Doug Pederson answered the first question, the easiest question, with a big smile.
“Well, obviously, I’m going to have Jalen continue to start this week,” Pederson said in his news conference Monday, the day after the team’s 33-26 loss at Arizona, in which rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts threw for three of the Eagles touchdowns and ran for the other. Pederson didn’t say Hurts will also start the season finale against Washington, and that Carson Wentz’s season is over if Hurts remains healthy, but that can be inferred.
“I’m focused on this week, and this week [only] right now. I want to see how he and the team respond to a tough loss yesterday, so Jalen will be the starter this week,” Pederson said.
Pederson’s smile faded when he was asked the bigger question, the real question, the one that could end up determining the future of the franchise for years to come. Can this four-game stretch at the end of the 2020 season tell him enough about what he has in Hurts -- whether Hurts is the quarterback the Eagles should go forward with, presumably ending the Wentz era?
“That’s probably a loaded question a little bit,” Pederson said. “I think you have a good idea. Obviously, we haven’t had a full body of 16-plus games, a preseason; we really don’t know, necessarily.
“I do think that you can go back and just watch him from his college days, again, Alabama, Oklahoma, how he’s led those teams and the success he’s had there. I think that gives you a good indication as to maybe who he is and what he can be, I think, down the road. We still have to improve, though. There’s room to grow. Nothing is perfect. And there are some mistakes that are still being made that we have to correct, even in his game.
“It is a little bit of a small sample size to really probably make that determination overall.”
You could feel the coach working his way through his thoughts as he spoke. He seemed to come down on both sides of the question, probably for good reason. Four games, plus a quarterback’s college resume, might tell you some things about who he is, might give you a feel for his character and work habits, the throws he can make and the ones he struggles with. But can you really know what the next several years will be like, how his reading of defenses will progress -- ultimately, whether you are looking at a long-term top-echelon QB?
Most likely, you can’t, and no one should understand this better than Pederson, who presumably was in on the decision to sign Wentz to a four-year, $128 million contract extension in 2019, after three NFL seasons in which injury was the most serious concern raised.
In Wentz’s rookie year of 2016, his first four starts produced seven touchdown passes and one interception, along with passer ratings of 101, 86.6, 125.9, and 102.8. The Eagles went 3-1 in those games. Did the organization know at the end of that stretch how Wentz’s career would unfold? Did it know at the end of last season, when Wentz led the Eagles to the playoffs with four successive wins, throwing seven touchdown passes with no interceptions, and compiling passer ratings of 97.5, 109.3, 108.2, and 88.4?
In his first NFL start, an upset of the Saints, Hurts definitely gave the Eagles a spark, as Pederson has said several times, but his 17-for-30, 167-yard passing performance was far short of establishing Hurts as a likely franchise quarterback. Before this season, Wentz had thrown for that little yardage three times in 56 career starts.
Pederson said going into the weekend that he hoped the Hurts spark would become a flame, and indeed, Sunday’s effort was quite different.
Hurts completed 24-of-44 passes, his completion percentage lowered by some late-game desperation heaves, for 338 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 102.3 passer rating. It was the best passing performance by an Eagles quarterback this season. Hurts, who ran 11 times for 63 yards, led the Eagles back from a 16-0 deficit to a 26-26 tie before the Cards got the ball to all-world wideout DeAndre Hopkins for the winning TD. Hurts fumbled three times, but Arizona didn’t get the ball on any of them.
“He ran the offense. He did what Jalen can do. We protected the football,” Pederson said. This last observation might have been aimed at Wentz’s 15 interceptions in 12 games. “He led the team. ... He had to throw probably more from the pocket [Sunday] because of the nature of the game and getting behind early in the football game.”
Pederson noted that the players around Hurts have played better these past two games, as well, but he declined to endorse the idea that Hurts was the cause of their improvement. His take was that young players have developed as the season has progressed.
“I just think it’s that time of year where guys just begin to -- it’s almost like the lightbulb goes off,” he said. “This is what happens with young players, it just kind of comes together this way. We have sort of scaled back on the game plan a little bit, so these guys get more repetitions on plays during the week.”
Asked if this development would have happened without the QB switch, Pederson said: “I don’t know.”
That is one of the things Pederson, general manager Howie Roseman, and team owner Jeffrey Lurie are going to have to figure out. They can’t base their decision on the fact that they are in a terrible salary-cap situation and that trading Wentz would mean taking about a $34 million dead cap hit, the largest in NFL history. If Wentz’s funk has to do with more than the erosion of talent around him, especially on the offensive line, if Hurts really is a better long-term option to run the team, they are going to have to figure out how to make that feasible without cutting half the roster to stay under the cap.
And if this is the way, to borrow a phrase, they’re going to have to convince themselves that whatever happened to Wentz won’t also happen to Hurts, given time and a few more bad drafts.