Jalen Hurts spoke about as much as a coffee bean when he first joined the Eagles. Some of his teammates and coaches didn’t know what to make of his quietness. Did he have a personality? Was he being arrogant? Or was he like most rookies: overwhelmed?
But as time passed, most of Hurt’s new colleagues came to the realization that he didn’t talk much because he was rigorously learning how to become an NFL quarterback. He was too focused on the task at hand to suffer through idle conversation.
Diligent has often been the word Eagles coach Doug Pederson and his assistants have used around the NovaCare Complex to describe Hurts when others may question his supposed aloofness.
“Jalen, he doesn’t get real high and he doesn’t get real low,” Pederson said recently, using an oft-repeated quarterback cliche, but one that seemingly applies here. “He just kind of flat lines just a little bit. And that’s a good thing. His blood pressure stays pretty low for the most part.”
But Hurts has gradually revealed more of himself, both privately and publicly, especially since becoming the Eagles’ starter earlier this month. Some of it has been unavoidable. The rookie spoke to Philadelphia-area reporters only twice before he replaced the benched Carson Wentz against the Packers.
Hurts still comes off as robotic in interviews, but in some ways that’s really his demeanor. A coach’s son, he’s been conditioned to do and say as told, and that can often lead to him borrowing the phrases of his coaches.
This week, it was Nick Saban’s “rat poison,” an expression the Alabama coach has used to describe the outside distractions fans and media can create. Last week, it was “coffee bean,” a metaphor he used to explain his approach to leadership.
The latter phrase came from a self-help allegory. Hurts also used it in Aug. 2019 when he won the starting job at Oklahoma. The proverb goes: Life is difficult and can feel like a pot of boiling water. A carrot softens in the pot. An egg hardens. But the coffee bean melts and transforms the water.
Hurts has been tossed into another quarterback controversy. Will he wilt? Will he become more rigid? Or will he overcome the challenge by using his inner strength to alter his circumstances?
The 22-year-old Hurts has started only two games -- a win and a loss -- but he has already created positive change.
“Impacting people, bringing people up around me,” Hurts said when asked why he doesn’t seem to get rattled. “Always take somebody with you and create that camaraderie, that community. And all those things, all those characteristics, they’re contagious.
“Just trying to be a coffee bean.”
It’s unclear if Hurts read the book or simply was told the proverb. But he apparently has a handful of sayings he falls back on, some analogies he has concocted himself to the amusement of some with the Eagles.
“I guess it’s a way to uplift the guys around me,” Hurts said. “And that’s all I try and do with those sayings, I guess. Bring somebody with me and have positive energy, always being optimistic in anything that we do.”
His future is uncertain. But he has Sunday at the Cowboys, the season finale the following week against Washington, and maybe a playoff appearance, to make the case that he should be the starter next season.
Philly’s as tough a sports town there is, but Wentz’s struggles have had many fans welcoming the possibility. Most overlooked Hurts’ fashion faux pas when the Houston-area native wore Astros garb to his first Zoom interview as the starter, however manufactured the outrage might have been.
The locker room may be even more difficult to win over, and by most appearances, the players have accepted Hurts. Younger skill position players, like receivers Quez Watkins and Greg Ward, have seemingly been the closest to him. But numerous players have highlighted his outward confidence more than any other characteristic.
Tackle Jordan Mailata called it a “swagger.” Running back Miles Sanders said his conviction was “through the roof.”
Veterans like defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and center Jason Kelce have been outspoken in support of Wentz. But Kelce, for instance, has given further voice to Hurts’ coffee bean conceit.
“He’s got great confidence in himself first and foremost which breeds off into other guys,” Kelce said. “He’s a little bit quieter, but then again most rookies are, especially when you’re just trying to learn and figure out where your place is on the team and what you’re doing.”
The pandemic restrictions haven’t helped relationship-building this season. Most of the player interaction has been on the field. Even amongst the position groups, it’s been difficult to establish camaraderie. Wentz and Hurts have admitted as much.
Hurts was able to drift under the radar once the team reported for training camp in August, and not just because of his quiet demeanor. He was originally slotted as the third quarterback behind Wentz and Nate Sudfeld, and many of the coaches didn’t yet know what they had.
Pederson, quarterbacks coach Press Taylor, and senior offensive assistant Rich Scangarello worked primarily with Wentz through the first month. Marty Mornhinweg, who was brought back to the Eagles as a senior consultant, and who Hurts recently called a “wise old owl,” focused more on the rookie.
Been there, done that
Pederson didn’t even activate Hurts for Week 1. And when he dressed for Week 2, it had more to do with bringing another dimension to a struggling offense than it did with promoting him to the backup role.
But there were voices at the NovaCare that called for more Hurts plays and increasingly saw him as a threat to Wentz. He kept his head down having been on the flip side at Alabama. Hurts famously lost his job at halftime of the national championship game.
He may have been benched, but he celebrated the Crimson Tide’s title as much as his replacement, Tua Tagovailoa. Hurts was prepared by his father, Averion, who coached him in high school at Channelview, a town east of Houston near the Gulf of Mexico, for such moments.
“Being a coach’s kid, I’ve been around football a real long time,” said Hurts, whose older brother, Averion, Jr. also played for their father. “And I’m very fortunate and blessed to say that because not a lot of people experience the things that I did growing up. Being in a fieldhouse and all of those things.
“My dad, or even other coaches around me, always said, ‘Anybody can lead. They may lead by example [rather than words].’ I just want to earn the respect of my teammates.”
Hurts did in Tuscaloosa for the way he handled his demotion. He would be reinserted the following season while Tagovailoa was injured and Alabama would win the SEC championship. But it was back to the sideline for the BCS playoffs and he would transfer to Oklahoma for his final college season.
He came in and positively affected another new environment as the Sooners would make the playoffs and he would finish second in Heisman Trophy voting. Having been through those travails, Hurts came to the Eagles battle tested and hasn’t had to playact to get others to follow his lead.
“You’re not a pretender. You’re not faking it,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “People see the work you put in and now they see you produce on the field and then people start to respect you even more. You get that respect and then eventually you become a leader without even knowing it because people want to be where you are.
“Sometimes some people run from it and some people don’t.”
Hurts had to be somewhat anxious in his first start vs. the Saints. Sanders said that he had trouble relaying one of Pederson’s verbose West coast offense calls in the huddle early in the game.
“He had to calm himself down,” Sanders said. “He didn’t rattle. We didn’t rush over him. … He took a deep breath and he said the play. It was like a play with like a whole bunch of the same letters.”
But it’s been relatively smooth sailing since. And Hurts has gradually come out of his skin and become more vocal. Pederson mentioned the way he tried to fire up the team on the sideline in Arizona. But in individual moments he may also have an aphorism.
“I can talk to him about anything besides football, anything outside of football, and he’s gonna hit me with some motivation,” Watkins said. “And I might not be trying to hear it at the moment, but it’s always helpful.
“He’s an uplifting person.”
Just like a coffee bean in hot water.