Jalen Hurts either isn’t the quarterback for Nick Sirianni, or Sirianni isn’t the coach for Hurts. After the Eagles’ first six games, at least, that appears to be the case.
Nearly two-thirds of the season is left, of course, so there is time to salvage this marriage of convenience. But if the couple can’t figure it out against the Raiders in nine days, it may be time to scratch that seven-game itch and make wholesale changes.
For the second straight game, and the fourth time this season, the Eagles offense was abysmal. In Thursday night’s 28-22 loss to the Buccaneers, there was another late charge, but the defense couldn’t stop Tom Brady when it mattered. Sirianni’s team was left with nothing but another moral victory in that it rallied for the first-year coach.
But it was another performance full of errors in scheme, play-calling, and execution. On defense, Jonathan Gannon’s early game plan was apparently to play his safeties as deep as I-95, and with little variety in coverage or disguise. And, of course, Tampa’s Hall of Fame quarterback promptly picked the Eagles apart.
At least Gannon’s defense has had an identity, however spartan it may be. On offense, it’s hard to make sense of what Sirianni wants his system to be. And it’s likely because he just doesn’t have comfort or familiarity with many of the concepts he has implemented to account for Hurts.
The first half, aside from the opening drive, when the Eagles benefited from a caught deflected pass and a 45-yard pass interference penalty, was brutal. They went three-and-out on four of the next five possessions, with an interception tossed in the middle, and opened the second half with another punt after three plays.
Hurts was mostly ineffective. He did convert an early third down with a scramble, but the Bucs took away his short passing game and neutralized his speed on the edge. Hurts, when asked to throw from the pocket, was mostly inaccurate.
“There [were] a couple of times that we had some pressures he had to escape out of,” Sirianni said. “But, the same thing, we need to hone in on being able to make throws from the pocket first, and then be able to escape.
“We’re always going to be talking to him about that because that’s where he’s really good — at being able to escape and make plays.”
Sirianni deserves some credit for not just jamming the second-year quarterback into the base offense he has long worked with, starting with the Chargers and then the Colts. He knew he would have to include some of the college concepts that would play to Hurts’ strengths, but also give him a relatively elementary foundation to build upon.
That meant a read-based running and short-passing game. Sirianni had experience with run-pass options in Indianapolis, but not much, and so he brought in Kevin Patullo as pass-game analyst. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland was retained as run-game coordinator, and he had vast experience with zone-reads.
But they’re just assistants. The offensive leaders — Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen — spent almost their entire NFL careers in a system with a traditional dropback quarterback such as Philip Rivers.
Hurts is not that kind of quarterback, at least not yet. And Sirianni and Steichen understood that and have mostly stayed away from a progression-read-based offense. But they have in turn built their system around RPOs and zone-reads, and while their simplicity may aid Hurts, NFL defenses have long caught onto how to stop those plays.
Especially when they’re run over and over. Sirianni has gone to other ideas and has had Hurts throw from the pocket. But the offense has felt in rhythm only for most of the opener against the Falcons and three weeks ago against the defense-deficient Chiefs.
It didn’t take much for the Bucs to ground the Eagles’ ground game. On the first play, they had a second-level defender shade the unblocked edge rusher that Hurts was to read, and the quarterback was dropped for a 2-yard loss.
Sirianni wants to take advantage of Hurts’ mobility, but zone-reads and RPOs have made running back Miles Sanders a ghost for most of the season. He entered the game averaging only 4.6 carries before the half, but he got only one rush for 1 yard against Tampa Bay.
“Some of them were RPOs,” Sirianni said, “some of them we look at screens as being able to get the running backs the ball.”
But the Panthers and Bucs snuffed out many of the Eagles’ screens the last two weeks. Tampa Bay has been shorthanded at cornerback, and lost another when Richard Sherman pulled his hamstring early. Hurts promptly went at the corners deep, but luck played more in the plays’ success than anything else.
His first bomb to Jalen Reagor was underthrown but drew pass interference. His second to the receiver later on was better and forced another flag. But Hurts’ second-quarter deep toss to Quez Watkins was thrown inside, and when the receiver felt compelled to stop and break it up, he jumped too early and Jamel Dean had an interception.
Hurts did have some strong throws. He escaped the pocket and hit Watkins for 24 yards in the fourth quarter. A few plays later, he zipped a 25-yard pass to receiver DeVonta Smith across the middle. And he ran for two touchdowns for the second straight week.
The 24-year old does have resolve.
But he struggles to see the entire field from the pocket, doesn’t have great arm strength, and most damning, is without an intermediate passing game. He had tight end Zach Ertz open on a corner route at one point and overthrew him by 5 yards.
But it isn’t clear that Sirianni put Hurts in the best positions to succeed. They may be an awkward pairing, but a good coach should be able to find ways to make his quarterback look better, and vice versa.
“I don’t want to make excuses for anything,” Hurts said. “I know I hold myself to a high standard of play and I am trying to go out there and play at a high level for the guys around me.”
Few expected the Eagles to beat Brady and the defending Super Bowl champs. The Bucs’ Todd Bowles is one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL. But many of the early offensive woes — many of the Eagles’, overall, for that matter — have been self-inflicted.
If Sirianni gets a grace period, the same should also apply to Hurts. The coach said he will use the mini-bye to reassess his offense. It would be near impossible to make a philosophical switch midseason.
But he could make one easy move to shift the stern and save his first-year ship from sinking. It’s probably unlikely that he’ll give up so soon on Hurts. But something has to change. Finding a consistent identity would help.
“What is our identity as an offense?” Hurts said when asked. “I think we have everything we need here in Philadelphia. We have everything.”
Does Sirianni believe that? And further, does owner Jeffrey Lurie?