It’s a modern NFL truism that a team goes as its quarterback goes. The Packers and Buccaneers are what Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady make them; the Chiefs and Ravens run systems nobody else can because nobody else has Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.
As such, it’s natural to correlate offensive improvement with better quarterback play, and most of the time, it’s a strong correlation. It’s certainly the case in Philadelphia. The Eagles have won three of their last four games and clawed their way to within a game of .500, still squarely positioned on the NFC wild-card bubble. Over the last four weeks, only San Francisco’s been better by EPA per play than Philadelphia. And that improvement has been strongly linked to the play of second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. Viewed as a stopgap option between the Carson Wentz crash-and-burn era and the imminent arrival of [insert young quarterback here], Hurts entered the season with a “chance” to win the starting job. He’s played well enough in recent weeks to lose the scare quotes on that proposition.
When evaluating young quarterbacks, “Is this guy a franchise player?” isn’t as neat a question as it may seem. Everyone would have answered in the affirmative with Wentz when he was a second-year quarterback in 2017 and the coulda-shoulda-woulda-been league MVP. Instead, he was traded four years later. Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo, Baker Mayfield all looked like franchise quarterbacks early in their starting careers before the magic faded.
Hurts still has a lot to prove. A deeper look at the Eagles offense shows that their sudden offensive explosion has been less about Hurts’s improvement than the improvement around him.
In recent weeks, the Eagles have fundamentally shifted how they execute their offense. On the surface level, it’s fairly obvious. During a 1-3 stretch from Weeks 3 through 6, the Eagles led the league in neutral-down pass rate by a country mile. Then head coach Nick Sirianni about-faced: Since Week 7, the Eagles have been the league’s most run-heavy team, going from a neutral pass rate of 89 percent against the Buccaneers in Week 6 to a 27 percent pass rate against the Lions in Week 8. It was an almost unprecedented in-season shift.
The Eagles remain run-heavy. pic.twitter.com/e2Yzh7AbEB— Hayden Winks (@HaydenWinks) November 23, 2021
It’s worth noting that Hurts has always had incredible talent as a runner—it’s only recently that his offensive designers have figured out how best to utilize it. PFF’s Diante Lee recently wrote about the Eagles’ spread rushing attack, highlighting how the Eagles are using Hurts like college offenses use their dual-threat quarterbacks: as a primary weapon in an option-based rushing attack.
Hurts is built like a running back, and he moves like one too. It may not look the same on film when he’s holding the ball in one hand and threatening the pass, but Hurts is every bit of his 6-foot-1, 222 pounds. He ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. His top athletic comparisons on Mockdraftable include running backs (Jalen Parmele, Ryan Torain), linebackers (Tahir Whitehead, Patrick Queen), and even a safety (Jaquiski Tartt). Hurts isn’t just a running quarterback—he’s in that Kyler Murray–Cam Newton family of athletes who could excel in a different position right away if the notion struck him.
But the Eagles’ offensive improvement cannot be attributed to the designed running game alone. Over the same time frame, Hurts has suddenly become a much more effective quarterback. From Weeks 3 through 6, Hurts was 23rd in EPA per play at -0.011, just below Sam Darnold and above Mayfield among NFL quarterbacks; since Week 7, Hurts is seventh in EPA per play at .221.
EPA per play incorporates a lot—for quarterbacks, it includes expected points added on scrambles, which is a huge part of Hurts’s game. He recently surpassed Jackson for the most scrambles this season with 48, according to Sports Info Solutions’ charting, and is seventh in EPA per scramble at 0.41.
We can see the impact of Hurts’s scrambling ability most clearly on third downs. That’s the only down on which the Eagles are regularly passing, of course, but it’s also the down on which scrambles can be the most valuable. Philadelphia’s new run-oriented focus has dropped its average distance faced on third downs drastically, making it easier for Hurts to pick up first downs with his legs. In fact, no runner this season has a higher first-down conversion rate than Hurts does.
Jalen Hurts’s Scrambling Performance Over Time
|Weeks||Third-Down Plays||Distance to gain||Third-Down Conversion %||Scrambles||Third-Down Conversion % (Scrambles)|
|Weeks||Third-Down Plays||Distance to gain||Third-Down Conversion %||Scrambles||Third-Down Conversion % (Scrambles)|
Hurts is a particularly effective scrambler, not just for his established rushing ability, but also for his decisiveness. When opposing defenses blitz, Hurts quickly escapes out the back door and turns upfield. Zone droppers attempting to pin him to the sideline often are not wide enough, not close enough to the line of scrimmage, to generate a good angle on him. When Hurts decides to go for the sticks on a late down, he goes—his swift decision-making often gains him the final yard he needs.
