When it comes to the Eagles’ quarterback situation for 2021, all bets are on. There are three games left in the regular season, after all. Three potential opportunities to evaluate Jalen Hurts. Three times to further compare the rookie to Carson Wentz.
Doug Pederson would only confirm Monday that Hurts will remain his starter for Sunday’s game at the Arizona Cardinals. But based on the quarterback’s performance and how the Eagles rallied around him in the 24-21 win over the Saints, it’s hard to envision the coach stuffing the toothpaste back into the tube.
If so, the Eagles’ front office has essentially the book on five years of Pederson-Wentz. The marriage has had its ups, but as many downs, and one of the key questions owner Jeffrey Lurie will be asking himself in January is whether it’s worth salvaging.
Based on Wentz’s regression this season, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which both return. Lurie then must assess whether Pederson is chiefly the cause of the quarterback’s slide, or Wentz is his own worst enemy.
There have been, of course, many other variables at play, from poor roster management to staff changes, from injuries to the drafting of Hurts. But the quarterback-coach dynamic, especially when the coach is the offensive play-caller, is one of the foundational parts of any team.
And when considering Pederson’s success with backups (he’s now 11-2 excluding the meaningless season finale in 2017) against his record with Wentz (35-32-1), Lurie could view their partnership as fractured.
“Carson and I, our relationship is great,” Pederson said when asked about the dichotomy. “We’ve had great communication. I just look at this year and the amount of adversity that we’ve faced and played with all season, trying to make things work.
“There is no issue with Carson and I. Maybe what I do or how I call a game, maybe I could approach it a little differently moving forward.”
Pederson’s game plan for Hurts in his first career NFL start was one that simplified the passing offense. He called many throws with only one read: rollouts, screens, swings, and run-pass options. And when he had Hurts pass from the pocket, many of the plays were staples of the Eagles’ scheme.
Hurts also allowed for a more diverse run game. He kept the ball on zone-read plays five times for 38 yards. He rushed six times on designed runs -- sweeps, a draw, and power -- for 22 yards. He built other runs like triple-options off the quarterback. And despite the narrative that he took off often, Hurts scrambled only four times, for 50 yards.
“As play-callers, as you put plans together, maybe you keep things a touch smaller,” Pederson said in explaining why he’s had success with backups. “You keep the verbiage down. Maybe you pull back or pull plays you used earlier in the season. Time on task. All kinds of things play into that.”
Pederson and Nick Foles clearly had chemistry. The former Eagles backup went 10-2, minus the 2017 finale, with the coach. But they also benefited greatly from the overall strength of the Eagles then, particularly the 2017 Super Bowl-winning squad, from cohesive offensive lines to relatively consistent defenses.
Hurts is a long way from accomplishing as much. And even if he continues to play at the same level, will it be enough of a sample for the Eagles to commit to him for 2021? Not likely. But Pederson could buy himself time if he shows that he can win with the dual-threat quarterback.
If Wentz’s contract was less binding, Hurts’ effectiveness down the stretch might have more influence on offseason decisions. Perhaps the Eagles would be willing to eat the approximate $60 million in dead money over two years because going with Hurts would signify a rebuild. But their overall salary-cap situation is already dire.
Plus, the main premise of drafting Hurts was to stockpile starting-caliber quarterbacks, although bringing both back could repeat this year’s mistakes and further invite controversy. The Eagles could potentially draft another, but with each win, they make it that much more difficult to draft one of the three top prospects (not that they couldn’t find one later).
There were national reports this week that the Eagles “have every intention” of keeping Wentz next season, but wouldn’t that be premature without knowing if Pederson or general manager Howie Roseman return? Even if the latter stays, wouldn’t Lurie want to know whether his new coach even likes Wentz?
While it’s fair to question if Pederson is best for Wentz, the same could be asked of the opposite. It’s been long established that Wentz wants a say in game plans, wants freedom at the line to change plays, and can be Type-A stubborn.
Many top quarterbacks have similar freedoms and temperaments, but did the Eagles give Wentz too much too soon? Pederson said no, but he also said that all coaches must be cautious in putting too much on their quarterbacks’ plates.
“That’s one of the things I appreciate about Carson. I want him to have control,” Pederson said. “I want him to have the ability to get us in and out of bad plays, or plays that aren’t conducive to what we’re seeing defensively on that snap. We’ve given him that freedom.
“He’s that type of quarterback that can do that. And at the same time, we’ve had success doing that.”
Not this season. Too much can be made of Wentz’s “kill, kill” audibles. More often than not, he’s either just checking from pass to run, or vice versa, or changing the direction of a run. But there is value in having a quarterback who can diagnose defenses pre-snap.
Hurts ran the offense as called, save for one or two checks. The Saints made a few second-half adjustments he had trouble countering. Pederson said the struggles were more self-inflicted. But Hurts will need to grow up fast, the more film opposing defenses have to study.
So while the rookie has provided the spark Pederson said he was in search of, and there’s obvious fan excitement about his potential, expectations should be tempered. There are still great unknowns and most options for the future still on the table.
The one that seems the most unlikely, however, is Wentz and Pederson returning together.