Eagles-Cowboys: What We Learned: Jalen Hurts may not be the QB for this coach
From no pre-snap motion to limited use of the running backs, Nick Sirianni's offense isn't doing Jalen Hurts any favors.
ARLINGTON, Texas — After a promising start, the Nick Sirianni era has already gone off the rails after the Eagles suffered a Texas-style beatdown by the Cowboys, 41-21, on Monday night. Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:
Nick Sirianni doesn’t quite have the week-to-week head coach thing down yet. The new Eagles coach had years to prepare for his first game in charge. He had months to draw up a game plan against the Falcons in the opener. And he had weeks to learn what his players could do best considering the Week 1 circumstances. But in the two games since, Sirianni and his staff have been outcoached, and not necessarily by great coaching performances. That’s how poorly he did against the 49ers last week and Dallas this week.
His offensive game plan for the Cowboys was inexplicable. “We knew that we wanted to keep up with them,” Sirianni said. “We knew they were an explosive offense. We wanted to be able to push the ball down the field and hit some of the underneath zones that we saw, while also mixing in the run game in there.” Did he realize that Jalen Hurts was making his seventh NFL start behind an offensive line that was down two starters? Or that his quarterback has shown, if anything, that he can’t throw consistently from the pocket? So what does he do? He draws up a scheme that has Hurts taking deep drops and throwing from the pocket.
Sirianni needed more of his Falcons game plan. He needed to move the pocket for Hurts, use play-action and utilize the run-pass option game. It almost seemed as if Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen thought they had Philip Rivers at quarterback again. Hurts isn’t Rivers, in terms of talent — at least right now — and certainly not stylistically. There weren’t nearly enough designed quarterback runs. Sirianni seems to want to make the job easier for Hurts by eliminating pre-snap motion or motion at the snap, but young quarterbacks often need that information to know whether defenses are in man or zone coverage. Help your quarterback out. Use motion at the snap to divert the eyes of linebackers and safeties. It’s almost an imperative in today’s NFL.
There have been other early signs of trouble. The Eagles committed 13 penalties, and their total of 35 through three games is a franchise high. They’re on pace for 198, which would eclipse the league mark by 35. Yikes. Sirianni said he was most frustrated by pre-snap penalties and when Derek Barnett jumped offside on third-and-long, cameras and lip readers caught him saying of the penalty-prone defensive end, “It’s always him.”
“I was frustrated with the pre-snap penalties, regardless if it was Derek, if it was anybody,” Sirianni said. The coach held himself responsible for all the flags, as he should. Those are practice habits, and he’s allowing them to persist. But there were other disconcerting moments. For the second time in three games, the defense got flagged for having 12 men on the field. The latest came after an injury to K’Von Wallace (separated shoulder). The Eagles had the injury timeout to figure out who would replace the safety, and yet they still had too many men on the field.
Sirianni and his staff are young. He’s a first-time play-caller, as is defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon. They’re both implementing new schemes. Hurts is far from a finished product. Big picture, few expected the Eagles to be playoff contenders this season. The Week 1 win may have altered expectations, but Atlanta wasn’t an accurate measuring stick. Still, Monday night had to be worrisome for owner Jeffrey Lurie. His Eagles fell far short of meeting even the standard of competency.
“It doesn’t matter who’s at quarterback, doesn’t matter who’s at coach, doesn’t matter who’s at tight end, center, right tackle,” Eagles tight end Zach Ertz said, “the standards are what they are and that’s to win the football game.”
» READ MORE: Nick Sirianni’s game plan backfires in blowout loss to Cowboys
Jalen Hurts may not be the quarterback for this coach. Or conversely, Sirianni may not be the coach for this quarterback. It’s too early to draw conclusions, of course, but if either was capable of exceeding the limitations of the quarterback play or coaching, they’ve yet to do so through three games. It’s hard to fault the Eagles for looking into whether they could trade for Deshaun Watson. He has arguably top-five talent. But the flirtation with the dormant Houston quarterback clearly spoke to their having uncertainty about Hurts. And we’re seeing many of the issues evaluators had about the former Alabama-Oklahoma quarterback.
Questions about accuracy, arm strength, and hesitancy were all reinforced on Monday night. “I didn’t execute,” Hurts said. “I didn’t do a good enough job of leading. I didn’t do a good enough job of running our offense and doing the things that I need to do. … This one’s on me.”
Well, at least he has the ownership thing down, unlike his predecessor. As stated above, Sirianni didn’t help his quarterback enough. He has to either devise a game plan that accounts for his tendency to leave the pocket early, or he needs to coach it out of him. A film review will give more detail, but Hurts either held the ball too long or flushed out — mostly to the right — too often. “There’s a couple of times I thought, ‘Hey, could he have stayed in there?’” Sirianni said. “But I’m not seeing what he’s seeing. I’m seeing it from one side.”
When Hurts did throw from the pocket, at least early on, there were too many inaccurate throws. An early pass out of the end zone hit Ertz in the hands, but it was slightly behind him. Dallas Goedert was wide-open on a short crosser, and Hurts’ high toss glanced off the tight end’s outstretched hands. Could those passes have been caught? Maybe. But those are gimmes for most NFL QBs. Hurts can throw a nice deep ball, but many of his recent attempts have been short. He shortchanged Jalen Reagor on a fade route on his first interception. “He’ll want that throw back,” Sirianni said.
