This season, Jalen Hurts came a long way. Earning a playoff start within your first two years in the league is a tough ask for any quarterback, and it’s even harder for non-first-round picks, who often aren’t handed the starting job. Since 2010, the only first- or second-year quarterbacks to start most of a season for their team and then start a playoff game are Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton, Dak Prescott, Nick Foles, and Hurts.
That accomplishment deserves acknowledgement. But Hurts’s performance in that playoff start warrants acknowledgement as well. It was really bad.
Philadelphia’s goodwill toward its second-year passer increased each game, and its peak came last week. Not necessarily because Hurts ended the season with a bang—he didn’t play a single snap in Week 18, as the Eagles had already secured a playoff berth with three consecutive divisional wins—but because Hurts was already in the playoffs, and Carson Wentz wasn’t. In a must-win game for the Colts against the cellar-dwelling Jacksonville Jaguars, Wentz went 17-for-29 for 185 yards including a pick, a fumble, and six sacks. Last year, the Eagles traded Wentz, got a first-round pick in return, and then made this year’s playoffs with the guy they drafted to replace him. That’s a consummate win.
But we aren’t here to relitigate the Wentz trade. There are a few steps between making a good move at quarterback, and having a good quarterback in hand. The Eagles are somewhere on that path.
In the Eagles’ wild-card matchup against the Buccaneers, Hurts went 23-of-43 for 258 yards, one touchdown, and two picks. He was quiet on the ground as well, with eight carries for 39 yards. Most significantly, the Eagles did not score until Boston Scott ripped off a 34-yard touchdown run with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, at which time, Philly was down 31-0.
That’s not a good day, and that stat line is also buttressed by some garbage-time production, starting with that scoring drive. Before that drive, Hurts was 16-for-32 and 140 yards (4.4-yard average) with the two picks. On the nine previous drives, they had seven first downs.
The stats fail to capture just how poorly Hurts played. He saw open receivers from clean pockets and didn’t pull the trigger, electing instead to break the pocket and invite pressure. When he did pull the trigger, he missed open receivers by significant margins, making catches impossible or hanging throws in interceptable territory. He was not accurate.
Jalen Hurts had Watkins open DEEP, but overthrew him and cost his team a probable touchdown.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 16, 2022
Still down 31-0.pic.twitter.com/PVKUmhTiQU
There’s bad news and good news in this performance. The bad news is that Hurts played poorly. That’s to be expected for his first playoff start against a Todd Bowles defense, but it still sucks. The good news is that Hurts had the chance to have this performance at all. The Alabama product dramatically overplayed expectations during his sophomore season, improving as a passer throughout the year as first-year head coach Nick Sirianni learned, in real time, how to cater his offense to Hurts.
We can see an example of Hurts’s learning curve in this very game. Early in the first quarter, Hurts faced a third-and-long. He had three receivers to one side of the formation, with his favorite target, tight end Dallas Goedert, isolated to the opposite side of the field. Goedert ran a route to the sticks and turned around—from the opposite side of the field, the speedy Quez Watkins climbed over Goedert on a deep cross.
Hurts must read and react to the safety over Goedert. If he stays shallow, worried about closing on Goedert’s route, Hurts can throw over the safety’s head to Watkins, who is breaking into space. That exact opportunity arose, but Hurts was unwilling to throw the ball, electing instead to break the pocket.
Hurts met with the offensive coaching staff on the sideline, went over the look, and came back in the second quarter with the exact same idea: Goedert isolated, running a route at the sticks, with Watkins climbing from the slot on the deep cross. Here, Hurts throws a deep bomb to Watkins, putting the Eagles in scoring range.
Hurts’s simple, impactful improvements as a passer should not be a surprise. Going back to his days in college, there is not a year when Hurts has failed to improve as a passer, which is a testament to his work ethic and willingness to be coached. The Eagles will almost certainly go into next season with Hurts as their starter—the upcoming quarterback class lacks a prospect who is demonstrably better than Hurts right now—and when they do, they’ll take encouragement in the fact that he will likely be even better in Year 3 than he was in Year 2. That isn’t a guarantee with other young players—with Hurts, it feels almost inevitable.
That’s the bad news and the good news. There’s a third piece of news, and I’m not really sure whether it’s good or bad. Hurts should continue getting better. But I’m not sure the offense around him can get that much better.
This season, the Eagles’ offensive coaching staff did an excellent job of maxing out the offense. They became the most run-heavy team in the league down the back stretch of the year, using their quarterback’s legs more than any other offense in the league. Hurts struggled to throw into the middle of the field all season, so the Eagles stopped trying, instead funneling targets outside of the hashes. To assist their running game, they developed a quick RPO and play-action game that attacked the flats with arrow routes and bubble screens.
If Hurts gets better, it may mean he has a quicker trigger, becomes more accurate, and makes tougher throws. But his fundamental strengths and weaknesses as a player won’t change. The offense that created no structural challenge for the Buccaneers? That let them sit with their corners off the ball and loaded boxes, daring the Eagles to challenge them with in-breaking routes? It’s nicely optimized to Hurts’s style of play. Another legit wide receiver and a good secondary tight end threat who can move around the formation would help, but this is decently close to the final form of a Hurts-led offense. There just isn’t much more you can do to help this player beyond what Sirianni already did this season.
That offense was perfectly respectable down the back stretch. But without elite play from several positions, it sure doesn’t seem like a playoff-caliber offense. The Eagles are a rebuilding team that overachieved this year, so talking about their ceiling might be presumptuous—but, even as Hurts gets better, sticking with him feels like a low-ceiling approach.
Hurts is clearly an NFL quarterback. He deserves more starts, more opportunities to grow, and better receivers. But on the path he’s currently walking, Hurts looks like a career backup and spot starter. For a second-round pick once billed as a running back playing quarterback, that’s a great achievement. For Philadelphia, it’s a good reminder: Hurts is a step on the path from the failed Wentz experiment to another future with a yet-unnamed passer.