As with Lamar Jackson, the NFL will adjust to Jalen Hurts. Can the Eagles defy history? | David Murphy
Hurts isn’t the first dual-threat quarterback to take the NFL by storm. The numbers suggest the real proving ground lies ahead.
Joe Banner made a point the other day that’s worth unpacking, for a couple of reasons. One, because it should ring true to anybody who has watched multiple generations of dual-threat quarterbacks take the NFL by storm. Two, because there is ample evidence that suggests just how true it is ... and that Jalen Hurts’ staying power will depend on how he responds to this truth.
Banner, the former Eagles president-turned-analyst, pointed to the adjustments that NFL defenses have made against Lamar Jackson since the Ravens quarterback’s MVP season in 2019 as an example of what lies ahead for Hurts.
“The test will come when smart teams use five d-lineman as the better teams and playoff teams have against Jackson,” Banner said on Twitter. “Then we will know a lot more.”
What’s the inverse of damning with faint praise? Whatever you call it, you can argue that Banner’s point qualifies. If Hurts’ first four seasons follow the same trajectory as Jackson’s, you won’t hear a lot of people in Philadelphia complaining. All the Ravens’ star has done in the two seasons since winning MVP is go 17-7 with a 96.5 quarterback rating while throwing for 216.8 yards and rushing for 68.5 yards per game. Over a 16-game season, those numbers equal out to an 11-5 record, 3,469 passing yards and 1,096 rushing yards. Nobody in Baltimore is questioning whether Jackson is The Guy.
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At the same time, Banner’s point is hardly controversial. The league adjusts. Jackson’s numbers in a variety of categories have regressed since 2019: his passer rating, total quarterback rating (QBR), interception percentage, touchdown percentage, and yards-per-carry have all gone downhill in each of the last two seasons, most of them markedly so. We saw it with Michael Vick after 2010 and Robert Griffin after 2012. We’re seeing it with Josh Allen this year. We saw it with Chip Kelly. We saw it with the Wildcat. Paradigms become paradigms for a reason. They endure. From schemes to skill sets, the league tends to catch up to those who have early success exploiting the status quo.
Jackson’s past few seasons are an excellent case study in what Hurts and the Eagles can expect. Comparisons between the two are both unavoidable and fair. Hurts’ 890 rushing yards are the second most in NFL history by a quarterback in his first 15 starts. He trails only Jackson, who rushed for 1,193 in 2018-19.
At some point, though, defenses are going to start keying on the run while forcing Hurts to beat them with his arm. That might be a cliché, but clichés become clichés for a reason. At their foundation is a repeatedly observed truth. We can see this one unfold within Jackson’s numbers. Consider the following three facts:
Jackson’s average yards per carry on designed runs has fallen in each of the last two seasons.
Jackson’s average yards per carry on scrambles has fallen in each of his last two seasons.
Jackson’s ratio of designed runs to scrambles has fallen in each of his last two seasons.
All of these numbers are exactly what you would expect to see if defenses were increasingly keying in on Jackson’s running ability and having success doing so. Something else you would expect to see is defenses having increased success on first and second down. After all, football is a situational game. First and second down tend to be more situationally neutral than third down when it comes to play selection/design. If defenses are successfully adapting to Jackson’s rushing ability, which his YPC numbers suggest, then we would expect to see a more pronounced effect in more neutral situations, when defenses are more likely to be picking their poison, so to speak. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what we see in the numbers.
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Consider the metric Expected Points, devised by Pro-Football-Reference.com to measure the value of a given play within a given game situation (down, distance, score, etc.). Essentially, the higher the number, the more valuable the play (and vice versa). In 2019, when Jackson won MVP, the Ravens gained 48.5 expected points on his first- and second-down carries. Over the last two seasons combined, they’ve gained less than half that total.
Again, this makes complete sense in a world where defenses are zeroing in on Jackson’s rushing ability.
It also jibes with a theory that says run-first quarterbacks are uniquely vulnerable to good coaching. And, thus, that they are uniquely vulnerable in the postseason. For all of the Ravens’ regular-season success since Jackson broke into the league in 2018, they have lost three of four playoff games with him under center and have not scored more than 20 points in any of them. Look at the 10 quarterbacks with the most rushing yards in their first 15 career starts and you’ll see a similar pattern.
That group has a combined record of 359-283-3 in the regular season, but just 12-21 in the playoffs. Only Allen and Cam Newton have won multiple games in the same postseason.
Another fact worth noting: Jackson is 5-4 against the NFL’s six longest-tenured coaches. Last season, he went 0-4 against Mike Tomlin, Andy Reid, and Bill Belichick after going 2-1 against them in 2019. This year, he is 2-0 against Reid and Mike Zimmer. Coaches with staying power are coaches who adjust. The same goes for players.
None of this diminishes what Jackson has accomplished over the last three years. Nor should it diminish what Hurts has accomplished through 15 games. Yet it does substantiate a wait-and-see approach. Of the last 20 Super Bowls, only five were won by quarterbacks who rank outside the NFL’s top 10 in career passing yards. Two of the exceptions have a decent chance to end up there someday (Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson). The other three were all plodding drop-back passers (Nick Foles, Joe Flacco, Brad Johnson). None had the skill set of a Jackson or Hurts.
Of course, there have been hundreds of other quarterbacks who never won a Super Bowl. And none of them rushed for 890-plus yards in his first 15 career starts.