And he was bailed out later by Quez Watkins, who had a step on a Dallas defender but had to come back and win a jump ball. “I missed it,” Hurts said. “Didn’t throw it far enough.”
DeVonta Smith fell on the pick-six, but that only created an excuse for a poor pass that Hurts projected. “Just a bad, bad ball there,” the quarterback said.
Hurts has skills that should be adaptable to the modern NFL. Athleticism is important. His arm strength should be enough. He’s a bright young man. But he needs to be nurtured and coached out of bad habits. And young coaching staffs that want to establish their bona fides aren’t always best for developing raw talent at the most important position in the NFL.
Hurts also has many of the off-field intangibles you want out of a quarterback. But I’m not sure if having him step into a leadership role when he’s accomplished little at this level makes sense. With Brandon Graham done for the season, Hurts broke the squad down after pregame warmups. “That was something my teammates told me to do, the captains on the team,” Hurts said.
Hurts is a captain, but that seems like a job more for a veteran.
Sirianni doesn’t appear to be analytically inclined. The coach said he wanted to be aggressive to keep pace with the Cowboys. So why did he punt on two fourth-and-5′s — at the Dallas 45 and 49 — in the second quarter? “The chart said to punt in those situations,” he said.
If they did, Sirianni’s charts are some of the most conservative in the NFL. The Eagles trailed by 13 points in both scenarios. They needed a spark. Yes, gut does play a role in the decision-making process. But the analytics community has long been ahead of the curve on the advantages of being aggressive. Sirianni clearly didn’t have enough confidence in his offense to convert or in his defense to stop if the offense failed. But his offense needed a spark and the numbers, according to two analytics experts I consult, had both instances as green lights.
Some may suggest that Sirianni’s pass-heavy play-calling was in response to last week’s balance, or that Lurie got in his ear. But I don’t think that is yet the case because otherwise why would he be so conservative when the analytics-driven Lurie most likely would have preferred the opposite?
I’m not an establish-the-run supporter, and Sirianni obviously had to throw to catch up, but only three carries for Eagles running backs Miles Sanders and Kenny Gainwell was astonishing. Three(!) out of 58 plays. There were probably a few RPOs that took rushes away, but there is a valid defense for trying to control the clock as well as keeping the explosive Cowboys offense off the field.
» READ MORE: Blame Eagles’ defensive embarrassment vs. Cowboys on Jonathan Gannon, but also Nick Sirianni’s offense
The Eagles can’t avoid injuries on their offensive line. Left guard Isaac Seumalo is done for the season after suffering a Lisfranc foot injury on Monday night. Right guard Brandon Brooks is out for an extended period with a pectoral injury. And his replacement, Landon Dickerson, could be questionable for Sunday’s game against the Chiefs. The rookie was walking with a pronounced limp, favoring his left leg as he walked into the visitors’ locker room postgame. Dickerson tore the ACL in his left knee last year and was only recently cleared to play.
He has not performed well in his first two games. Some of his issues could be attributed to inexperience. But Dickerson has looked slow. Quickness was never his thing. He’s a big, powerful man. But to execute some of Jeff Stoutland’s zone blocks, you need to be relatively fleet of foot. Dickerson just may not be fully recovered from his knee surgery. The second-round draft pick has had a number of injuries over his brief career. Did the Eagles rush him back or is he just not ready?
Seumalo had settled down over the last few seasons after a rough start. It’s important to keep Dickerson’s rough start in context. Center Jason Kelce was asked how difficult it was to watch Seumalo get carted off the field. “That’s tough,” Kelce said. “That’s a guy that’s really been underappreciated for a long time.” The veteran center welled up and needed several moments before he composed himself and spoke about Seumalo’s journey from fan scourge to O-line stalwart.
Many expected left tackle Andre Dillard to torpedo the Eagles with Jordan Mailata out with a knee sprain. But the third-year O-lineman held up fairly well. He may need to continue that for a few more weeks. Mailata was wearing a rather significant looking brace on his right knee.
The Eagles used 14 different starting lineups on the O-line last season. They’ll be on their third in four games Sunday with at least Nate Herbig likely to start for Seumalo.
Extra points. Smith played all but one of 58 snaps. Reagor was next among wide receivers with 50. Watkins played 38. Sirianni needs to get Watkins on the field more than Reagor, who struggles to run precise routes or get separation downfield. Smith hasn’t been the problem as much as he hasn’t been the solution. He’s just a rookie, of course, and has already shown more than Reagor has in much less time. But he hasn’t done well to win contested balls. … Howie Roseman’s 2021 defensive free agent signings have brought mixed returns. Safety Anthony Harris and cornerback Steven Nelson have acquitted themselves so far, while linebacker Eric Wilson and defensive end Ryan Kerrigan have struggled. Kerrigan has clearly been affected by an August thumb surgery. He doesn’t look as explosive as he once did, and has also been playing out of position. He has yet to show up in the stat sheet despite playing 94 snaps in the first three games. … Eagles MVP Arryn Siposs dropped another two punts inside the 20. He has six on the season, which is tied for fifth in the NFL.