Can Jalen Hurts be the Eagles’ man? The coach closest to him last season may believe it more than anyone
Marty Mornhinweg saw plenty to admire about the young quarterback in 2020.
Jalen Hurts was often in his book during his first few months with the Eagles. He kept to himself. Didn’t say much. Some players and coaches didn’t know initially what to make of the sphinx-like rookie.
“Some thought that was a negative — that he was arrogant or these types of things,” Marty Mornhinweg said. “And I went, ‘No, no, no. This guy is diligent.’”
Mornhinweg, for various reasons, might have been the coach who spent the most time with Hurts last season, especially during training camp. And having also been around a long time, and a lot of quarterbacks, he said it didn’t take long to understand the rookie’s modus operandi.
“It’s kind of like the guy in the front of the classroom in high school who’s raising his hand every two seconds. And the guy in the back who’s saying nothing may be learning way more than that dude who’s raising his hand every two seconds,” Mornhinweg said recently during a phone interview with The Inquirer.
“That’s the way Jalen goes about his business.”
The Eagles and their fans have gotten to know more about Hurts in the last year, even if his public persona remains relatively muted. Anecdotal evidence has trickled out of the NovaCare Complex about his assiduousness since he became the starter late last season.
It’s a trait shared by most NFL quarterbacks, if not his quietness. But what remains unknown is whether having the off-field prerequisites means he’ll have the on-field ones, and the answer may be the most significant question of the 2021 season:
Does Hurts have what it takes to be the Eagles’ long-term quarterback?
The 59-year-old Mornhinweg knows as well as almost any coach what it takes to succeed at that position in the NFL. He has coached some of the best ever: Brett Favre, Steve Young, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson.
But the Eagles’ former offensive coordinator also knows the outside variables that can prevent a young quarterback, even great ones, from succeeding. Has he been surrounded by enough talent? Does he have competent coaches? Is he playing in a scheme that accentuates his strengths?
If the Eagles weren’t coming off a 4-11-1 season, or didn’t have a first-time coach in Nick Sirianni, there might be an inkling of how Hurts will look Sunday when the season opens in Atlanta.
Mornhinweg acknowledged the mystery. But arguably Hurts’ greatest advocate doesn’t see it as much of a gamble as others.
“Are we going to see this come to fruition? Well, we’re going to find out,” he said. “But I would not bet against Jalen Hurts. Period.”
Just be yourself
Mornhinweg, whom then-coach Doug Pederson had brought on staff last offseason as a senior offensive consultant, said it took only two or three days into training camp last August before he knew Hurts had something special.
The pandemic forced a cancellation of spring workouts, so when the Eagles finally got on the field for an abbreviated camp without a preseason, they had to cram, and they had to focus most of their offensive attention on getting starter Carson Wentz ready for Week 1.
Hurts, even though he was a second-round draft pick, was essentially an afterthought. Mornhinweg didn’t have responsibilities directly related to scheme or game planning. So he took it upon himself to train Hurts, and with Pederson out the first 10 days or so with COVID-19, Mornhinweg kept the coach up to speed with daily reports.
“It was very early,” he said. “I told Doug, ‘The young man has it. He’s built the right way. He’s got all the talent that is necessary to play the quarterback position at a high level. He’s got the gut instincts. He sees and feels things. He’s smart. And he is relentless. The man is relentless.’”
Mornhinweg, of course, allowed for the possibility that the rookie’s practice habits wouldn’t translate once games were played. But he was bullish on Hurts. He said he had given him a “high draft grade” based upon film study.
And the more time he spent around the former Oklahoma and Alabama star, the more he became convinced that he had the necessary mental makeup. Mornhinweg just made a few simple suggestions about his subdued demeanor.
“There was one time I went, ‘You know, it’s a good thing if you allow your personality to show — as long as you have one,’” Mornhinweg said. “And he kind of laughed. And he really does have a great personality.”
Which led to the second piece of advice — Just be yourself. You don’t need to go outside your personality. — which may have sounded contrary to the first, if Hurts was indeed an introvert. But it spoke to him.
Asked last week for the one tip Mornhinweg provided that prepared him best for becoming QB1, Hurts said: “Be you. It’s always enough.”
Play the position
On the field, Mornhinweg had essentially the same advice. He didn’t want Hurts to shy away from using his athleticism. But with young, mobile quarterbacks, there is often an impulse to leave the pocket early.
“This is what I hammer into quarterbacks with athletic ability, and some have it and some think they have it, so you’ve got to put it on the table there: You run the play and play the quarterback position,” said Mornhinweg, who is currently not coaching. “Now, there’s a lot to that. It would take an hour to explain.
