There was a shift change down at the quarterback factory Tuesday.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson told the team’s website that Jalen Hurts will start this week against the 10-2 New Orleans Saints, and Carson Wentz will watch from the bench.
Though Pederson said Sunday and again on Monday that he had to weigh various factors before making a decision, it is hard to unring a bell, something Pederson had to know when he took Wentz out of Sunday’s 30-16 loss at Green Bay.
From the moment Hurts escaped pressure and threw that 32-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass to Greg Ward, it became very difficult for Pederson to go back to Wentz this week.
At least we didn’t have to wait until Pederson’s Wednesday press conference to find out that Hurts will get the questionable honor of starting for the 3-8-1 Eagles against the defense that is giving up the fewest yards (288.8) and fourth-fewest points (20.1) per game in the NFL.
“I have come to a decision and I am going to go with Jalen Hurts this week against New Orleans,” Pederson said. “We’re not where we want to be as an offense. I looked at the whole thing and decided that for this week to look for that spark again to try to get the team over the hump, to try to get everybody playing better.”
Pederson said he told the quarterbacks of his decision Monday evening. Wentz has suffered an extraordinary regression this season, playing behind 11 different starting line combinations in 12 games, with few dependable weapons. Wentz leads the NFL with 15 interceptions. His passer rating of 78.2 ranks 30th and his 57.4% completion rate ranks 31st.
“Carson is like all of us right now, he’s disappointed. He’s frustrated,” Pederson said. “He’s been a professional through it all. He supports his teammates and that’s what you want to see from him, the leader of the team. I know sometimes the quarterback gets a lot of the blame, like the head coach does. It’s the good with the bad.”
Though Pederson said that “It’s not about Carson Wentz. It’s not about one person,” effectively Pederson has made it about Wentz by moving to the bench the player the team supposedly is built around, the player the Eagles signed to a four-year, $128 million contract extension in 2019. On Monday, Pederson reiterated his view that he is “married to” Wentz. The team traded up to draft Wentz second overall in 2016, and it effectively can’t afford to trade or release him for at least one more season (nearly a $35 million dead cap hit if he’s traded in 2021, more than $59.2 million if he is released.) No team has ever swallowed that much dead cap room, and the Eagles already have the worst 2021 cap situation in the NFL.
That makes looking for a boost from second-round rookie Hurts, in a game the Eagles are unlikely to win regardless of the identity of the quarterback, seem a bit like a drowning coach clutching the last straw, to throw several metaphors in a blender.
“We know we have issues on offense and it has been a struggle for us all season,” Pederson said in discussing Wentz’s reaction. “That’s where the frustration lies a little bit, but he’s been a pro and [I] would expect nothing less.”
The Eagles have lost four games in a row, and despite all the talk about the NFC East being the worst division ever, the Giants and Washington are playing much better than the Birds are now. For Hurts to somehow salvage the season at this point would be something of a miracle. And if he did, somehow, what then?
Back on Nov. 22, after a 22-17 loss at Cleveland, Pederson was asked about benching Wentz, who was the leading candidate to win the league MVP award when he suffered a season-ending knee injury 13 games into the Super Bowl-winning 2017 campaign. This was his answer: “If you get to that spot where you don’t start [Wentz] or you bench him, I think you’re sending the wrong message to your football team that this season is over, and that’s a bad message. We have to work through this.”
The two losses since then have seen the offense look worse and worse.
Pederson did not extend to Hurts a mandate beyond Sunday and his first NFL start. At Green Bay, Hurts completed five of 12 passes for 109 yards, the touchdown, and an interception. Wentz completed six of 15 passes for 79 yards, with two bad misses on the last series he played.
This is nothing the Eagles envisioned when they drafted Hurts 53rd overall last spring. The thinking then was that they needed a young, capable backup who wouldn’t cost much, with Wentz’s cap number escalating to nearly $34.7 million in 2021. And they really liked Hurts’ potential, keeping in mind Wentz’s injury history.
Observers wondered if they could be maneuvering themselves into a quarterback controversy, but the Eagles did not.
“I don’t agree with that,” general manager Howie Roseman said at the time, when a questioner wondered if this wouldn’t put Wentz back into the same situation he was in with Nick Foles. The Eagles decided to let Foles leave in 2019, partly so Wentz wouldn’t have to face constant second-guessing from fans who preferred the Super Bowl LII MVP. “We think Carson is a phenomenal player. Nobody is going to be looking at a rookie quarterback as somebody who’s going to be taking over [from] a Pro Bowl quarterback, a guy who’s been on the cusp of winning an MVP.”
Roseman talked a lot about the importance of the position, and said: “We want to be a quarterback factory. We have the right people in place to do that. No team in the National Football League has benefited more from developing quarterbacks than the Philadelphia Eagles. When we make these kinds of decisions, we always go to our principles, and who we are, and what we believe in, and right or wrong, this is who we are.”
Roseman said then that Wentz should be excited that the Eagles added a talent of Hurts’ pedigree to their roster.
“This gives us another weapon in that room. This gives us another incredible teammate. This gives us somebody that is going to be incredibly supportive to our quarterback, and quite frankly, this is exciting,” Roseman said. “This is exciting for our quarterback. This is exciting for our football team, and this is the kind of decisions that we’re going to make. And we’re proud of it.”
Hurts played three seasons at Alabama, then transferred to Oklahoma after he was beaten out by Tua Tagovailoa. The night the Eagles made Hurts the fifth quarterback taken in the 2020 draft, Eagles vice president of player personnel Andy Weidl called him “a natural leader that’s led two major college football programs to conference championships and in playoff games.
“He’s just very poised in the pocket. He’s an excellent runner, he can throw on the move. He’s done it on the big stage. ... He’s been a guy who hasn’t flinched.”
After Sunday’s game, in which he also ran five times for 29 yards, Hurts was asked if he thought he deserved to be the starter.
“I’m trying to do what I can do for this team,” he said. “I think that’s as simple as that. Working hard, every day, putting my best foot forward, and taking somebody with me. I’m trying to lead, and just get this thing in the right direction.”
Pederson compared Wentz’s situation to his own in 1999, when Pederson was signed as a placeholder for rookie Donovan McNabb, drafted second overall. Then-coach Andy Reid benched Pederson nine games into a 3-13 season, in which Pederson’s passer rating was 62.9 and the team was scoring 11.1 points per game. Pederson moved on to Cleveland the next year.
“It made me, personally, a better teammate. It allowed me to see the game through a different lens from watching Donovan and Koy [Detmer], even having to start a game at the end of that season, [when McNabb was injured],” Pederson said. “Overall, I just became a better player. It was a great learning experience that I was able to take to Cleveland the next year and be a starter for a couple of games and really learn how to lead and be a leader. That’s what it taught me.
“I think we learn our greatest lessons through adversity, and it taught me a valuable lesson at that time that holds true today.”