They were there. That’s the thing. Were they there in abundance? Maybe not. But this was the postseason. And the throws it takes to win playoffs games were there to be made.
There was Quez Watkins with a step on man coverage, about to clear the top of the defense with nobody between him in the end zone. There was Jalen Hurts, looking some other way. There was DeVonta Smith flashing into the end zone with one defender on him. There was Hurts, oblivious to that defender, delivering an underthrown interception on a plate.
Set aside all of the other things that went wrong in the 31-15 loss to the Buccaneers that ended the Eagles’ season on Sunday. The penalties, the fumbles, the injuries — all of these are perfectly fine reasons to come away thinking that they weren’t winning this game regardless of how their quarterback played. The problem is that you could have taken those things away and the result would have been the same.
“It’s not going to come out as his best-graded game, and it’s not going to come out as a lot of our guys’ best-graded game,” head coach Nick Sirianni said, “so I’ll have to watch the tape to get further answers. Again, just not a crisp game, and that always starts with me as the head coach and the quarterback. We’re always going to take responsibility for that.”
The Eagles’ passing game wasn’t just bad on Sunday, it was hopeless. Hurts made a couple of nice throws in the middle of the field, but most of the rest of his 43 attempts were either ill-conceived or ill-executed or, far too often, a combination of both. That’s typical of a young quarterback making his first ever playoff start. With Hurts, though, many of the mistakes weren’t really mistakes. The problem with his bad throws wasn’t that they were attempted. It’s that they weren’t completed. And the reason they weren’t completed was that the thrower was not physically equipped to complete them.
Early in the game, Hurts attempted to hit Jalen Reagor on an out pattern near the sidelines. It was a perfectly fine decision — Reagor was in man coverage, his defender over top of him. Hurts just didn’t have the arm strength to make the completion. The throw was low, and slow, and allowed the defender enough time to come over top of Reagor and make a play on the ball. It wasn’t intercepted, but it could have been.
You saw the same deficiencies on the throw to Smith in the end zone. Hurts escaped pressure, rolled to his left, saw Smith in the end zone. All good things. He just didn’t have the wherewithal to make the sort of throw that would have given his receiver a fighting chance at making a play. Whether or not he saw the Bucs’ Mike Edwards, who stepped in front of Smith for the interception, the throw should not have been made because Hurts could not make it. It was weak. It was low. It was slow. It was poorly executed.
Time and again, this is how things played out on Sunday afternoon. Hurts finished 23-of-43 for 258 yards and two interceptions, but even that line understates just how ugly things were. Of those 258 yards, 118 came in the game’s final 12 minutes, 40 seconds, after the Bucs had already taken a 31-0 lead. Thirty-one came on a catch-and-run by Smith that preceded a 34-yard touchdown carry by Boston Scott that ensured the Eagles would not be shut out for just the second time in their postseason history. Through three quarters, Hurts was just 16-of-32 for 140 yards, an average of barely more than 4 yards per attempt.
“I didn’t do my job good enough — communicating and doing the little things,” Hurts said. “I could have been better, definitely, and I think there are a ton of different areas where we can kind of shoulder this as a team, but I take accountability for my actions and everything.”
The question is whether he has what it takes to get better. Playing quarterback in the NFL requires the ability to make a certain set of throws, and an ability to see the field well enough to identify opportunities to make them.
Of all of Hurts’ good moments this season — and there have been plenty — few have come as a result of either of those qualities. He simply does not have the arm strength to consistently deliver the sorts of throws that the game’s elite quarterbacks make as a matter of routine. And he has yet to display an ability to dissect a defense at the line of scrimmage and in the pocket.
He is a leader, and a playmaker, and a guy who will keep you more competitive than a lot of the quarterbacks in this league. But the biggest games have consistently been when his limitations are most glaring (they are now 0-7 against playoff teams).
That’s just reality. In order to dispute it, you’ll have to dispute a very long historical sample of postseason games that says the less traditional the quarterback, the easier it is for a good defensive coordinator to take him away. As far as coaching is concerned, it does not get much better than Todd Bowles, who unveiled a game plan designed to take away what the Eagles and Hurts do best and force them to react on their feet. By halftime, when the Bucs led 17-0, it was clear that the Eagles were not reacting well.
“You don’t take the body of work that he had for 17 weeks and put everything on this game,” Sirianni said. “I know we’re all judged on the last game that we play, but I felt like Jalen grew throughout the year and he got better as a passer, and he got better at reading defenses, getting the ball to the right place.”
Make no mistake — Hurts is still QB1. Barring the highly unlikely scenario in which a superstar quarterback decides to force his way to Philadelphia via trade, the Eagles are highly unlikely to have any better options. You don’t draft “a quarterback.” You either draft The Quarterback, or you draft another position. You already have “a quarterback,” and he’s about as good as that group of small-q quarterbacks gets.
Hurts will get his opportunity to rebound. But the memory of this one should linger.