Jalen Hurts boasted that Monday’s music at Eagles practice was from his playlist. Maybe it was a coincidence, but the second-year quarterback had arguably his best day at training camp.
Maybe, and more likely, Hurts’ improvement had to do with his growing comfort in new coach Nick Sirianni’s offensive scheme. There are myriad of other possibilities for his effectiveness and hip-hop is the least probable.
But what if Sirianni and his staff were to take more from Hurts than just his musical tastes? What if they were to implement an offense that caters specifically to his skills and do so at the outset of camp?
Thus far, Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen have spent most of camp installing base plays from the offense they each worked most closely with in their careers -- a pro-style system that was developed in San Diego with then-Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
“What you’re going over now is your staples plays,” Sirianni said recently, “and those first couple installs are what you really think you’re going to run a lot of.”
There have been some plays designed to take advantage of Hurts’ athleticism: zone reads, run-pass options, and roll-outs. But much of the passing has involved conventional route concepts with traditional progression reads.
Not that it’s a bad thing. Every offense has those plays. Every quarterback needs to execute those throws. But it may not play to Hurts’ strengths, which may explain why he struggled earlier in camp.
“I think we’re taking steps every day, getting comfortable in the offense and getting a feel for everything and more importantly getting a feel for what … [the coaches] want me to do and how they want me to do it,” Hurts said Monday. “I clearly understand that they don’t want to take away from any of my athleticism, but we haven’t gotten to a point where that’s needed to be displayed.”
Practices, particularly ones held in just shorts and shells, don’t exactly highlight a quarterback like Hurts’ abilities. The soon-to-be-23-year-old is fleet of foot, agile, and robust. He can evade would-be tacklers and break would-be tackles.
But when Hurts has scrambled in workouts it hasn’t been as aesthetically pleasing as a 25-yard completion thrown in rhythm. It has also suggested a reliance on mobility when staying in the pocket for one or two more reads would have been the better decision.
It would be hasty to suggest that the offense won’t be malleable and look considerably different in five weeks when the season opens. Coaches have been known to save their best stuff when practices are closed. The new staff is also still getting to know the personnel.
But Sirianni and Steichen, in their previous stops, have never had a quarterback like Hurts.
“You just have to continue to study certain things around the league,” Steichen said Monday, “what guys do well with those guys that can move and we’re doing that right now.”
One age-old concern about young coaches is that they often focus too much on running a particular scheme vs. catering a system to the very specific needs of certain players. The Sirianni-Steichen offense may be the more sustainable offense over the long haul, but will it bring out the best in Hurts?
It’s possible their passing concepts are so precise that his accuracy will improve. Doug Pederson’s system had become predictable by the time Hurts became the starter late last season.
But if Hurts is averaging 40 drops a game, and with the majority of throws from the pocket, then it stands to reason whether Sirianni envisions a quarterback he didn’t draft as being his long-term answer.
But if the Eagles modify the offense to be run-based and the passing game to be not as much from the pocket, like the Ravens did with Lamar Jackson and the Browns did with Baker Mayfield, then maybe Hurts has a chance to develop.
The fear, of course, is that featuring a quarterback’s mobility will further expose him to injury.
“Obviously, his running ability is going to be big, and when he can run the football,” Steichen said. “But we have to protect the quarterback, too”
Sirianni has emphasized the positives when asked about Hurts, but he hasn’t shied from publicly noting the areas that he needs to improve. He said his footwork needs work so that his throwing mechanics are consistent and that he has a poor habit of holding the ball with only one hand when he scrambles.
“The process is going well,” Sirianni said, “but we are far from where we need to be.”
Hurts pointed to the overall details of executing a play rather than his footwork when asked about his mechanics, but Sirianni’s willingness to be critical suggests that he believes the quarterback has thick skin.
The Eagles, specifically, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo, took a similar approach with Carson Wentz early in his career. But when they left, Pederson and company avoided the slightest response that could be taken as condemnation.
It hinted at Wentz’s inability to take hard coaching, which was later revealed to be one of his greatest weaknesses.
“I know I haven’t touched the ceiling yet. I haven’t scratched it,” Hurts said. “And I know that it’s important to continue to take coaching, continue to take these things, so I can grow. … I love how hard they are on me because it challenges me.”
That’s an old-school answer from a new-age quarterback. But Hurts isn’t as stuck in the now as some of his hip-hop-heavy playlist suggested. He revealed after practice a more soulful side when he name-checked Anita Baker and Frankie Beverley as artists he listens to when looking to unwind.
And while there were young acts like the late Pop Smoke in his mixed tape, he also had Jay Z and Tupac Shakur in there, as well.
“I think the energy was pretty good today at practice,” Hurts said, “so I may have to make one tonight again for tomorrow.”