The Eagles need a spark. Doug Pederson is betting on a rookie quarterback to provide it. On Tuesday, Philadelphia named Jalen Hurts its starter ahead of a Week 14 contest against the Saints, supplanting fifth-year quarterback Carson Wentz. The floodgates of controversy that Pederson had kept from bursting throughout the season are now open. But Pederson’s decision to bench Wentz in favor of Hurts, who helmed the Eagles’ final four possessions against the Packers on Sunday, provided “the spark that I was hoping for when I made the change,” Pederson told reporters Monday. So can Hurts provide more than just a brief jolt of energy? And does the decision signal the end of Wentz’s career in Philly?
“We’re not where we want to be as an offense,” Pederson told Dave Spadaro of the Eagles’ team site, explaining his decision to switch to Hurts. “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.”
Hurts took over for Wentz during the third quarter of Philadelphia’s 30-16 loss to Green Bay on Sunday. The rookie second-rounder went 5-of-12 passing for 109 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He added five carries for 29 yards, and was sacked three times for a combined loss of 5 yards. That stat line doesn’t exactly jump off the page, but as Pederson notes, Hurts showed he can bring a new dimension to the offense. “He played OK,” Pederson said Monday. “He extended some plays with his legs, made a nice throw to Jalen Reagor. It was good to see that. And then obviously the throw to Greg Ward for the touchdown on a scramble. There’s some things that if and when he looks at the film we can clean up and he can improve upon.”
Hurts displayed patience and decisiveness in his short outing. His second series—a nine-play, 73-yard touchdown drive—was particularly impressive. He utilized his scrambling ability to pick up first downs on back-to-back plays, including this 10-yard gain:
And this 13-yard run to move the Eagles to midfield:
A few plays later, Hurts rolled out of the pocket and adeptly lofted his first career touchdown pass, a 32-yarder to receiver Greg Ward Jr.:
After Sunday’s game, Hurts was asked by a reporter point-blank if he felt he should be the Eagles’ starter moving forward. Hurts shrugged, before responding, “I’m trying to do what I can do for this team. I think that’s as simple as that. Working hard every day, putting my best foot forward and taking somebody. I’m trying to lead and get this thing in the right direction.”
Hurts has been in the middle of a quarterback controversy before. In 2016, Hurts was a true freshman at Alabama, and beat former five-star prospect Blake Barnett for the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback job. Hurts went on to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors and led Bama to the national championship game. The following season, Hurts again led Bama to the national championship game, but was benched at halftime in favor of Tua Tagovailoa, who swiftly rallied the Tide to an overtime win over Georgia. Tagovailoa was named the starter over Hurts the following year. But in the 2018 SEC championship game, Tagovailoa suffered a leg injury, and Hurts led back-to-back fourth-quarter scoring drives to lift the Tide to a dramatic win. Hurts transferred to Oklahoma for his senior year, where he led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff while finishing second in Heisman voting. There’s a parallel here between Wentz missing out on the Eagles’ Super Bowl run after tearing his ACL and returning as Philadelphia’s starter only to now lose his job to Hurts.
This quarterback switch has been brewing for much of the season—if not longer. When the Eagles took Hurts with the 53rd pick in April’s draft, it raised eyebrows. Why would Philly need a second-round quarterback when it already had a franchise QB in 27-year-old Wentz? For much of this season, the Eagles have found ways to get Hurts involved, though it was mostly in a gadget QB role with Wentz still on the field. Ahead of the team’s game against the Seahawks in Week 12, it was reported that Hurts could be given an extended look, but he logged just two offensive snaps—one with Wentz also on the field. Perhaps that was because the Eagles were competitive in that contest, despite Wentz’s own ineffectiveness. But against Green Bay, Philadelphia faced a 20-3 deficit early in the third quarter. Wentz had gone 6-of-15 for 79 yards, and the Eagles offense was lifeless. Pederson made the change.
“It’s always difficult [to make that decision], especially at the quarterback position,” Pederson said Monday. “In-game, when you’re trying to find a play, find an opportunity for anybody to make a play and then it’s not happening, you’ve just gotta find that spark. And you’ve gotta find that something that maybe can get your offense going, maybe get your team going. They’re obviously difficult decisions to make, but that’s what I was hired to do, to make difficult decisions. I did one [Sunday] and it got us back in the football game, but it just wasn’t enough.”
