Quarterback Jalen Hurts will have plenty to reflect on when he steps onto the field at Raymond James Stadium this Sunday in Tampa, Fla. In this anticipated NFC wild-card round game featuring the Eagles and Buccaneers, Hurts and future Hall of Famer Tom Brady are expected to garner the most attention.
Hurts, 23, is set to become the youngest quarterback in Eagles history to start in a playoff game. He and Brady, 44, are separated by 21 years, and the Hurts-Brady matchup is expected to be the largest age gap between starting quarterbacks in NFL playoff history.
Consider Hurts unfazed.
“We just want to continue to do the things that got us here,” the second-year quarterback said Wednesday evening. “As an offense, we’ve revolutionized and evolved in terms of who we are and our identity. I’ve said different things to ignite the growth. Early on, we were searching for who we were.”
Pressed on which area he’s flourished in the most, Hurts said: “I’ve improved in every [aspect] of the game.”
Hurts might be in his sophomore season — and it’s also his first year as the full-time starter — but he does boast experience playing on the big-time stage at the same site of Sunday’s playoff game.
Hurts guided Alabama to the national title game at Raymond James Stadium, the site of the Crimson Tide’s 35-31 loss to Clemson on Jan. 9, 2017. During that game, Hurts connected on a 68-yard touchdown pass with current Bucs tight end O.J. Howard, although his heroics weren’t enough to overcome then-Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Could his experience playing in a similar environment benefit Hurts as he approaches his first professional postseason appearance?
Hurts declined to comment on the significance of returning to Raymond James Stadium, but he did discuss his relationship with Howard: “I’ve got a lot of love for O.J. He was there when I was a freshman at Alabama, we hung out a ton, and he showed me the ropes and showed me how Alabama operated and everything around the program. It’ll be good to go out there and compete against him.”
As for his development this season, Hurts has benefited from coach Nick Sirianni’s maturity in play calling. The player-coach relationship has evolved with time and it shows on the field.
“Some of our guys have never been in the playoffs or who are rookies — Jalen has never played in the playoffs,” Sirianni said. “But they’ve played in national championship games, and those games are huge. They have the same type of hoopla that surround them. I’m confident — we have winners on this football team.”
During the first meeting between the Eagles and Bucs on Oct. 14, some of Sirianni’s play sequences were sloppy, and the same could be said about the performance of the quarterback. Hurts completed just 46.1% of his passes for 115 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Eagles lost, 28-22.
So ... what has changed since that dreadful Thursday evening in October?
“He’s been more locked in,” Eagles left tackle Jordan Mailata said of Hurts. “It was important for him to step up [late in the regular season]. When you wear that ‘C’ logo on your jersey, it adds more pressure. But he handles it well. He works hard to get what he wants and he shares those goals. You see the way he talks to us and how he leads us on the field.”
Hurts was a bit more pointed in his answers during his weekly press conference Wednesday, which was held virtually on Zoom. Not many of his replies lasted longer than several seconds. There were even a few questions that resulted in one-word responses. Perhaps Hurts is already locked in on wanting to upset the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.
Only he and the Eagles can control that narrative.
“It’s the same thing I’ve been telling you guys to a majority of the questions that have been asked,” Hurts said. “The importance of fundamentals, details, and simply doing the things we have done all year. I’ve preached about the process. I’ve preached about the process at 2-5 and also when we made the run to this point. Nothing changes as far as our preparation and intensity.
“You either get better or get worse. You don’t stay the same. [We’re] having the right focus and attention to detail to put ourselves in a good situation come game day.”