If you like symbolism in your Eagles quarterback controversies, the closing minutes of their 33-26 loss Sunday to the Arizona Cardinals was for you. It wasn’t quite fourth-and-26, wasn’t quite Donovan McNabb finding Freddie Mitchell to save the season in a playoff game, but again, the symbolism worked. First third-and-21, then fourth-and-21, and Jalen Hurts threw a pair of perfect passes to Dallas Goedert. On each play, the Cardinals’ coverage was shrink-wrap tight, and Goedert would have had to make a great catch, and he didn’t.
That latter part of those plays – had to make a great catch, didn’t – often gets forgotten or ignored whenever a good QB firestorm gets to burning, and Lord knows, we’ve got a good one here. But that latter part matters. It matters a lot. It mattered on that immortal sequence from January 2004: Mitchell thought himself a great receiver and generally wasn’t, but he was on that play, reaching back to juggle slightly then finally haul in a terrific-if-imperfect throw by McNabb. It mattered Sunday whenever Kyler Murray dropped back, scanned his two primary wide receivers, and thought, Hmmm, do I throw it to the guy who’s probably the best receiver in the NFL, or do I throw it to the guy who used to be the best receiver in the NFL? And it mattered Sunday whenever Hurts dropped back, scanned his receivers, and thought: Will Alshon Jeffery draw another pass-interference penalty if I try this back-shoulder fade? Will little, undrafted Greg Ward be open, and will he break a tackle? And will Goedert or Zach Ertz outjump and outmuscle a couple of Cardinals defensive backs for the ball?
Of course, neither Murray nor Hurts was actually thinking those things in the heat of a big game. But that’s the point: No quarterback has time to ponder such issues once the ball is snapped. He goes with what and who he’s got. And so Murray trusts that DeAndre Hopkins will wrest the ball away from two Eagles for a 45-yard gain that leads to a field goal. And he trusts that Larry Fitzgerald, 37 years old, in his 17th NFL season, with Nickell Robey-Coleman draped on him like a quilt over a chair, will still make an incredible catch in the back corner of the end zone. And he trusts that if he throws a pass anywhere near Hopkins’ hands, which are strong enough to squeeze a diamond from a lump of coal, then Hopkins will not only snatch the ball from Michael Jacquet but stretch it across the goal line for the winning score.
“You already know, coming into this game, Kyler’s going to force-feed him,” safety Jalen Mills said, “regardless of if we had injuries at our cornerback position or not. He’s a top-three receiver in this league right now, and you know coming into this game he’s going to make some catches, some crazy catches, and he’s going to make some plays. At the end of the day, you get, give one clap for the bad guys, and move on to the next snap.”
Conversely, Hurts was the only Eagle to whom the Cardinals could have paid such respect. He gave them fair opportunity for a few ovations, sure, especially in the second half. But then, that was the most telling comparison Sunday. The Eagles with Hurts vs. The Eagles with Carson Wentz was the one to which everyone around here was paying the most attention, but The Eagles Who Surround Hurts or Wentz and The Cardinals Who Surround Murray was the one that mattered more. And the one that will matter more in the future.
Yes, quarterback is the most important position in the NFL. Yes, there is a smart way to be a “quarterback factory” and still compete for a Super Bowl every season. But quarterback is not the only position in the NFL, and there are only so many quarterbacks who are so great that their mere presence can elevate their teams to excellence. As good as Hurts was for most of Sunday, the chances that he will enter that best-of-the-best tier – Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Mahomes, Brees – are so slim as to be not worth contemplating. He will need help. He will need better receivers and better offensive line play and the sort of coaching that Doug Pederson has provided for most of Hurts’ two starts, maximizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses. And right now, the Eagles, through their recent poor drafting and decision-making, have too few of those necessary supplementary elements.
Hurts was sacked six times Sunday. He couldn’t settle into the pocket with any more comfort than Wentz could for 12 weeks; he was just more adept at vacating it and more productive when he did. And he doesn’t have the luxury that Murray has: players like Hopkins and Fitzgerald, elite skill-position players who, in the most powerful cliche in football, the one that often separates good teams from 4-9-1 teams, can make plays.
“They capitalized on the plays that they made,” defensive tackle Brandon Graham said, wielding the cliche appropriately. “People were in position, but like you said, man, those guys get paid a lot of money to do what they do. They came down with it today.”
Jalen Hurts and the Eagles don’t have the kind of guys who can.