With Hurts behind center, the Eagles pulled within seven points of the Packers. He often took what Green Bay’s defense gave him, was aggressive in spots, and showed willingness to target receivers at every level of the field. When his wideouts were covered, he looked comfortable maneuvering the pocket without appearing frenetic—Hurts took three sacks, but on each, his targets were blanketed and he was taken down near the line of scrimmage for an average of 1.7 yards lost. Wentz took four sacks Sunday for a loss of 22 yards (5.5 yards loss per sack); this season, he’s been sacked a league-high 50 times for 326 yards lost, an average of 6.5 yards lost per sack. Hurts’s elite athleticism for his position and excellent pocket presence allow him to escape disastrous positions, which is notable considering the Eagles’ offensive line has been significantly hampered by injuries. A date with the Saints’ pass rush—which boasts Cameron Jordan (6.5 sacks), Trey Hendrickson (10.5 sacks), and David Onyemata (six sacks)—is not an ideal situation to make a first career start, but Hurts’s athleticism could serve him well in managing congestion within the backfield. According to Pro Football Reference, New Orleans’s 25.4 percent pressure rate ranked fifth among teams as of Tuesday.
“I just want to see development,” Pederson said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for him, a great opportunity for the team.”
Pederson was precise with his words in announcing he’d start Hurts “this week against New Orleans.” However, it’s fair to question Wentz’s future with the team. Wentz’s struggles were obvious at the outset of the season, and he’s yet to show any real improvement as the year has dragged on. It’s true that he is not solely to blame for the 3-8-1 Eagles’ performance this year, considering his banged-up supporting cast. But his mistakes have been costly. He’s been one of the NFL’s most inefficient quarterbacks, leads the league with 15 interceptions, has lost four fumbles, ranks 31st in completion percentage (57.4 percent), is tied for 30th in yards per attempt (6.0), and has posted a career-low 72.8 passer rating.
It’s been a striking dropoff from the MVP form that Wentz displayed in 2017, prior to a torn ACL derailing a breakout year and costing him a chance at lifting the Lombardi Trophy. As USA Today’s Steven Ruiz has written, there’s a valid case that Wentz’s production that year was unsustainable, but considering that Wentz just last season dragged Philadelphia to the playoffs while becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to ever throw for 4,000 yards without a single receiver amassing at least 500 yards, his regression is startling. Last offseason, Wentz signed a four-year, $128 million extension that includes nearly $70 million in guarantees and lasts through 2024. Wentz is scheduled to have a $34.7 million cap hit in 2021, according to Spotrac. But the Eagles would incur a $59.2 million dead cap hit if he were released prior to June 1—in addition to costing $24.5 million against their 2021 cap space—making him virtually immovable next year. Wentz’s contract extension has yet to kick in, but now his career is already at a crossroads.
“We are married to this,” Pederson said Monday. “It’s something I pride myself on, and he and I are definitely in a situation we’ve got to work ourselves out of. My job is to help him, and to help him improve and to get better, and to help this football team win. My job is also to take and look at the big picture, too, and look at the entire football team, right? Those are all things I’ve gotta consider as we move forward.”
If Hurts proves worthy of starting, it will not only justify the Eagles’ much-scrutinized decision to select Hurts, but will also further cloud Wentz’s chance of ever realizing his potential in Philadelphia. During the 1999 NFL season, Pederson was in a similar position as Wentz—the former Eagles quarterback had signed a three-year contract to be Andy Reid’s starter. Philadelphia drafted Donovan McNabb no. 2 overall that year, and Pederson lost his starting job to the rookie by Week 9. Pederson was released the following season. Pederson, who recently acknowledged he was on board with the Eagles’ selection of Hurts, likely has a good grasp on Wentz’s situation and outlook, and on Monday described managing it with calm eyes and viewing it from a “30,000-foot perspective” to determine what course of action is in the best interest of the team.
“Carson’s been a big part of the success that we’ve had,” Pederson said. “He was on that championship team that got us to that level. Even in ’18 and ’19 he led the team and got us into the postseason and I know we can get back to that level. That’s why I have so much confidence in him.”
At least for now, Pederson’s confidence in Wentz isn’t high enough to allow him to remain his starter, but the coach is betting that what happens next creates a spark—either for Wentz, the Eagles, or both. Hurts is in command of that.
“You create your own energy,” Hurts said. “As great as it was [playing Sunday]—as great as the spark that was, the energy we had—moving forward, it’s about what we do.”