense was so bad that they needed the help of missed calls to score their only tuddy, and the Eagles STILL couldn’t beat them.
It’s hard to gauge how much the team had with Hurts last year because Pederson was checked out of last season by the time he got in there.