Jalen Hurts was asked Monday if he felt he did enough this season to remain the Eagles’ starting quarterback.
“I think I’ve done a lot of great things this year, a lot of things to learn from,” Hurts said the day after his season ended with a dismal 31-15 playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
His response wasn’t quite an affirmative, but the 23-year old offered later in his exit interview with the media specific reasons why the Eagles should give him a second year as QB1.
He spoke of the relationships he formed with coach Nick Sirianni and the team; how playing in the same system next season would be the first time since high school that he had consecutive years with the same play-caller; and lastly, about how his high ankle sprain limited the offense down the stretch.
“I wasn’t able to get freaky like usual,” Hurts said of restrictions the injury supposedly had on his mobility.
But Sirianni, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, and general manager Howie Roseman have seen enough to make an informed decision about Hurts’ future. Lurie reportedly issued an edict last offseason after Carson Wentz was traded that the second-year quarterback was to get the season to make his claim on the job, and he was not shortchanged.
Hurts started in 15 regular-season games, one playoff game, and the Eagles went 8-8 in those games. A quarterback shouldn’t be judged based solely on wins and losses, like a coach or GM, but it has increasingly become an accurate barometer for success or failure as the NFL has tilted heavily toward the pass.
As a dual threat, Hurts can offset some of what he lacks as a thrower. The Eagles started winning once they became run-based and utilized his athleticism. But they did so against mostly subpar teams and quarterbacks. Hurts showed improvement in the pocket, but only marginal.
He was exposed by Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, and Sirianni’s inability to adjust further emphasized his flaws.
“He didn’t play his best game, as we all know,” Sirianni said afterward. “But you don’t take the body of work that he had for 17 weeks … and put everything into this game.”
Hurts did enough to remain the starter, but if Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson or an elite-caliber rookie are attainable, he did not. The odds of trading for or finding one of those quarterbacks, however, are low.
The Eagles would also have to pay dearly to acquire one, both in draft picks and salary. Roseman’s roster, as Sunday proved, is young and still rife with holes. Hurts and his rookie contract allow for the Eagles to address other needs while still evaluating the quarterback for another season.
But just because he’s young and developing, or might benefit from a second season in the same offense, doesn’t mean he’ll automatically improve with time. Bowles knew exactly how to defend Hurts, and it had little to do with his ankle.
He denied him throws when moving to his right, where he is most effective. The former Eagles assistant, on many drops, either had his left end penetrate up field or he blitzed from that side to force Hurts to his left, where the right end often played containment.
On the Eagles’ first long third down, Hurts missed an open Quez Watkins deep down the middle. He then vacated the pocket to his left, as the Bucs had designed, and threw across his body to Jalen Reagor. The pass was tipped and nearly intercepted.
Bowles accepted pocket throws, as well, because the 6-foot-1 Hurts struggles to see the field. He kept forcing passes to his biggest target, tight end Dallas Goedert, and while there were some positive moments, there were far too many attempts into double coverage as receiver DeVonta Smith was singled up.
Hurts’ most fateful throw, again, came when he was forced to his left. The Bucs blitzed off the left edge. The quarterback flushed to his left and threw late across his body to Smith and was intercepted in the end zone.
“DeVonta got open on the play. I was expecting a look,” Hurts said. “The safety came off the hash. Couldn’t get it up there as soon as I wanted to. Got it up there a little late and the safety made a good catch on the sideline.”
All told, Hurts completed just 2-of-13 attempts for 45 yards when throwing to his left beyond 10 yards. He followed the same pattern as in the regular season when he completed just 22-of-62 passes for 498 yards and two touchdowns with three interceptions when throwing to his outside left.
For comparison, he completed 42-of-74 passes for 942 yards and five touchdowns with four interceptions when throwing to his outside right.
Most quarterbacks are more accurate when passing to their open side. But many of the Eagles’ most explosive plays came when Hurts was moving to his right. Bucs coach Bruce Arians said back in October, after the first meeting, that limiting those moments was a primary defensive objective.
The best quarterbacks can make all the throws from the pocket. There might not be a dozen in the world. But smart coordinators and good defenses will eventually find ways to contain a moving target.
Bowles blitzed on 21-of-46 drops — that’s comparatively a lot — and Hurts completed just 10-of-20 passes and tossed both his interceptions and took a sack. Similar formulas have been used against mobile quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, for instance.
Hurts’ injured ankle might have stunted the offense. He wore a walking boot into his postgame news conference in Tampa and voluntarily brought it up again on Monday. But he still had six designed rushes and scrambled twice for 15 yards. Bowles just mostly boxed him in.
The Eagles’ preference is to have a highly functioning pass-first offense. Lurie and Roseman likely understood why Sirianni had to switch to a run-heavy system. They might be willing to accept another year of it. But they know that in the long term, it decreases the chances they have of being a perennial title contender.
Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers got to the Super Bowl two years ago playing that way. They’re still alive this postseason. The run-based Titans have a shot in the AFC as the No. 1 seed. But the large majority of playoff teams this year and for many years have top-tier throwers and passing offenses.
Can Hurts develop into one for the Eagles? Based on evidence up to this point, it’s difficult to envision his arm getting any stronger. It’s logical to expect some improvement in terms of reading defenses and making better decisions. But will it be enough to compensate for height and velocity liabilities?
There’s a lot to like about Hurts the leader, the worker, and the fighter.
“He came a long way, and that’s what I expect from Jalen because of the type of football character he has, the type of character he has, the toughness that he has, the love for football he has,” Sirianni said. “I can’t say enough good things about Jalen the person and the player.”
Eagles brass will not make any rash decisions based on the dreadful ending. They will take Hurts’ entire season into account. There were impressive moments and games. But Sunday was a fitting counterbalance for what was, ultimately, an up-and-down season that ended on the latter.
“It’s only a failure if you don’t learn from it. … I’ll definitely take it as a lesson,” Hurts said after the game. “My third year starts tomorrow.”
Will he get a second as the Eagles’ starter?