This decisiveness has led Hurts to scramble at league-high rates. His 13 percent scramble rate over the last five weeks outpaces fellow dual-threat QBs like Jackson (career 10 percent), Allen (7 percent), and Kyler Murray (6 percent). As effective as those scrambles are, they come at a cost. Namely, the cost of attempting a pass.
That hasn’t hurt the Eagles too much this season. It’s no secret that the Eagles have one of the weakest wide receiver corps in the league. Beyond first-round pick DeVonta Smith, who has immediately settled into NFL play, and newly extended TE Dallas Goedert, the Eagles simply don’t have any starting-caliber pass-catchers on their roster. The only other Eagles pass-catcher with positive EPA per target over the last five weeks has been JJ Arcega-Whiteside; he has exactly one target. It was a very nice 23-yard catch and run. Congratulations to him.
When your offense lacks the necessary arsenal to sustain a real passing attack, defaulting to early scrambles makes sense, especially when Hurts is your quarterback. Hurts has always been a scramble-heavy quarterback, going back to his days as a college passer. In his final season at Oklahoma, he scrambled on 14 percent of his dropbacks; some common knocks on his NFL draft scouting reports were his quick bails from the pocket in the face of pressure and his slower processing ability.
Those issues have not gone away in Philadelphia. They’ve been masked by the run-heavy offense, which keeps the Eagles ahead of the sticks, and the passing designs, which rarely ask Hurts to manipulate defenders with his eyes or make timing throws through the progression. Hurts’s warts as a thrower remain.
This is most clearly reflected in Hurts’s passing distribution. Sports Info Solutions credits Hurts with only 28 passing attempts this season in the intermediate middle of the field, which is 26th in the league; only 60 percent of those attempts had a positive EPA. PFF can generate a heat map for all of a quarterback’s targets relative to other league passers and show the areas of the field they favor and avoid—Hurts avoids the area between the hashes like the plague.
We can see deep vertical shots, intermediate out-breaking routes around 15-yards, and a heavy WR screen game in the heat map, none of which really means much until we contextualize it on film. To get Hurts into these looks, the Eagles offense often relies on rollouts and sprintouts, which allow Hurts to throw on the move, but they also functionally cut the field in half, precluding the idea of a full-field read. On this sprintout against the Broncos, the Eagles only have three receivers in the concept, all of whom get gloved up right away. Hurts has nowhere to go with the football, but because he isn’t in the pocket, it’s impossible to work to a checkdown or break the pocket and create a scramble drill. He’s left without options.
Instead of rolling him out, the Eagles keep him in the pocket, leaving the safety valve of the scramble open—a wise decision. But it still cuts the field in half, giving him three-man flood concepts that work into the sideline or isolated routes outside of the numbers to win against soft man coverage. Hurts doesn’t have to reset his feet in the pocket to get to a backside route or manipulate any safeties or linebackers with his eyes—those players are still in the middle of the field. All he has to do is throw an accurate ball to the sideline with good anticipation and rhythm.
And he’s been doing that mighty well this year! He’s made notable improvements with his accuracy. If you include his Alabama and Oklahoma seasons, Hurts has seemingly improved his accuracy for the sixth consecutive season—that’s not something players can typically sustain over time, and it’s a testament to his work ethic that he has. And while he may struggle to process the jumble of bodies moving across the middle of the field, his recognition of out-breaking patterns in tight spaces has gotten better as well.
Unfortunately, defenses are starting to get wise to this. If the Eagles don’t trust Hurts to work the middle of the field and don’t want to give him full-field passing concepts, defenses won’t respect those throws. The Saints and Broncos both played with two deep safeties, as they didn’t need a centerfielding safety to take away the post route. Those safeties could sit on top of the vertical routes, taking some air out of the Eagles’ explosive passing game. Cornerbacks and linebackers have started cheating to the outside, expecting out-breaking routes from slot receivers and corner routes from reduced splits.
