DENVER — Jalen Hurts played what might have been his best half in the NFL on Sunday.
“Is that what they’re saying?” he said later.
It could also be said that Hurts is slowly building a case for more than just a one-season trial run as the Eagles’ starting quarterback. Some questionable decisions in the second half might be the argument against that reasoning.
But Hurts’ first 30 minutes were elite-level as the Eagles built a 20-10 halftime lead in an eventual 30-13 win over the 5-5 Broncos. He produced big gains with his legs, but what impressed most were his throws from the pocket.
He quarterbacked, and for stretches earlier this season, that wasn’t often the case. But for the last weeks, Hurts has shown steady improvement, and to deny that would be an oversight.
“He just gets better every day,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said.
It’s no secret that Hurts’ efficiency has come with fewer pass attempts. It took almost half the season, but Sirianni accepted that his offense needed balance if he wanted to unburden his quarterback. Hurts threw only 31 passes in the previous two games.
That said, the restraints were off somewhat at Mile High. Of the Eagles’ 41 first-half plays, Hurts dropped to throw 22 times. He scrambled once for 31 yards and was sacked once, but on the 20 other passes he completed 15 for 176 yards and two touchdowns.
And his best might have been an incomplete pass. Right before the break, Hurts launched a dime to Quez Watkins in the end zone. But the wide receiver couldn’t pull the ball in and the Eagles settled for a Jake Elliott 52-yard field goal.
“I missed a throw last week on third down, and I still got a bad taste in my mouth on that one,” Hurts said. “Quez — he dropped one before half, a touchdown. And it happened. So they have complete trust in me and I have complete trust in them.”
And Sirianni is starting to have more trust in Hurts. He’s giving him more space to make checks at the line and noted that on back-to-back plays, the quarterback changed to the other called play when he identified Broncos pressures pre-snap.
On an early third-and-12, the Eagles O-line picked up a five-man rush, and Hurts stood tall in the pocket until he found the crossing Dallas Goedert for 24 yards. The tight end left with a concussion after Justin Simmons hit him high — and should have been penalized — but Hurts didn’t miss a beat.
Three plays later, he threw another one from the pocket to receiver DeVonta Smith, who made an acrobatic 36-yard touchdown catch over former Alabama teammate Pat Surtain II.
“Throwing from the pocket, it’s not like it’s something I can’t do,” Hurts said. “I think I do it very well. I was just taking advantage of it.”
But there just haven’t been as many opportunities to throw from there as the Eagles have adopted a run-heavy scheme. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Hurts still has less than a season of starts — 14 total — to his name.
The formula, with running back Jordan Howard (12 carries for 83 yards) and Boston Scott (11 carries for 81 yards), has worked. Add in Kenneth Gainwell (2 carries for 5 yards) and Hurts’ 53 yards rushing, and the Eagles produced 214 yards on the ground.
“I don’t know if you’re ever finally there, right?” Sirianni said. “You always have to adjust to what people are doing and taking away, but to be able to run the ball … against a defense of that caliber, that’s about those guys up front.”
The Eagles’ offensive line got the mandatory game ball for going over two bills, Sirianni said. Right tackle Lane Johnson’s return following a three-game absence to deal with his mental health has clearly buoyed the unit and the ground attack.
“You control the time of possession and you can slowly grind them down,” Johnson said of the run game. “And it makes the pass rush easier, really, a lot of the game a lot easier when you can do that.”
Miles Sanders is eligible to return from injured reserve next week, which could crowd the running back room, but more is typically better than less.
The same might not be said of Hurts, though. Hurts completed only 1 of 3 passes for 2 yards in the second half and tossed an interception. And he made some poor choices in the zone-read game.
“I wasn’t able to finish my throw and I jammed my fingers up a little bit,” Hurts said of the pick.
But special teams (a K’Von Wallace blocked field goal) and the defense (Davion Taylor and Darius Slay teamed up for a dramatic forced fumble touchdown run) made tide-turning stops that offset the offensive lulls in the second half.
And now the Eagles, who moved to 4-6, are only one game out of the wild card playoff hunt and have a little momentum with offensive identity and a quarterback who is on the rise.
“The biggest thing I realized, for us, is the only direction is to rise,” Hurts said. “Continue to rise, continue to grow and continue to put in the effort, and everything will play out the way it’s supposed to.”