Judging by Doug Pederson’s postgame news conference, you might have thought Jalen Hurts played as poorly Sunday as Carson Wentz had for most of the first 12 games of the Eagles’ season.
He did not.
Hurts was very good in his first career NFL start. Considering the opponent, its No. 1-ranked defense, and the circumstances of having to replace the franchise quarterback, he was excellent in the Eagles’ 24-21 upset win over the Saints.
The rookie quarterback was decisive, he looked confident and he brought an element to the offense it had been lacking with Wentz. Hurts was efficient with his arm and avoided interceptions, but his legs were the difference as he rushed for 106 yards on 18 carries.
Many of those runs were scrambles, but they’re yards nonetheless and the Saints had few answers once he got cooking. The Hurts threat also opened up running lanes for running back Miles Sanders, who finished with 115 yards rushing on 14 carries and two touchdowns.
Sanders’ first score went 82 yards on an inside zone read play. His second came from 1 yard out late in the fourth quarter that essentially sealed the victory for the 4-8-1 Eagles. Hurts danced in the end zone with Sanders, his youthful exuberance emblematic of the swagger teammates have said he’s brought to the team.
“He played awesome today,” Sanders said. “The tape shows for itself. He’s so confident and he’s a natural leader.”
Told of Sanders’ “natural leader” comment, Pederson tempered his.
“I would say that’s pretty accurate,” he said.
The Eagles coach’s entire news conference struck an odd tone as he sought to downplay Hurts’ outing.
“I thought, overall, there was some good things,” Pederson said of Hurts. “It kind of gave us a spark as a team that I was looking for. … This win today is not about one guy. This win is about this team and how resilient this team is.”
Yes, the Eagles ending a four-game losing streak took all players and all phases. But it was clear that Wentz’s benching buoyed the squad, not only their collective mental states, but also their execution on the field.
The offense wasn’t stagnant. The run game was effective. The quarterback wasn’t a sitting duck in the pocket and wasn’t sacked once. Hurts didn’t force passes. He didn’t play with the weight of the team on his shoulders much like Wentz appeared to do with each passing week.
Pederson, obviously, didn’t go overboard with his praise of Hurts as to not slight Wentz. But aside from not being accurate, it also suggested the following: That Wentz’s confidence is fragile or Pederson believes it to be so.
“I have to take into consideration the entire football team,” Pederson said when asked if his tempered comments were because of Wentz. “Jalen played well. Obviously we won the game. But there were a lot of good performances out there tonight.”
Hurts’ performance, of course, was a good thing. But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that he has the tools to be a full-time starter, let alone a good one. He may, sure, but Pederson knows Hurts is still an unknown, which was another reason why his public demeanor was muted.
The Eagles know what they had in Wentz at least. They know that he can play at a high level for an extended period. Does that mean he can get back there? Who knows? But the Eagles likely have no choice but to see because his contract gives them almost no option but to bring him back in 2021.
Wentz’s $128 million deal all but assures that the team must give him another shot to start. But Hurts could eat away at that premise and at Wentz’s psyche, especially if he keeps winning. It’s hard to discount the notion that the second-round pick affected his psyche in the first place.
Pederson wouldn’t even confirm that Hurts would be his starter for the final three games, let alone next Sunday at the Cardinals. Duh. Hurts may end up saving Pederson’s job if the Eagles can pull off a miracle and win the final four and the NFC East.
Heck, had Pederson gone to Hurts earlier, the Eagles may have won the division with ease. But the coach doesn’t escape blame for Wentz’s struggles this season. Week after week, his play-calling had Wentz throwing from the pocket for most pass plays. Week after week, he abandoned the run.
Hurts’ start called for simplifying the offense. Pederson rolled him out with one or two reads. He called run-pass options, he dialed up a proven winner vs. both man and zone coverage -- the mesh play. And he handed Sanders the rock.
“Don’t misunderstand what you’re seeing,” Pederson said. “A lot of it was QB scrambles, too. So they weren’t necessarily designed rollouts. But it was just, I guess, part of the game plan.”
Most of Hurts’ runs were scrambles, but almost every one either converted a third down or went for plus-5 yards. Did he tuck and take off too early a few times? Sure. He missed a crossing Greg Ward on one third down. But he also scooted for the first down.
“Running out there and extending [plays] sometimes always helps,” Hurts said.
Opposing defenses will counter Hurts the more film there is to study. He passed well enough, completing 17 of 30 passes for 167 yards. His best throw might have come on his lone touchdown when he stood in against a free rusher and fired a 15-yard back shoulder to receiver Alshon Jeffery.
There were other good tosses, but nothing to make you stand on your feet like Wentz could when he was at his peak. He led an open Jalen Reagor too far on one of his few deep shots. Hurts doesn’t have Wentz’s arm ability, but Wentz doesn’t have Hurts’ mobility.
And currently, it appears, his confidence. Pederson’s news conference said as much.