On this third-and-long against the Broncos, the Eagles have mirrored corner routes on either side of the field—Hurts can pick the side of the field that he likes. Smith is always a good player to target, but rookie CB Patrick Surtain II is sinking underneath the corner route and baiting this throw. This very well could have been a debilitating interception.
Because Sirianni feels limited in the types of routes he can dial up for Hurts, he is limited in the changeups and wrinkles he has available, and defenses are catching up to that in real time, too. The Eagles broke tendency against the Raiders, showing a boot with a deep crosser from Dallas Goedert—a classic look against Cover 3—before bending Goedert back to the opposite sideline in space and hitting him for a chunk gain.
The Eagles came back to the well against the Saints, but this time, the Saints were in Cover 4, again playing without a post safety because they don’t feel like they need him. That allowed Marcus Williams to crash down on Tyree Jackson, running the same route that Goedert did. The ball is out a little late, and the route isn’t great, but these are the thin margins the Eagles have to live on when teams feel like they can key in on the Hurts’s tendencies in the passing game.
We can even watch the Chargers adjust in the same game! Here’s Smith winning on a deep crosser against Cover 3 in the first half, and then the Chargers gloving up that same concept in the second half. Smith made an impressive, physical play to make this catch.
This isn’t to say that the Eagles’ passing offense is hanging on by a thread—it isn’t. There’s a high floor for the passing game due to Hurts’s scrambling ability, which gets them out of so many sacks, keeps them in manageable down and distances. But Hurts is still limited as a passer, and Sirianni is making do—this new-look Eagles offense is peaking, but a decline feels inevitable.
Defenses are going to catch up. The Eagles are running about as collegiate an offense as we’ve seen in the league recently: spread formations, screens and RPOs, a variegated and physical running game dragging a bare-bones passing attack along behind it. This offense only continues surging so long as the running game sustains it. The Eagles just bullied the Saints, owners of the league’s best run defense, so it feels like they can sustain this level for a while. But in reality, that’s tough to do. You’ve got to be the 2019 Ravens to run the football on early downs constantly, chunk your way to manageable third downs, and then convert them at significant rates, and the Ravens had the league MVP that season. The Ravens’ Jackson-led offense is a laudable model to mimic, but Hurts isn’t a Jackson-caliber player.
But the question for Philadelphia isn’t whether Hurts is Jackson—it’s if Hurts is a franchise-caliber quarterback. Just how well they sustain this offense over the final seven weeks of the season holds their answer. If they do, then you certainly can run an offense with Hurts at quarterback—not with him as the fulcrum, as many top NFL offenses have their quarterbacks positioned, but with him as a cog in a greater machine. It might be the equivalent of the Jared Goff–led Rams, or Jimmy Garoppolo with the 49ers: The quarterback has the skills necessary to make the offense go, but he is still largely a product of the greater scheme. Less the engine of the machine, and more an axle or a wheel. Those offenses rocked for a few seasons, each making the Super Bowl once; but both teams, feeling mired in an eventual QB purgatory, made offseason changes at quarterback in an attempt to step into a truly elite tier of NFL offenses.
But for the Eagles, that’s a desirable short-term outlook. With two—possibly three—first-round picks burning a hole in their pocket, Philadelphia seems well-suited to make a splash at quarterback. However, the 2022 NFL draft looks like one of the thinnest quarterback classes in recent memory and the veteran trade market doesn’t make much sense for a roster currently smack in the middle of a massive youth movement. If Sirianni and Hurts have an offense that works—not excels, not revolutionizes, not dominates, but just works—the Eagles have the freedom to spend those picks on much-needed help on the defensive side of the ball. Or they could play the long game and trade for future capital for the 2023 quarterback class, allowing another year for Hurts to improve in the passing game and answer that nagging question: Is he a franchise guy?
But that question isn’t nearly answered yet. Sirianni had to take the ball out of Hurts’s hands to start winning games, hoping that less volume and easier contexts would elicit improved quarterback play—and it has. As Sirianni might say, the flower has started to bloom, but it’s still a fragile thing, requiring constant attention and a confluence of beneficial factors: a dominant offensive line, an improved pass-catching corps, and patience when Hurts makes mistakes. Hurts isn’t the Eagles’ franchise quarterback yet, but he’s never looked more like a player who might get there. He’s a young man with a lot of highs and a lot of lows ahead of him, and we all just get to enjoy the ride with him.