What would it take for Doug Pederson to bench Carson Wentz for Jalen Hurts this season?
A lot, if Pederson is to be viewed through the lens of his mentor, Andy Reid. When it comes to quarterbacks and pulling the cord on the existing starter as opposed to plugging it in with a youngster, the former Eagles coach has taken a conservative approach.
Reid waited 10 games before going to Donovan McNabb despite then-quarterback Pederson’s significant struggles. He waited over a season and a half before yanking McNabb in-game for Kevin Kolb, three seasons before permanently making the switch. And with the Chiefs it took a year before he handed the reins to Patrick Mahomes.
While the dynamic in each case was different from that of the Eagles’ current one, and Pederson isn’t exactly a clone of his former boss, Reid’s handling of his young quarterbacks shows that one of the best ever preferred to be a little late than too early.
Despite Wentz’s struggles through nine games, going to Hurts now would be precipitous. The quarterback had four turnovers in just over two quarters against the Cowboys three weeks ago, and yet Pederson said that he never considered a change.
“My mind wasn’t there,” Pederson said then. “I wasn’t going there.”
It paid off in that the Eagles rallied to win, although with little help from Wentz. But the team has so much invested in the 27-year-old, from draft picks to millions of dollars, that benching him now would be rash.
Even if Pederson believed Hurts could be an upgrade, a swap would open a can of worms, especially if the rookie were to struggle. It would make little sense to force the issue with the Eagles still in the NFC East lead.
But the next five games, starting Sunday’s matchup in Cleveland, are against teams with winning marks, and if Wentz continues to play poorly, the cries for Hurts will grow only louder.
Internally, the Eagles know they’re sitting on a powder keg. Despite multiple requests, the team’s public relations staff hasn’t made Hurts available to reporters on Zoom calls since late July. Under normal circumstances, he would be required to conduct interviews once during the week before a game and once immediately after.
In most cases, a change would happen organically. Wentz would get hurt, or he would perform so poorly that it would be obvious. While the division lead does afford the Eagles time, having something to play for does add an element to the equation.
The great unknown, though, is how Hurts would perform under the circumstances. The Eagles’ second-round investment said plenty about their belief in his ability. And since they’ve had him in the building, the optimism has only grown.
But Hurts has been on the field for just 30 plays this season. Early on, the Eagles had significant success whether he had the ball in his hands or was used as a decoy. But the Hurts plays weren’t as productive the last three games.
He seemed to be gaining momentum against the Ravens last month. Hurts had three touches for 26 yards, and on plays in which he was eye candy, the Eagles gained another 109 yards.
In nine offensive snaps over the last three games, though, he had three carries for 1 yard, one pass for 9 yards, four plays on which Eagles running backs gained 35 yards, and a delay of game penalty. He also attempted two two-point conversions that failed.
The recent plays have mostly lacked imagination – the majority of them zone-reads – and often a passing element with Wentz also on the field split wide.
“I think early on, we’ve been very explosive with him,” Pederson said Monday. “Gosh, I think we were close to 11 or 12 yards per attempt when he was in the game, something like that.
“I would say here recently, defenses are playing him a little bit differently. They have had chances to scout him. I think ... sure, we could probably do a little bit more with him.”
Pederson, it should be noted, has never had a second quarterback like Hurts. He also must remain sensitive to Wentz, which could explain his reluctance to have him watch from the sidelines for a play, or even a series.
There have been internal discussions about giving Hurts an entire series. But what would happen if Hurts were to drive the Eagles to a touchdown? That’s the objective, but would it undermine Wentz and sow seeds of doubt in the locker room?
A series or two could send a message to the starter, though. Reid had grown frustrated with McNabb’s inconsistency by late 2008. He had wanted to bench him earlier but fought the urge until the Eagles faced the Ravens in Game 11 of that season.
Trailing, 10-7, at the half, Reid sat McNabb. Kolb went in and was even worse as Baltimore scored 26 unanswered points. Reid went back to McNabb the next week, and the Eagles won six of their next seven to reach the NFC title game.
They fell to the Cardinals, but McNabb returned for another season and another playoff berth. But an early exit hastened his departure that offseason, and Kolb was finally given the keys.
That Kolb would drop them after just one start the following season is another story, but it speaks to the uncertainty of evaluating backups with short NFL resumes. Even if multi-faceted Hurts were to be pressed into duty, the game plan would be streamlined.
“I think that you can’t go in and say, ‘Hey, learn the offense like Carson knows it right now,’” Pederson said recently when asked what a Hurts game plan would look like. “But I think you can do some things with him that allow him to be successful if we had to.”
Hurts has handled being demoted. He was benched by Alabama at halftime of the national championship game that backup Tua Tagovailoa finished and won. Tagovailoa remained the starter the following season, although Hurts played at times, and eventually was called upon because of injury.
But he transferred to Oklahoma for his senior season. If anyone knows how Wentz feels about the threat from a backup, and about sharing time, it’s Hurts. Wentz, likewise, knows what it’s like to sit and wait, something he did for three years at North Dakota State.
“It has been really good getting to know him and work together,” Wentz said last month of Hurts. “It is cool to get him out there. I know it puts a lot of stress on the defense when we are both out on the field.”
But there can be only one starter. There is zero doubt Hurts wants to play. But Pederson and the Eagles would be best served if they allowed it to happen organically, if it’s to happen at all. You can’t force it, as Pederson, a backup for most of his playing career, knows.
“I just tell [Hurts], like coaches told me in my role, ‘Just focus on being you, and focus on the offense and what you are capable of handling if you had to play,’” Pederson said last week. “That is all we can instruct Jalen to do.”