Nothing about Jalen Hurts’ still-short career with the Eagles has been or will be easy. It would be nice, for him and them, if the circumstances that landed him here were different. If the Eagles hadn’t drafted him in the second round last year. If Carson Wentz hadn’t melted down after they did. If Nick Sirianni weren’t as much of a mystery as a brand-new head coach as Hurts was as an NFL starting quarterback. But these are the facts of his life, at least for this season, and they color and shape everything about his present and his future.
Through the Eagles’ first four games, Hurts has had two strong performances, against the Atlanta Falcons and the Kansas City Chiefs, and two relatively poor ones, against the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys. The problem is not that he has been inconsistent so far. He’s 23, with eight NFL starts under his belt. Inconsistency is to be expected. The problem is that the quality of his performances has been predictable based on the quality of the defenses opposing him: He has been good against the bad defenses and bad against the average ones, which makes it difficult for anyone, whether it’s Howie Roseman or Sirianni or anyone who regularly watches the Eagles, to answer the most important questions related to Hurts: What are we learning about him, and how good is he, really?
Those answers would be vital for any franchise regarding any quarterback, but the clock on Hurts is ticking faster than it would for just about any other young QB in the league. He was not a first-round pick. The Eagles did not bet on him in the way that they did with Wentz. Based on their scouting of Hurts while he was in college, they did not determine that he was a surefire franchise centerpiece, and they did not do everything necessary to acquire him. They tried to be smart and find themselves a cost-effective backup quarterback — a move that, because it so angered Wentz and precipitated his departure, created the need for a starting quarterback, a need that Hurts is now filling. They did not move up to get Hurts. They fell back on him.
Peruse the league’s rankings of QBR, ESPN’s proprietary statistic for measuring quarterback performance, and you’ll find that the bottom six QBs are Hurts, a past-his-prime Ben Roethlisberger, and four rookies: Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Davis Mills, and Justin Fields. Three of those rookies — Lawrence, Wilson, and Fields — were first-round picks this year. Even if Hurts continues to outplay (relatively speaking) those three this season, they’re likely to get longer grace periods with their teams than he will here, just because it won’t be as easy for those franchises to walk away from them. His threshold for holding onto this job is higher than theirs. There’s the intrinsic hope and ballyhoo attached to any first-round quarterback, and there’s the financial commitment.
Lawrence’s contract: four years at a total potential cost of $36.8 million.
Wilson’s contract: four years at a total potential cost of $35.2 million.
Fields’s contract: four years at a total potential cost of $18.9 million.
Hurts’ contract: four years at a total potential cost of $6 million.
That’s why it’s not enough to sit back and say that Hurts will learn, that it’s early in his career and in this season, that he and Sirianni can be patient. Every game is a referendum on Hurts and the possibility that he could be the Eagles’ starter beyond 2021. It wasn’t that way with Wentz, or Donovan McNabb in 1999. For them, a bad game, no matter the opponent, could be written off as growing pains, and it had to be written off as such, because the Eagles had invested so much in them. They haven’t done the same with Hurts. He has to earn the benefit of the doubt yet, which is why he has to string together performances similar to the one he had Sunday against the Chiefs, when he threw for 387 yards and two touchdowns and earned some high praise from his head coach.
“He battled,” Sirianni said. “He made good decisions with the football. He got out of trouble when there was trouble. He made good checks. He made good reads. That’s the best I’ve seen him in practice. That’s the best I’ve seen him in a game since I’ve been here. Hats off to Jalen. He battled. That’s going to be important for us moving forward.”
Important for the Eagles, important for Hurts. This is about more than winning games in the here and now, about climbing back toward .500 after a 1-3 start. This is also about what comes after this season, about gathering more knowledge and a better understanding of what the Eagles are and what they have to do to improve. They’re trying to settle on a starting quarterback. Hurts is trying to establish himself as one. His next game, against the Panthers, will be against the NFL’s third-ranked defense. So far, he has been good against the bad, bad against the so-so. He would bring more clarity to this situation, and help himself and his team, by breaking the pattern this Sunday in Charlotte.