Maybe Jalen Hurts isn’t a quarterback for this era of football. Maybe he’s a better fit for the sport of the 1960s and ‘70s, before Bill Walsh and Mike Martz and Sean McVay and Byron Leftwich. Before the modern gurus and geniuses and their souped-up offenses. Before those coaches and others like them transformed the quarterback position, demanding grace and timing and adherence to a rigorous and analytic system as much as they did leadership and toughness and improvisation. Maybe Hurts belongs in those sequences that NFL Films’ cameras captured with 16-mm stock way back when: Billy Kilmer chucking wobbly passes, Fran Tarkenton serpentining away from a pass rush and throwing deep, Archie Manning running for his life.
So there was Hurts in the fourth quarter Sunday, the Eagles down seven, rolling right, the first-down stick four yards away, and not settling for the safety of the sideline but turning upfield, taking a low hit from Chargers linebacker Drue Tranquill and somersaulting forward. He picked up the four yards. He got the first down. Two plays later, there he was rolling right again, eluding a blitz, this time picking up 11 yards, setting the stage for a game-tying 28-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith.
In an earlier age of pro football, Hurts would have earned nothing but laurels for his performance Sunday despite the final score: Chargers 27, Eagles 24. His numbers were nothing special: 11 completions in 17 passes, 162 yards, one touchdown, another 62 yards rushing. But in an earlier age, he’d have been clutch. He’d have done what was asked of him, and he’d have been praised for inspiring his teammates. Hell, he was.
“He was a stud; he was a big-time stud,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Brandon Staley. They knew we were moving the ball really well on offense, and I’m pretty confident he didn’t leave anything on his call sheet. He started coming with different things. I think they had a blitz-zero on that last play, and Jalen just fired a strike to DeVonta. Obviously, that throw was really unbelievable in the face of some pressure. That’s advanced football right there.
“A couple of the drives he made, he was just really unfazed by the scenario. He showed a lot of poise. Down seven, everything in his eyes said, ‘Put it on me. Let’s keep running the ball. Let’s keep play-actioning it. Let’s keep converting on third downs.’ He made some unbelievable plays on third down.”
It’s a hard place that Hurts finds himself with the Eagles. Compare him to other quarterbacks the team has faced this season — Tom Brady; Patrick Mahomes; Dak Prescott; his counterpart Sunday, Justin Herbert — and Hurts’ physical and technical limitations become clear. He doesn’t have the arm strength of those players, doesn’t have their mastery of reading and reacting to a defense. Those limitations are why, finally, Sirianni has begun relying more on the Eagles’ running backs in the last two weeks and why the offense looks better for it. He’s not asking as much of Hurts, just the occasional terrific play at an important moment.
But in the reality of the modern NFL, a team that considers itself a true championship contender probably can’t thrive with that kind of approach, with that kind of quarterback. No team, least of all the Eagles, wants to place its trust in a quarterback’s intangibles and work around his tangible weaknesses. Every team wants what the Eagles thought they would have with Carson Wentz and what the Chargers believe they have in Herbert.
Smith stretched the ball across the goal line with 6 minutes, 7 seconds left in regulation, and from then on, Hurts could only watch from the sideline, helpless as Jonathan Gannon’s passive, predictable defense allowed Herbert to finish the game with 32 completions and 356 passing yards – and allowed the Chargers to set off on a methodical drive for Dustin Hopkins’ winning field goal. The Eagles never got the ball back.
“It’s very tough,” Hurts said. “For me, I’ll always look at it: What could I have done better to change the outcome of the game? You look at every opportunity you have and taking advantage of every opportunity. There were some opportunities, whether it was a perfect situation or not, whether it was a perfect pocket or not, I didn’t make the play early in the game. Those are the things that are on my mind right now.
“It’s something I’m going to learn from, but I look at it as a missed opportunity for me. The late-game, putting us in position to win — it’s about what you didn’t do.”
He was talking about two plays in particular. There was the Eagles’ first possession, third-and-5, and tight end Dallas Goedert broke free downfield. Hurts, while taking a hit from Jerry Tillery, lofted a pass too high and too far and off Goedert’s fingers. And there was a third-and-goal from the Chargers’ 6 late in the first half; Hurts backpedaling, never setting his feet, missing Smith in the back of the end zone for what could have been, should have been, a touchdown. The helicopter-like flip for that vital first down? That was a distant memory for him, though not for his coach.
“If we would have won that game,” Sirianni said, “that’s a play they would have shown in Philly for a long time. He was just really composed in a tight situation, and that’s what you want out of your quarterbacks. That’s what I’ve seen from good quarterbacks in my past.”
Unfortunately for Jalen Hurts, he was just behind his time.