Jalen Hurts has one more game to enhance the image that Eagles coaches will carry into the offseason. Next week, Doug Pederson and his staff will begin sorting out whether the fate of the franchise should be placed in the hands of the second-round rookie, or whether Carson Wentz, despite his historically awful year, can still be the long-term answer.
The Eagles can’t make the playoffs, and that reality was reflected in Wednesday’s injury report, which showed nine players not practicing with various infirmities. It’s unclear whether Hurts really can do anything Sunday night that will move the decision-making needle, against a Washington team that can capture the NFC East title by winning.
It’s great fun to talk about not letting an opponent put on the division champion hat while standing on the Linc turf — Hurts echoed Jim Schwartz’s battle cry on that Wednesday — but when it comes down to banged-up players risking further injury, hats aren’t the overriding concern. And of course, there is the matter of draft position, which winning can only worsen. The Eagles, slotted sixth overall right now, can pick as high as third and as low as 10th.
Reporters probing Wednesday for any assessment from Hurts of his play, or what he thinks he might have established in the competition with Wentz, were disappointed.
“I can tell you that I’m about winning. I play the game to win. That’s that,” said Hurts, who is 1-2 in three starts since Wentz was benched. “We’ve got another opportunity this week to do that. My head’s down, our head’s down, and we’re trying to get that done.”
Sunday’s 37-17 loss at Dallas raised more questions about Hurts than his previous outings. The Eagles blew a 14-3 lead and didn’t score in the second half. In fact, the offensive output after halftime looked a lot like the sort of thing that got Wentz benched — five sacks, two interceptions, and a lost fumble by the QB, who was very quick to desert the pocket, sometimes against only a three-man rush.
“I did feel like there were times where he did escape a little bit too fast,” Pederson said Wednesday. “Young players sometimes do that, and this is where we can coach him up and show him exactly where his eyes need to be, for instance, how he can time up the drop with the route combination, or what he’s seeing defensively. Then just trust the protection overall, whether it’s a pressure look, or not.
“There have been a few times the last couple of weeks that he’s gotten out of there a little bit too early, and something that he can learn on and build upon and kind of calm himself in the pocket as he continues to play.”
It was a bit disconcerting, a few hours later, to hear Hurts say the coaches hadn’t communicated that message to him.
“I hadn’t heard that, from a coaching standpoint,” Hurts said. “Overall execution is something I’m always about, whether that’s trusting the timing of a receiver running his route, at a certain time, trusting the time the offensive line is going to give me to do my job — all those things, us working together. Them expecting me to be at a certain point within the pocket. … We talk about all of those things and we try to get those things right. … We’re working on all of it, everything.”
Asked a follow-up about whether the early departures from the pocket had been mentioned, Hurts said he trusts his coaches. “We communicate on those things, we chalk it up, and we move on,” he said.
There hasn’t been a media session with Wentz since right after Hurts took over. Wentz, who turned 28 Wednesday, has had a season that would throw his future into doubt even if the Eagles hadn’t drafted Hurts 53rd overall last spring. Football Outsiders has published a list of the worst quarterbacking DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) seasons. Wentz in 2020 ranked 10th. Worse than him on the list were Alex Smith and Jared Goff’s rookie seasons, and a whole lot of JaMarcus Russell, Bobby Hoying and Kelly Stouffer.
On the other hand, Wentz posted four much better seasons preceding this, and even this year, Pro Football Focus gives him better ratings than Hurts, with Hurts working from a much smaller sample size, of course. Hurts has done a much better job of getting the ball downfield, averaging 7.7 yards per attempt to Wentz’s 6.0.
Then there is the matter of the $34 million-plus dead cap hit — the largest such charge in NFL history — the Eagles would take if they traded Wentz this offseason. The fact that the team would come out slightly ahead in actual dollars seems beside the point, given the Eagles’ hideous cap situation.
Running back Miles Sanders said Wednesday that players will be eager to see which direction the organization chooses for the future.
“But honestly, I can’t really say too much. That’s way above my pay grade and, you know, it’s not gonna be an easy decision for Doug at all. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an easy decision when he made the switch three games ago,” Sanders said. “Doug’s going to do what’s best for the team, and whoever is starting … is going to get the support of the team.”
Given all the talk about draft position, it might be prudent to mention that as ridiculous a notion as it might seem, if the Eagles are picking high and they see what they feel is a no-doubt franchise QB available at their spot, this whole mess could get vastly more complicated.
Pederson was asked Wednesday about how the Eagles ended up drafting Hurts, when Wentz was fresh off signing a four-year, $128 million contract, and off carrying the team to four successive victories that netted a 2019 playoff berth. Pederson’s answer is worth keeping in mind for 2021.
“As long as I’m the head coach here, we’re always going to evaluate the quarterback position,” Pederson said. “If we’re not looking at that position, I feel like we’re not getting better, we’re not adding depth.”