Starting Sunday against the Giants at MetLife Stadium, these final six games of the regular season will serve as so far the starkest and most rigorous test of Jalen Hurts’ standing with the Eagles. The remaining schedule is soft, and the stakes are relatively high — a playoff berth still possible for a team that is 5-6 but might now be just beginning to find and define itself. Yes, these weeks will be a referendum on the questions and qualities that have hovered around Hurts: his ability to complete passes from the pocket, his durability as the Eagles’ leading rusher and the nexus of their offense, his salary and status as a second-round draft pick.
But beyond the measurable factors that will play into the Eagles’ decision on Hurts’ future, there’s an intangible element that they ought to take into consideration, too. There’s a question that they themselves have to answer, no matter the results of the rest of this season, if they plan on moving on from Hurts: Are they going to find a replacement who handles his leadership responsibilities in the locker room and the pressures of the Philadelphia market as well as he does?
By all accounts, it has been in those aspects of his job that Hurts has been at his best. No anonymous complaints about him have leaked out of the locker room, and he has betrayed little-to-no annoyance or frustration over the manner in which the media and fans here have treated him. Those factors aren’t everything, but they aren’t nothing, either.
Donovan McNabb and Carson Wentz were handpicked franchise quarterbacks, and it will take years worth of time and achievement for Hurts to match the production and moments of excellence that both delivered. But one could make a compelling argument that each one’s sensitive nature held him back. McNabb never quite got over that draft-day booing from a busful of bozos in 1999, and Wentz, once he perceived less than full fealty from the Eagles, decided it was time to get out of town. Hurts appears less apt to allow such noise to bother him.
“I’ve been granted the opportunity to lead this football team,” he said Friday, “and I hold it with high value and high regard. It’s something I take very seriously, and it’s important to me. So I want to set the right example for everybody.”
If anything, even if he performs at a level that assures the Eagles they can use their three first-round picks next year on players at other positions, Hurts has less in common with McNabb and Wentz than he does with two of the most beloved Eagles quarterbacks of all. It was 15 years ago, in 2006, that Jeff Garcia started his first game for the Eagles, losing to the Colts in Indianapolis before shepherding the Birds to six straight victories, a surprising NFC East title, and a hair’s breadth of the conference championship game. And it was nearly four years ago, in 2017, that Nick Foles stepped in for Wentz at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, finished off a victory over the Rams, and wrote the first chapter of the greatest underdog story in the city’s sports history.
What separated Garcia and Foles wasn’t just their improbable success. The attention and scrutiny, the sheer intensity of Philadelphia’s sports culture, never got to them. Each was wired in a way that made it easier for him to manage the pressures of this place, and their unorthodox careers in pro football had prepared them to thrive here. Garcia carried a chip on his shoulder that came from going undrafted, from spending five years in the Canadian Football League, and from “fighting the ghosts and the greatness” of succeeding Steve Young and Joe Montana with the 49ers. Foles, who signed with the Eagles only after he had thought about retiring, possessed a clarity of mind and purpose born of his understanding that he had returned to football on his terms.
Hurts isn’t so different. Like the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, he entered the NFL knowing that he was not his organization’s first choice to be its starting quarterback. He was a spare tire, a fire extinguisher under glass, to be used only in case of emergency. “Both of those kids are two of the mentally toughest people I’ve ever seen or been around,” Eagles quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, who as a college coach recruited Prescott, said in an interview last year. “They have an enormous amount of self-discipline, and they’re just true warriors, ready for whatever at any time.” Maybe that kind of character and those sorts of circumstances fortify an athlete against the stresses inherent in playing in a market like Philadelphia.
“It’s more love-hate,” Garcia once said in a phone interview. “When you’re doing well, they love you. When you’re not doing well, they hate you. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to show up to the games. They’re going to show up. They’re going to get their money’s worth, but they’re going to be quick to let you know what they think about you, as well.
“You can’t help but feel at times, especially when things aren’t going well. You want to avoid everybody. You want to shelter yourself. You want to hide indoors. That’s rough. It shouldn’t be like that. But I think we put that pressure on ourselves, too, as players, because we expect to be the best. We expect to put the work in and challenge ourselves, and we want to lead our team to championships. And when things aren’t going in the right direction, especially at the quarterback position, it starts to come back to us and fall upon us. We can’t help but share that burden, and that’s our responsibility.”
Through his 15 NFL starts, through his 11 games this season, Jalen Hurts has borne that burden, and it hasn’t broken him yet. Six games to go. Then the Eagles will have to weigh whether they’ll come across a quarterback who’s a better fit for Philadelphia than the one they already have.