What we learned from Eagles-Chargers: When it comes to Jalen Hurts, patience is a virtue
Hurts has shown that he has talent and intangibles, and the Eagles would be wise to go with an offense that capitalizes on them.
There are no moral victories in the NFL — at least that’s the old adage — but the Eagles went toe-to-toe with the Chargers on Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field. They lost, 27-24, on a last-second field goal, though, and are now 3-6 with more than half the season complete. Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:
Nick Sirianni has found the sauce on offense. I was going to precede sauce with secret, but many, including yours truly, had been pleading since before the start of the season for the Eagles coach to implement a run-based system that accounts for Jalen Hurts and the quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses. Is it a long-term, sustainable system that will lead to perennial playoff appearances and Super Bowl contention? Probably not. Sirianni and his staff understandably didn’t enter the season lowering their aspirations. But it took far too long for them to embrace their reality.
Still, they get credit for finally coming around the last three games. I include the Raiders game because that was how Sirianni approached game planning before Miles Sanders went down and the team fell behind. The Eagles’ first two drives Sunday produced just one first down, but the offense got into a groove thereafter with balanced play-calling.
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On their last two drives of the first half, Hurts was under center for 11 of 26 snaps. They ran nine times for 51 yards out of that basic formation. Hurts completed one play-action pass for 27 yards to receiver DeVonta Smith and also scrambled once for 6 yards. The Eagles amassed 143 total yards and scored on both those possessions and led, 10-7, at the break.
Sirianni went away somewhat from under-center runs after the break with only two Jordan Howard carries for 6 yards. But Hurts did connect with Smith for two long completions — 23 and 19 yards — off play-action. The threat had already been established even if there can be too much made of “establishing the run” as it relates to play-action.
All told, the Eagles had 33 designed runs and 24 plays in which Hurts dropped to pass. He completed 11 of 17 throws for 162 yards and a touchdown, scrambled six times for 40 yards and was sacked once. For the second straight week, he attempted fewer than 20 passes. The numbers may not be eye-popping but they’ve been efficient. His average pass attempt over the last two games was 8.55 yards, which would rank fifth among all quarterbacks if sustained over all nine games. It would be a stretch to think Hurts could maintain that pace, but limiting his number of attempts has clearly benefited the offense.
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Jalen Hurts can be the guy, but he needs patience. The above note shouldn’t be taken as a slight against Hurts. This is just who he is 13 starts into his NFL career. Is there validity to the notion that he will never have the arm talent or pocket awareness to be an elite quarterback in the NFL? Sure. I get the need to project and avoid wasted time on a project. But this season was always going to be a fact-finding mission. If Sirianni and company had a better understanding of Hurts’ limitations — or that of their base offense as it pertains to his abilities — then maybe his development wouldn’t look as inconsistent.
Lesser quarterbacks have been given more leeway, often because of where they were drafted. But the NFL has changed over the last two decades. Quarterbacks, in some cases, come in refined and ready to go. The Chargers’ Justin Herbert set all kinds of rookie records last season. The Bengals’ Joe Burrow was obviously able to make the jump right away. But there are just as many who need time to develop. Look at this year’s first-round class: Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Zach Wilson have three of the four worst passer ratings in the NFL. There are certainly circumstances outside their control. Coaching matters. The best rookie quarterback this season has been the Patriots’ Mac Jones, who has Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels to guide him along.
Hurts has eight games to make his claim for the future and the combined record of the next seven opponents is 22-37. He’ll face some of the better defenses in the league, though, starting with the Broncos next Sunday. But a reprieve for Jonathan Gannon’s defense — the Eagles won’t face an elite thrower over that span — could assist Hurts and the offense. They had the ball for only seven possessions and 57 plays on Sunday.
There were some missed opportunities. Hurts said he wanted two first-half throws back — the overthrow to tight end Dallas Goedert on the first drive and the toss wide of Smith in the end zone on the last drive. He had a rusher in his face on the first. The second was a case of what not to do mechanically. Hurts’ drop was an awkward backpedal that resulted in him throwing off his back foot. He was also a tick late, although Smith said he stumbled during his route. Still, those are passes Hurts needs to complete more often than not.
He has also improved marginally in terms of staying in the pocket. But as Sirianni has emphasized, if the quarterback can offset a missed read or open receiver with a long scramble, he’ll take a few of those. Hurts was dynamic with his legs on the Eagles’ last possession and converted two third downs when he evaded the Chargers’ rush. And then on his last throw, he stood tall in the pocket vs. a five-man rush and hit Smith over the middle for the game-tying touchdown.
