The Jeffrey Lurie era of the Eagles entered its 29th year last month, and from the broadest of perspectives, a neat pattern had established itself before Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts joined forces last season.
Sirianni is the fifth head coach Lurie has hired. The first and the third, Ray Rhodes and Chip Kelly, had strikingly similar experiences here. Rhodes went 10-6 and won a playoff game in his first year, went 10-6 and didn’t win a playoff game in his second, and presided over a steady decline over his next two seasons before Lurie fired him. Kelly went 10-6 and made the playoffs in his first year, went 10-6 and didn’t make the playoffs in his second, and went 6-9 in his third before Lurie fired him.
The second and fourth coaches Lurie hired were Andy Reid and Doug Pederson, and those two had more in common than their friendship. Reid went 5-11 in his first season, then went 11-5 and won a playoff game in his second on his way to a mostly excellent 14-year run here. Pederson went 7-9 in his first season, then went 13-3 and won a Super Bowl in his second, then made the playoffs each of the next two years.
Those comparisons are interesting as far as they go, but it’s more revealing to examine the quarterback(s) those coaches acquired or inherited, because those quarterbacks, ultimately, made or broke them. Rhodes had Rodney Peete, Ty Detmer, and Bobby Hoying. Kelly had Michael Vick, pre-Super Bowl LII Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, and Sam Bradford. Neither situation at the position was stable, and that unsettledness led Lurie, in each case, to change his head coach and invest the franchise’s future in a highly drafted quarterback. Reid had Donovan McNabb. Pederson had Carson Wentz. And each coach’s tenure turned for the worse when each of those franchise quarterbacks’s careers turned for the worse. Reid at least got three post-McNabb seasons. Once Wentz nose-dived in 2020, Pederson never got a shot to shape Hurts.
Were there other factors that led Lurie to fire each of those four coaches? Of course. But in the main, their fortunes were tied to the stability and performance of their quarterbacks. If Sirianni isn’t paying attention to this pattern, he should.
Decisions to be made
The Sirianni-Hurts pairing has the potential to fit snugly into this history. The Eagles have a decision to make about Hurts this season. Everyone knows this, including Hurts himself. He’s their starting quarterback now. He has to prove that he can remain their starting quarterback; the Eagles are positioned to move on from him if he doesn’t.
This scenario isn’t much different from the one the Eagles faced with Foles ahead of the 2014 season. They have a young quarterback who was not a first-round pick, who has been an NFL starter for roughly one full season, and who is still something of a mystery.
Yes, Foles had thrown 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in 2013. Yes, Hurts threw for 3,144 yards, ran for another 784, and accounted for 26 touchdowns between his arm and his legs. Yes, each QB led his team to the playoffs. But at the time, Foles’ relative success earned him no benefit of the doubt from Kelly and the Eagles. He was inconsistent over his first eight games in 2014 before suffering a broken collarbone in his ninth, and Kelly traded him for Bradford the following offseason.
Foles wasn’t about to begin the twilight of his career, as McNabb was when the Eagles banished him to Washington. He didn’t pout his way out of town, as Wentz did. Kelly just thought the Eagles could upgrade at the position, that Foles already had peaked in ‘13 and was unlikely to be that good again. With the exception of a few games in 2018 (wink, wink), he wasn’t.
Words and results
Hurts’ upcoming season — and Sirianni’s ties to him — should be viewed with that context in mind. Friday’s open practice at the NovaCare Complex had the traditional and generally meaningless optimism that flavors every organized team activity. Hurts completed all four of his passes in one 7-on-7 drill, and he and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen said all the right and rote things about Hurts’ work ethic and focus.
“He just has a relentless effort to be great,” Steichen said, which obviously separates Hurts from all those successful quarterbacks who, instead of relentlessly trying to be great, spend their days eating Pringles by the sleeve and binge-watching Better Call Saul.
The words were nice. The results, especially with the additions the Eagles have made this offseason, are what matter. There’s a reason Howie Roseman traded a conditional sixth-round pick to the Jaguars last year for Gardner Minshew and that Roseman hasn’t yet flipped Minshew for a better pick or picks. Everyone’s hedging his or her bets when it comes to Hurts, but Sirianni has nearly as much at stake this season. If he and Steichen can’t develop Hurts into the Eagles’ clear-cut choice as their now-and-future quarterback — whether they fail to do it or whether Hurts proves incapable of overcoming his own weaknesses — Sirianni is going to be afforded only so many more chances to mold another one.
Just look at the pattern. Lurie tends to get impatient when he perceives that the Eagles are cycling through starting quarterbacks, and when he gets impatient, he tends to hold his head coach responsible for it.