The list of Eagles running backs who have finished a season with at least 203 carries and 1,269 rushing yards is a short one. LeSean McCoy did it three times. Wilbert Montgomery and Ricky Watters both did it twice. Duce Staley and Brian Westbrook each did it once. Last season, only two running backs in the NFL reached 203 carries and 1,269 yards: Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook.
The group of running backs who’ve reached these rushing totals is an interesting one to consider, because they are the totals that Jalen Hurts would have posted in a 16-game season had he carried the ball at the same pace as he did in his three full starts. As you are probably aware, Hurts is a quarterback. Quarterbacks do not typically carry the ball 200-plus times in a season. In fact, no quarterback in NFL history ever has. Nor has a quarterback rushed for 1,269 yards. Lamar Jackson set records in both departments two years ago when he carried 176 times for 1,206 yards. He won the MVP. The Ravens went 14-2. Last year, Hurts averaged one more carry and the same number of yards per game in his three full games.
Which brings us to the biggest, most interesting, most tantalizing possibility facing the Eagles as they gear up for their season opener in Atlanta in a couple of weeks. What if the best version of this team is the one that goes full Ravens?
It’s a question that has been easy to ignore this summer, given both the realities of training camp and the NFL preseason and the Eagles’ desire to see Hurts develop as a pocket passer. An environment that is less-than-full-contact isn’t a great place to get a feel for a team’s running game, and that’s doubly true when the ballcarrier in question is wearing a red jersey. In Hurts’ one preseason game, we saw him run one time for 4 yards while attempting seven passes. But that’s barely worth a mention. In the 2019 preseason, Jackson attempted 16 passes for the Ravens, while carrying the ball twice.
Point is, we have no idea what Nick Sirianni has in mind for Hurts this season. Heck, we barely know who Nick Sirianni is. When it comes to envisioning the future, his track record as an offensive assistant is virtually worthless. Six of his last eight seasons in the NFL have seen him working with an offense quarterbacked by one of the least mobile players in modern football history (apologies, Philip Rivers). He spent his other two seasons with an offense quarterbacked by one of the best pocket passers in modern football history (come back soon, Andrew Luck). Matt Cassel, Brady Quinn, Tyler Palko — Hurts could beat any of these guys running backward. Very little of Sirianni’s experience to date tells us anything about what we should expect to see out of his Eagles in 2021. What if we see the Ravens?
A better question might be: Why shouldn’t we see the Ravens? In Hurts’ three full starts last season, he rushed 38 times for 238 yards, an average of 13 carries and 80 yards per game. To put that in perspective, Miles Sanders has averaged 12.3 carries and 60.2 yards per game in his first two NFL seasons. Sanders has carried the ball 13-plus times in less than half of his games, and he has gained 80-plus yards in just eight of 28.
Sirianni’s greatest strength as a rookie head coach is the fact that he has no dogma. He is as blank of a slate as there is in the NFL. Doug Pederson arrived with Andy Reid’s offense to install. Chip Kelly was self-destructively wedded to his weird little scheme. Sirianni has never called plays. He was the offensive coordinator for a coach who cut his teeth in a variety of different schemes. He needs to invent the wheel before he reinvents it.
An offense that caters to the Eagles’ strength is clearly one that places Hurts’ scrambling ability front and center. He doesn’t have Jackson’s breakaway speed or elusiveness. Schematically, though, he can do all of the things that the Ravens have done over the last couple of years while riding Jackson’s unprecedented rushing ability to a 25-7 record over the last two seasons.
“A wise man avoids all extremes,” Sirianni said earlier this summer. “It can’t be all rhythm [passes] and it can’t be all scrambles. So it’s like, ‘What’s the happy medium there?’”
He shouldn’t be scared of erring on the unconventional side of that medium. Dual-threat quarterbacks might not have a great track record in the postseason, but they’ve won a ton of regular-season games. Since 1990, a quarterback has rushed for 800-plus yards in a season eight times. The combined won-lost record of those quarterbacks in those seasons is 81-43. The only quarterback to finish under .500 was Michael Vick, who went 7-9 while rushing for 1,039 yards in 2006.
Plain and simple, this Eagles team has more offensive talent than that 2019 Ravens squad that went 14-2. That team did not have a big play running back like Sanders. It did not have a route runner like Devonta Smith. It did not have an offensive line that can block downfield and make plays in space the way Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks, and Jason Kelce can. Mark Andrews was a third-round pick the same year the Eagles drafted Dallas Goedert in the second. Sure, that Ravens team had a significant edge on the defensive side of the football. But its offense led the league in scoring at 33.2 points per game.
Nobody expects the Eagles to be a juggernaut, or Hurts to be Jackson. But the numbers are the numbers. We saw what we saw. In the three full starts that Hurts has made in the NFL, he ran like a top-five running back. Does he need to be able to throw the ball? Sure. But he shouldn’t be ashamed to embrace his strength. And the Eagles shouldn’t be scared to build an offense around it.