“But play the quarterback position until you’re forced to move, and then when you’re forced to move, let’s roll, and you use all of that athletic ability [but] in a very disciplined manner.”
Sirianni, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson have likely had the same conversation with Hurts. They have spoken about the delicate balance between running the offense in rhythm and using his natural gifts.
But the coaches can help by simply playing to his strengths. Why ask him to do what he isn’t great at? Sirianni didn’t want to tip his hand, but he clearly plans to use Hurts’ athleticism, whether on rollouts or in the run game.
“If I like something and Shane likes something and Brian likes something and … [Hurts] hates it,” Sirianni said Wednesday, “we ain’t going to run it.”
Hurts isn’t all legs, though. Mornhinweg said he had him rated as a better passer coming out of college than some other evaluators.
“I didn’t think he was particularly throwing the ball well at Alabama,” he said. “He was doing just well enough. And then he got to OU, he started throwing that ball and he took a big jump. I think it was a little bit of maturity. I think it was a little bit of reps, several hundred more reps.
“And then he got to us … and I thought he took a big jump when he got to us as far as the timing and accuracy.”
Hurts wasn’t even active for last season’s opener in Washington. Nate Sudfeld got the backup nod. But it was evident that Pederson needed to get his best weapons on the field, and even if Hurts couldn’t start at quarterback, he could be utilized, if only as a distraction.
The plays worked initially, but Pederson got away from them as Wentz’s struggles persisted. Like any competitor, Hurts wanted to play. But he remained patient even if he might have been privately frustrated.
“It hacked him off, I’m sure,” Mornhinweg said. “But there’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of things aren’t fair in life. You earn everything you get. A little patience, and the man is not patient in that way.
“But he’s tough mentally, so he handled it pretty well.”
All the qualities
When the Eagles shockingly drafted Hurts, general manager Howie Roseman’s behind-the-scenes contextualization was that, besides liking him, they had to account for Wentz’s injury history.
And while his public comments this past week on WIP-FM might have seemed disparaging to the now-Colts quarterback — “We love Carson but we’ve played four playoff games and we’ve needed our backup quarterback in all of them,” Roseman said. — that was also the message behind the scenes.
“Here was my outlook on the thing: Carson’s the man. He’s just signed a contract. He’s won a lot of regular-season games,” Mornhinweg said. “I was fully expecting Carson to play well. But then if he gets nicked, man, we’re doing everything possible — Jalen and I and some others — to have him ready.”
Wentz never got hurt. He got benched against the Packers in Week 13. Hurts provided a little spark, but it wasn’t enough. Still, Pederson named him the starter against the Saints and the NFL’s No. 1 defense at the time.
The offense wasn’t fancy, but the game plan accounted for Hurts’ abilities and his inexperience and the Eagles pulled off the upset. He had his moments in the next two games, but Pederson went back more to his offensive predilections, and Hurts was inconsistent.
The climate at the NovaCare Complex, meanwhile, had become toxic. Pederson was on the hot seat. Wentz wanted out. And the coach and quarterback barely communicated, mostly because he was no longer the starter.
Wentz and Hurts had a working relationship, but restrictions from the pandemic had made it difficult for either to get to know the other outside football. The latter may have walked into a combustible situation, but he played it cool, at least on the surface.
“I don’t know that Jalen ever put off a vibe that that really bothered him that much,” center Jason Kelce said recently. “I feel like as a rookie you’re coming in and you’re being put into a situation and you’re just happy to be in the NFL, you’re happy to get an opportunity to play.
“I never really felt like that situation rubbed him too much.”
But Hurts, too, would fall victim to Pederson’s communication breakdowns when the coach failed to directly tell his quarterback his plans to play Sudfeld in the finale against Washington, sources close to the situation said.
While that may be water under the bridge, what is universally accepted in the NFL is that coach and quarterback need to be on the same page. Although Hurts and Sirianni don’t necessarily have to see the offense, for instance, the same way.
“It’s his system,” Hurts said of Sirianni, “and obviously his offense and it’s another new offense for me that I’ve had to attack and learn. So it’s, more so, seeing it the way he does and then we can communicate and talk things out. … We’re both open. It’s open dialogue.”
Hurts and Mornhinweg continue to have open dialogue via text message, however sparingly. The former called the latter a “wise old owl” last December and emphasized how he used his wisdom as a resource. He clearly had an affinity for the quarterback guru.
The feeling is mutual.
“I like the young man very much. He’s one of my favorites,” Mornhinweg said. “I feel like I’ll be able to watch and root for him from afar. But I know this:
“He’s got all the qualities to be a heck of a player and a heck of a quarterback in the NFL.”