Hurts has repeatedly shown gumption, especially late in games. His intangibles are through the roof and most can’t be taught. The on-field stuff, to an extent, can. He may not have Russell Wilson’s natural throwing talent or his high ceiling, but the Eagles have eight games to figure out if Hurts’ learning curve is on a similar trajectory. It would have helped if they hadn’t stunted him so early.
» READ MORE: The Eagles’ loss to Chargers showed Jalen Hurts would be the perfect QB here ... in another era of football
Derek Barnett signifies personnel errors on defense. Barnett doesn’t qualify as a “bust” as much as some may want to label him that following yet another ill-timed penalty. He had a decent first four seasons, if not good enough considering his first-round draft stock. The Eagles didn’t necessarily have to pick up his fifth-year, approximately $10 million option, though. I can understand why they did this offseason. He still plays a premium position. But he has not warranted the trust. Sacks can be overvalued, but he has only one this season, and more damning, only 17 pressures on 234 rushes. He had previously offset what he lacked as a rusher with solid run defense, but like many Eagles D-linemen, has struggled to adapt to Gannon’s multiple fronts.
The 2017 draft was the last time the Eagles used picks in the first two rounds on defense with Barnett and cornerback Sidney Jones. In the last four drafts, they have gone tight end, tackle, running back, receiver, receiver, quarterback, receiver, and guard with picks 1 and 2. This offense-heavy selection reflects the front office’s preference for that side of the ball, but also the correcting of two whiffs at the receiver position. They apparently got the latest selection right. Smith (five catches for 116 yards and a touchdown) has star potential. But it shouldn’t have taken that many chances to get it right.
The Eagles currently are on track to have three first-rounders in the next draft. They also have second- and third-round picks and five third-day selections. It’s likely that general manager Howie Roseman stocks up on defensive prospects. But neglect for that side of the ball, along with questionable choices when defensive players were chosen, have led to games like Sunday’s.
Just look at the Eagles’ back seven: Only cornerback Avonte Maddox and linebacker Davion Taylor were drafted and the latter was only recently made a starter. Cornerbacks Darius Slay and Steven Nelson and safeties Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris are all former free agents. T.J. Edwards came as an undrafted rookie, but it took weeks for Gannon to realize that — pass cover warts and all — he was his best option at linebacker.
The Eagles’ defensive line has lost its teeth. It lost its heart and soul in Week 2 when end Brandon Graham suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon rupture. But one player shouldn’t seemingly affect a group that much, especially one with so many resources. The Eagles still had Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat, Barnett, and others to compensate for the loss. Nearly one-third of the salary cap has been devoted to that one position. And the returns have mostly been subpar. Hargrave and Sweat have justified their salaries in terms of their pass rush. But they haven’t delivered in enough big spots.
The Eagles D-line didn’t touch Herbert. The only official hit came from Nelson on a blitz, and that play was nullified by his roughing-the-passer penalty. I don’t care how quickly the ball came out, or that the secondary was a sieve, or that Gannon called suspect coverages. There has to be more production on 41 drops.
Gannon dialed up a higher percentage of blitzes than he has in any game this season. He sent extra rushers a dozen times and Herbert completed 8-of-11 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. He also scrambled 8 yards for a score. An argument could be made that Gannon should have blitzed more, especially on the last two drives. He did only once — on the scramble. But what was also suspect was the lack of presnap dummy looks to put doubt in the mind of Herbert and the Chargers’ offensive line.
Gannon is lacking in personnel, though, as evidenced above. Roseman’s poor drafts, free-agent signings and contracts are coming home to roost, or have been for years. But it simply can’t be swept under the rug when assessing the coordinator’s performance.
Extra points. I haven’t been exactly surprised by Sirianni’s conservative decision-making on fourth downs this season. I was told that he wouldn’t be bound by analytics and that has pretty much been the case so far. But I was surprised he didn’t roll the dice on fourth-and-5 at the Chargers’ 45 on the Eagles’ first possession. Hurts had just missed Goedert, but with a 3-5 record Sirianni should have maybe adopted a nothing-to-lose mentality. The same argument was made by some after Smith had scored in the fourth quarter. Some thought, since the Eagles defense had yet to force a punt, that Sirianni should have gone for two. Maybe. But my guess is that it never entered his head. Jeffrey Lurie’s? Well, that’s another conversation. … Defensive end Ryan Kerrigan played just 12 of 68 snaps and again failed to show up on the stat sheet. He has just one official tackle despite playing 203 snaps this season. … Quez Watkins logged 55 snaps to Smith’s 44. Jalen Reagor, who was coming off an ankle injury, played just 29 snaps and was not used in the return game.