CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jalen Hurts sank into the bench just after tossing an interception and dropped his head. The quarterback rarely emotes frustration so clearly, but his third-quarter turnover was the most obvious example of his ineffectiveness up to that point.
The Eagles offense was having a miserable day, and there was little he could do to lift the unit. But Jordan Mailata caught a glimpse of the despondent Hurts, walked over, got down on one knee, lifted him up and simply said, “Next play.”
“That made me smile because it’s something that I preach,” Hurts said. “I got a taste of my own medicine right there in that moment. And it felt good. ‘Next play’ mentality, ‘Dawg mentality.’ That was a situation where I had to … show some perseverance and overcome.”
And overcome the offense’s inconsistent, sloppy start he did. Hurts rushed for two touchdowns in the final 15 minutes and 12 seconds, and made several key throws along the way, as the Eagles rallied to clip the Panthers, 21-18, on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
It was a victory largely driven by Jonathan Gannon’s resurrected defense, though. The group helped force three Sam Darnold interceptions, but Hurts and the offense managed to score only three points off the turnovers. But they would take advantage of a fourth-quarter blocked punt by T.J. Edwards that Shaun Bradley recovered at the Panthers 27.
Hurts hit tight end Dallas Goedert for 20 yards down the middle. And then two plays later, he kept on a zone read and waltzed into the end zone from six yards out to put the Eagles ahead, 19-18, with 2:42 remaining.
Hurts paid homage to former Panthers quarterback Cam Newton by simulating his “Superman” celebration behind the end zone. But his next play may have been his most Cam-like moment.
Eagles coach Nick Sirianni directed the team to go for two, but a blocking assignment was missed. Carolina linebacker Haason Reddick had a free pass, but Hurts somehow escaped his grasp, scrambled to his right and hit DeVonta Smith in the back of the end zone for the three-point margin.
“When you’re down three as an offense, it feels different than when you’re down one,” said Sirianni, who listlessly dropped into the arms of an assistant after the conversion. “You’re like, ‘Hey, let’s go kick a field goal and win this game.’ … That’s a huge play.”
Earlier, it was a 53-yard bomb to Quez Watkins that initially pulled the offense out of its doldrums. Hurts’ only other moment of public visible frustration came before the half when he failed to pull the trigger to an open Watkins on a “seven” route.
The pass was designed to go out of bounds, but Hurts grabbed his helmet after he overthrew a covered Zach Ertz. Jake Elliott would still hit a 58-yard field goal, however, and the quarterback would have another chance with Watkins a quarter later when he flipped safety Sam Franklin’s hips with a devastating double move.
“I thought Jalen overthrew him,” Sirianni said. “It’s just unbelievable to see Quez put the burners on and go and track that ball.”
Smith drew a defensive pass interference penalty in the end zone on the next play and Hurts sneaked the rest of the way for his first rushing touchdown as the Eagles narrowed the Panthers lead to 15-13.
But up until that point it had been a slog. Hurts had completed 12 of his first 20 passes for only 35 yards or a minuscule 1.8 yards per attempt. The Eagles wanted to attack with a quick-strike passing game that utilized bubble screens, but the Panthers snuffed out nearly every one.
“We knew they were going to play a lot of zero [coverage],” Smith said, “so we had the answer with the quick game.”
But Carolina switched up their defense and employed un-scouted coverages. Sirianni kept calling the short throws, though, at the expense of the run game. Even when Darius Slay’s first of two interceptions gave the Eagles great field position, they failed to execute.
Sirianni went for it on fourth down at the 2-yard line and Hurts hit Smith in the end zone. But receiver Greg Ward was flagged for pass interference, and for the fifth time this season, and fourth in the last two games, an Eagles touchdown was brought back by a penalty.
It got even uglier. In the second quarter, center Jason Kelce airmailed a snap over Hurts’ head. The ball rolled into the end zone and Hurts tried to scoop it up. He could not, but luckily in the scrum the ball rolled out of the back for a safety.
The Panthers, meanwhile, had their own offensive issues. Darnold was inaccurate, and while running back Christian McCaffrey’s replacement, Chuba Hubbard, rushed for 101 yards on 24 carries, the Eagles’ defensive adjustments deserved credit.
Gannon allowed Slay to follow Panthers receiver DJ Moore (only five catches for 42 yards), which allowed for more man coverage, and had Darnold holding the ball longer than Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott did in the Eagles’ dreadful defensive performances in the prior two games against the Chiefs and Cowboys.
“I want to talk about how our defense played,” Hurts said emphatically when a reporter asked about his late-game heroics.
Understandably so. He wasn’t sharp much of the day, once missing an open Ertz on a key fourth-quarter fourth down. But Hurts, who threw for 198 yards on 22 of 37 passing, and rushed for 30 yards on nine carries, did earn praise for finishing. He kept the offense buoyant in the huddle. “Execute. Be disciplined. Do your job,” Smith said was his quarterback’s messaging.
And his teammates followed his lead. When Mailata, who had been moved from left to right tackle even though he missed the two previous games with a knee sprain, allowed back-to-back Reddick sacks, Hurts used the opportunity to pay him back with his “Next play” motto.
“He’s such an old soul. He’s got an old head on his young shoulders,” Mailata said. “And it shows very late in games. He’s still there talking us up. The grit, the perseverance — those are qualities that he himself possesses.
“He’s all bite, no bark. ... It’s very encouraging to see that from your quarterback and you just want to make sure you have his back.”