As it turns out, it wasn’t the offensive line. It wasn’t the coach. It wasn’t the roster, and, somehow, it wasn’t even the defense.
It was Carson James Wentz.
Because everything changed with Jalen Alexander Hurts. The defense played well, Miles Sanders ran for 115 yards and two touchdowns, and the offensive line improves, but Hurts, in his first professional start, was the biggest component in ending the Saints’ nine-game winning streak and the Eagles’ four-game skid, 24-21.
When I asked him if he wished he’d benched Wentz earlier, coach Doug Pederson refused to directly answer.
“Jalen was a part of it,” Pederson said. It was one of his half-dozen, half-hearted evaluations of Hurts’ transcendent performance. “I thought there were some good things. ... This win today is not about one guy.”
Wrong. It was. As in previous games, there were tons of injuries, tons of penalties and mistakes, tons of bad play calls, and worse coaching decisions.
Jalen Hurts minimized all of the miscues. That’s what good quarterbacks do.
That’s where Wentz has failed.
Pederson knows that. Then, Pederson failed Hurts after the game. Pederson, incredibly, wouldn’t even name Hurts the starter for next week’s game in Arizona. Why? Because Pederson cared more about not hurting Carson Wentz’s feelings than he cared about thanking the player who saved his own job.
Pederson’s players didn’t care about Carson’s tender feels.
“He’s a natural leader ... We looked like a complete team,” said Sanders, who enjoyed the most dynamically productive game of his two-year career. “When you have a quarterback that can run the ball effectively ...”
“The guy’s a winner,” said first-round rookie receiver Jalen Reagor, who had a second big play from Hurts’ hand in as many weeks. “He knows how to play.”
That’s why Hurts was a second-round pick in April, and a controversial one, considering Wentz was inked for five more years and the Eagles had other needs. The controversy amplified when Hurts replaced Wentz as the Eagles’ starter Sunday. Wentz dragged the Eagles down to a 3-8-1 record, losers of their last four. Wentz was, by every measure, the worst quarterback in the NFL: passer rating, interceptions, total turnovers, sacks, confidence. Independent of other failures -- roster depth, age, play-calling, injuries -- Wentz actively lost games.
Pederson finally replaced Wentz with Hurts in the fourth quarter of the previous week’s loss to the Packers, then switched starters the next night. He won’t admit it, but he was three weeks late.
Hurts on Sunday: No interceptions, one turnover (a late, careless fumble), no sacks taken, and tons of muted swagger. It’s the sort of swagger you’d figure a national champion Heisman Trophy finalist would have.
Against the first-place Saints and their No. 1-ranked defense, Hurts led the Eagles to a 17-0 halftime lead. He did so with aplomb. He led a 53-yard, fourth-quarter drive to make it 24-14. He looked like a faster, smarter, more polished version of rookie Donovan Jamal McNabb.
We haven’t seen poise like this since Nicholas Edward Foles.
Greatness is contagious
You’ve heard the adage about how good quarterbacks make the players around them better? Well, Alshon Jeffery had two catches in four games before Sunday. He caught a TD pass early in the second quarter Sunday. Miles Sanders averaged 49.3 rushing yards and had no touchdowns during the Eagles’ four-game losing streak. Sanders gained 96 yards with a TD by halftime Sunday. Wentz led the league with 50 sacks taken this season, 18 of them in the last four weeks.
Understand: Jalen Hurts faced all the same challenges Carson Wentz faced.
Hurts played behind a 12th different offensive-line combination in 13 weeks — a line playing without injured Pro Bowl regulars Jason Peters, Lane Johnson, and Brandon Brooks. Hurts played without DeSean Jackson, with old, slow Alshon Jeffery, with diminished tight end Zach Ertz. Hurts played with a roster of backups compiled by embattled Howie Roseman. Hurts ran a game plan compiled and called by embattled coach Doug Pederson.
Only one thing changed Sunday.
Carson Wentz sat.
Wentz is no lost cause. He’s big, smart, has a strong arm, has won games, and he’s only 27, with five seasons in the league. He also is, grading on a $128 million contract curve, the worst player in the National Football League. And by far the worst player on the Philadelphia Eagles.
On Sunday, if Hurts wasn’t the best, he was the most valuable.
He gained 106 rushing yards on 18 carries, only the second quarterback in NFL history to crack 100 yards in his first start. The other: reigning MVP Lamar Jackson.
He completed 17 of 30 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown. And he won a must-win game, kept the Eagles in the NFC East title chase, and did so against the best team in the conference. He wasn’t perfect, and he knows it.
“A lot of money we left on the table out there,” Hurts said, utterly resplendent in a simple white shirt, the collar fastened with a contrasting black stud. He looked like straight cash, as he repeated, “A lot of money.”
Which is exactly what a money player would say.
As a senior at Oklahoma he passed for 3,851 yards, eighth in the NCAA, with 32 touchdowns, which was 11th, and eight interceptions for a 191.2 passer rating, which was second. He also rushed for 21 touchdowns, which ranked seventh. His 53 total touchdowns ranked second; Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick, threw 60 TD passes. His 1,298 rushing yards ranked 19th. This was not an aberration.
This is the new norm.
It wasn’t as if Hurts got lucky. It wasn’t as if Hurts got calls. He was, simply, better than Wentz. He made good throws. He made strong runs. He made good decisions.
Hurts scrambled 5 yards to convert a third-and-4. He ran 15 yards to convert a second-and-11 out of his own end zone. In the final minute of first half he scrambled for 24 yards, then for 16 yards, which set up a short field-goal try. He converted third-and-5 late in the third quarter that helped his injury-depleted defense rest; it forced a turnover on the next Saints possession.
Hurts ran better than Wentz because he’s a better runner; Wentz has never run for more than 65 yards. Hurts ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash in February. Wentz once ran a respectable 4.77, but that was more than five years ago, and that was before knee and back injuries, 179 sacks, and a playoff concussion.
Hurts also ran through Marcus Williams on a shotgun quarterback keeper. Of course, Hurts squatted nearly 600 pounds in college.
Carson Wentz did not squat 600 pounds.
The difference in demeanor between Hurts and Wentz was overwhelming, even to a purportedly neutral entity. The Fox broadcast played Demi Lovato’s “Confident” when it went to commercial as officials reviewed what should have been an Ertz reception.
On third-and-9 at the Eagles’ 40, against a four-man rush, facing no spy, he didn’t take a sack. He just threw it away. The Eagles punted. The Saints got the ball at their 20. Like football is supposed to be played.
Hurts just missed Jalen Reagor deep to start a series. Two plays later, on third and-7, he quietly stood in the pocket and hit Reagor in stride for a 39-yard catch-and-run.
Facing fourth-and-2 at the Saints’ 15, he gave Jeffery a chance to make a catch. Jeffery did. Touchdown. He ate a roughing-the-passer hit on the play.
Got up. Walked away.
As we noted last week, the Saints’ defense was first in the league in yards allowed (288.8 per game), fourth in points allowed (20.1), second in run defense (76.1), and fourth in pass defense (212.8). It was tied for third in sacks (36) and seventh in interceptions (13).
The Saints complicated the game in the second half with a barrage of blitzes, but, considering Hurts had taken just 59 total snaps before Sunday, a measure of befuddlement should be expected. The Eagles’ defense had lost six of its top 13 players by the early fourth quarter, so the Saints’ comeback path was cleared. The comeback didn’t happen.
Hurts outplayed his profile match, run-first backup Taysom Hill. But more than anything, Hurts made Wentz a postscript to the 2020 season.