Doug Pederson was in no position to celebrate Jalen Hurts following the rookie’s most extensive time at quarterback in the NFL.
The Eagles coach said Monday that he’s yet to make a decision on whether he’s going to stick with Carson Wentz as his starter for Sunday’s game against New Orleans or switching to Hurts, who replaced the benched Wentz midway through the third quarter of Sunday’s game at the Packers.
If Pederson had heaped praise upon Hurts and eventually decided to stay with Wentz, it could have an adverse effect on both quarterbacks while also sending a contradictory say-one-thing, do-the-opposite message to the Eagles’ locker room.
If he had been overly critical of Hurts, it would have come off as disingenuous. Hurts wasn’t great in what would become a 30-16 loss. But he did more than just create a spark -- Pederson’s stock answer for why he made the move. He quarterbacked better than Wentz has for weeks, maybe months.
The coach, ultimately, opted to downplay Hurts’ 26 snaps when asked to evaluate his performance.
“He played OK,” Pederson said.
“OK,” relatively speaking, is a fair assessment. But compared to Wentz, he was more than OK. Hurts appeared more comfortable in the pocket, more sure in his movements, more nimble on the move, and more accurate with his passes down the field.
“He came in and did some things,” Pederson said when pressed for more detail. “One of the things is that obviously, he extended some plays with his legs. Made a nice throw to Jalen Reagor. Was good to see that. And then obviously the throw to Greg Ward for the touchdown on a scramble.
“But there are some things that if and when he looks at the film, that we can clean up and he can improve upon.”
It was a small sample. Pederson can’t base his decision on those snaps alone. He’s married to Wentz in a sense -- as he repeated again -- and owes it to the fifth-year quarterback to help him out of his season-long slump.
But he also owes it to the other players to give them their best chance at winning, and few would argue that Hurts doesn’t provide that. He could still compete for whatever fleeting chance the Eagles have of claiming the NFC East crown, while also giving the franchise an extended glimpse at their second-round rookie.
Wentz, in turn, could benefit from watching. He’s only 27 -- 28 on Dec. 30 -- and is likely back for at least next season because of his four-year, $128 million contract. While playing Hurts has become a worst-case scenario -- one the front office failed to recognize when it drafted him -- it could provide enough information for the Eagles’ 2021 plans.
And those plans could include spending a draft pick on a quarterback, with the Eagles likely to pick in the top 10 in what could be a deep class.
Hurts would likely benefit from a full week of first-team repetitions and a game plan designed to suit his strengths. He completed only five of 12 passes, but he averaged 9.1 yards per pass attempt, with three passes going for more than 20 yards -- the 34-yard fade to Reagor, the 32-yard touchdown pass to Ward, and a 20-yard hookup with tight end Zach Ertz.
“It was great on the bright side of things,” Hurts said of the touchdown pass. “I’m not going to be Debbie Downer right now. But it was a blessing. It was a great feeling to throw a touchdown pass to one of my good friends, Greg Ward -- my first one.”
The one thing Hurts consistently displayed in training camp -- aside from athleticism -- was a deft touch on fade passes. Where he struggled the most was on pocket throws that required arm strength and accuracy.
He was errant on only two tosses Sunday: he threw high to an open Ward that forced the receiver out of bounds, and he short-hopped Alshon Jeffery on a comeback route. But Jeffery also negated a fourth-down conversion with pass interference, and Travis Fulgham dropped an easy back-shoulder pass.
Hurts had already shown what he could do with his legs. The majority of the 33 plays he previously ran in the first 11 games involved him running. But on Sunday, his runs were scrambles and he picked up 29 yards on five carries.
With the offensive line struggling in pass protection, Hurts’ ability to escape gave the Eagles a dynamic they haven’t had since Wentz’s rookie season. Wentz can still pick up yards on the ground, but his movements in the pocket and knowing when to leave have become less deliberate.
Hurts, in most cases, simply took the green space the Packers’ deep zones allowed. Without the coaches’ film, it was difficult to gauge whether he had missed open receivers downfield or took off too early, however.
The Eagles, overall, played better after the quarterback switch. They narrowed a 23-3 deficit to 23-16 after Reagor returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown. The defense forced a three-and-out on the next series, and Hurts and the offense regained possession with less than five minutes remaining.
But after two Miles Sanders carries netted a first down, Hurts bounced a pass to Jeffery, was sacked as the pocket collapsed, and couldn’t connect with Ertz on a pass that was short of the sticks but might have compelled Pederson to gamble on fourth down had it been completed.
The Eagles punted and the defense cracked when Packers running back Aaron Jones bolted 77 yards for a touchdown. And any hope for a miracle ending was dashed on the ensuing series when Hurts’ arm was hit as he threw and his pass was intercepted.
“Not enough. Not enough,” Hurts said when asked to assess his outing. “We lost the game.”
But he did inject some energy, however brief, into the Eagles.
“As great as it was … the energy we had, moving forward it’s about what we do moving forward,” Hurts said. “I’ve always kind of had this saying I go by, ‘So what? Now what?’ Regardless of whatever it is, how it looks, it’s about how you respond.”
“Now what?” in this case relates to the starting quarterback. Who will it be? It’s pretty clear who it should be.