Jalen Hurts was dead in his tracks. New Orleans defensive end Carl Granderson had not taken the bait and had the Eagles quarterback within his sights. But Hurts lulled him to his left, stuck his right foot in the dirt, and crossed up the flailing, falling Saint.
“He hit that L1 juke,” Eagles tackle Lane Johnson said, referring to the controller button for vintage John Madden Football moves.
Hurts then high-stepped through the hole ahead of safety P.J. Williams, cut to the left behind the lead-blocking Dallas Goedert, and angled to the pylon for a 24-yard touchdown. The score put the Eagles ahead by a comfortable 18 points with less than four minutes left in Sunday’s game, but it also came after the Saints had trimmed a 26-point lead to 11.
“I just made a play,” Hurts said of his joystick-like dash. “I look at it as a situation in the game.”
The offense had been fluttering, and the defense had been leaky, but on this third-and-6 play, Hurts took matters into his own legs. He rushed for three touchdowns in the Eagles’ 40-29 win over New Orleans, but it was his last trip to the end zone that was a memory-maker.
The Eagles have had their share of mobile quarterbacks over the years. In fact, there might not be an NFL team with as many prodigious runners at that position. From Randall Cunningham to Donovan McNabb to Michael Vick, the Eagles have been there, done that.
Hurts might not realize it, but his accomplishments will always be viewed through that context from a segment of fans. It could be that he isn’t as dynamic with the feet, or that his predecessors, for all their accomplishments, never won a Super Bowl.
The closest they got was when McNabb became more of a pocket passer.
But Hurts does possess the ability to take over games on the ground. He did a year ago in his first career start, when he rushed for 106 yards in an upset over these same Saints, the last time the Eagles won at Lincoln Financial Field. And he has done so in spots in his first full season as the starter.
Hurts is a weapon once he is a runner, but also once he hands the ball off to one of the running backs, because defenses do have to account for the quarterback. Jordan Howard, Boston Scott, and now Miles Sanders have all run well as coach Nick Sirianni has shifted his offense to be run-oriented over the last month.
A team doesn’t gain 242 yards rushing, as the Eagles did against the No. 3-ranked run defense, or top 200 yards in three of their last four games, without capable backs and a proficient offensive line.
But Hurts forces defenses to match all 11 players in the run game, or to spy the quarterback when he drops.
“Having Jalen makes it 10 times easier,” Sanders said.
Hurts’ individual numbers weren’t eye-popping. He ran 18 times for 69 yards, although two carries were victory-formation kneels. But he has a knack for the picking up first downs and crossing the goal line.
He already has eight rushing touchdowns on the season, which is two more than Cunningham or McNabb ever had. He’s just one behind Vick’s nine from 2010.
He has already gained a team-high 618 yards on the ground this season and has Cunningham’s franchise record of 924 yards set in 1990 within reach.
Hurts, of course, would rather not discuss individual accolades. He said he was frustrated with the Eagles’ inability to convert in the red zone on a few possessions. And some of those struggles did have to do with his deficiencies as a passer.
He completed just 13 of 24 passes for 147 yards. But too much can be made of what Hurts currently lacks. Sirianni has helped to lessen his load as the quarterback hasn’t attempted more than 25 passes in the last four games. But it has mostly been a winning formula with the 5-6 Eagles winning three of their last four.
Hurts isn’t technically a rookie, but he’s started only 15 games. He has time to develop as a thrower, even if there are physical traits he can’t change. But some of his strengths, like his steady demeanor, aren’t quantifiable.
“Maybe when he beat me and Greg Ward at the house shooting threes,” Johnson said. “That’s about the most excited I’ve seen him.”
This season was deemed a trial run for Hurts, but that wasn’t always fair to the Eagles’ 2020 second-rounder. The jury is still out on his long-term future, but he has made a case, at least for another season, if the Eagles don’t have better options.
Hurts will have to improve in the pocket, and there have been glimpses, because the best chances to win a title come with that kind of quarterback. But that doesn’t mean a run-based attack isn’t short-term sustainable.
“That’s my guy,” Sanders said of Hurts. “You can kind of sense it on the field. He’s a field general. He likes to control things. It’s just natural for him. He doesn’t force anything. He has that natural leadership.
“We just follow right behind him.”
Sanders, Goedert, and most of the other offensive players on the field were too busy to watch Hurts’ jaunt live. But they did watch the replay, like everyone at the Linc and at home, who knew they had just witnessed something special.
“I’ll always watch Jalen,” Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox said. “I’m looking at the Jumbotron and when I saw him make that move, I was like ... I’m looking for the trainer so I can grab some tape to help that kid’s ankles.”
After Hurts ran through the end zone, there was an Eagles jersey at his feet. It was his replica, and he picked it up and raised it to the crowd before tossing it back into the stands.
“I think he threw a marker with it,” Hurts said. “I don’t know how the [NFL] fines work. They’ll get you.”
He didn’t use the Sharpie, a la Terrell Owens, but it was an uncharacteristic show of bravado from the 23-year-old.
“I was in a different mode when we scored that touchdown,” Hurts said. “It was just something that we needed to do for the team. So I just held it up.”