The Jalen Hurts Era begins Sunday, and no one seems to care.
At least, no one seems especially excited about it. Which is weird.
The Birds have seen three big-time young quarterbacks take over since Jeffrey Lurie bought the team in 1994. Donovan McNabb began his 10-year tenure as the full-time starter in 2000. Sixteen years later, Carson Wentz completed his unlikely, 12-month ascension from anonymous, small-college star to NFL franchise quarterback.
Hurts arrived last season with a better pedigree than either: a national championship with Alabama, college football’s greatest program, as well as a Heisman Trophy runner-up finish, earned after he transferred to another powerhouse program, Oklahoma. Yet, Hurts begins 2021 ranked last among NFL starters by Pro Football Focus (PFF didn’t rank Denver starter Teddy Bridgewater, who won a competition over Drew Lock).
That puts Hurts eight spots behind Wentz, who forced an offseason trade with Indianapolis after Hurts took his job. That’s right: A quarterback who steadily declined for the past three seasons ranks higher than a quarterback with unbounded potential.
The analytics nest at PFF wasn’t alone. The league’s website, nfl.com, ranked Hurts 29th, five spots below Wentz and just behind Bridgewater. Rookies Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville and Mac Jones in New England, who have yet to complete a regular-season NFL pass or, more significantly, take a regular-season NFL hit, finished 21st and 22nd. At least Hurts beat out Jets bust Sam Darnold on this list .
Hurts will prove them all wrong.
What about ...
In his first four starts, at the end of 2020, Hurts completed 51.9% of his passes, threw for 919 yards, with five touchdowns and three interceptions, for a 77.2 passer rating.
In his first four starts, near the end of the 1999 season, McNabb completed 53.5% of his passes, threw for 554 yards, with five touchdowns and three interceptions, for a 70.1 passer rating.
McNabb played behind a far superior offensive line, and played beside Duce Staley, a Pro Bowl-caliber running back having a career year.
Hurts played behind an offensive line that featured 14 different starting combinations, none of which, for Hurts, included the best offensive players, injured right guard Brandon Brooks and injured right tackle Lane Johnson.
He looked great, usually
Hurts dealt with loads of other issues besides the crippling deficiencies on the offensive line. Tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert were still slowed by ankle issues. Alshon Jeffery had foot and calf problems. JJ Arcega-Whiteside was on the roster. Three of those four issues are now resolved, though JJAW, somehow, remains.
Nevertheless, Hurts won his debut as a starter, and did so against the top-ranked Saints defense. He was the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for at least 100 yards and throw a TD pass in his debut as a starter. Hurts then threw for 338 and 342 yards in his second and third career starts, road games vs. Arizona and Dallas. After those three games, Hurts’ 847 passing yards and 238 rushing yards were the most, combined, of any quarterback in history in his first three starts.
Notably, all three games had playoff implications for all four teams. The stakes were high.
In the season finale against Washington, Hurts had rushed for two TDs when Pederson infamously pulled him in favor of Nate Sudfeld. The Birds trailed, 17-14.
If Hurts had been allowed to lead a comeback, then the narrative entering 2021 would have been very different.
He didn’t, and it isn’t.
A voice of authority
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman will tell you, as he told WIP-FM (94.1), that Hurts is “a really good player. ... the guy can play, and he can win.”
Of course, if Hurts can’t, and if he doesn’t, then Roseman might be out of a job, so we might not be hearing from the most objective voice here.
That’s why we sought out a more objective voice, and for many, a more respected opinion: Merrill Reese, the voice of the Eagles. Reese is entering his 45th season on the Eagles’ mic, and he believes draft slots influenced this relative indifference to the beginning of the Jalen Hurts Era.
“Carson and Donovan were No. 2 overall picks,” Reese explained. Hurts went 53rd.
As such, both McNabb and Wentz were viewed as saviors with the complete package, Dak Prescott be damned (he went 133 picks after Wentz, and has outplayed him every day since).
Reese still gets juiced when he remembers the city’s anticipation of McNabb’s first full season as starter.
“There was a lot of excitement,” Reese said.
The flashes of ability McNabb showed as a rookie coalesced into an unexpected Pro Bowl appearance and McNabb finishing second in the MVP voting.
Unexpected by most, anyway: “I was not surprised,” Reese claims today.
Reese also recalled the whirlwind that preceded Wentz’s first start.
The Eagles didn’t plan for Wentz to start as a rookie, but when Bridgewater shredded his knee in Minnesota, Roseman seized the chance to recoup some of the draft capital he’d spent trading up to take Wentz and traded veteran starter Sam Bradford. Since Wentz had broken a rib in the preseason opener, nobody knew what to expect. Still, after he’d contributed one unremarkable season as Nick Foles’ replacement, it wasn’t as if Bradford was a Philly favorite ... and the Wentz Wagon was greased and ready. The only question: Would newcomer Chase Daniel, Bradford’s backup, be the starter?
“They announced right away that Carson would be a starter,” Reese said. “That was a lightning bolt to this city.”
On Aug. 31, coach Nick Sirianni finally announced that Hurts, not diminished veteran Joe Flacco, would be the Eagles starter. Thus ended the a ridiculous preseason faux-drama that insulted both Hurts, who took every first-team snap, and the rest of us, who have seen Joe Flacco play football.
In fairness, Reese might not be the most objective source. He also envisioned great things for Bobby Hoying and Kevin Kolb.
On the other hand, Merrill never wavered on Nick Foles in either of Foles’ stints with the Eagles. He sure was right about that guy. And Jalen?
Reese affected his most stentorian tone:
“Oh, I think he will be very, very good.”