Jalen Hurts: from back-up to leader of the Eagles’ quest for perfection

Jalen Hurts: from back-up to leader of the Eagles’ quest for perfection

With more than nine minutes left in the game on Sunday – still plenty of time to pad his superb stat line – Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts stayed on the sideline and pulled on a headset, done for the day. Gardner Minshew, his backup, got to mop up a lopsided victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Hurts was shut down early in large part because the Eagles, the NFL’s only unbeaten team at 7-0, are to play again on Thursday, at Houston. They will need Hurts to keep playing the way he has this season: Not spectacularly, but with conviction, poise and intelligence.

The Phillies rule this hyper sports city now because they had the wherewithal and audacity to grind into the World Series after barely getting into the playoffs. But Philadelphia will return to being a football town soon enough, and its world will revolve around Hurts.

He was good in college but has become a revelation in the NFL this season. Just two-and-a-half years ago, the Eagles took Hurts in the second round of the draft to be a backup, a mobile change of pace, to Carson Wentz, who had signed a four-year, $128m contract extension in June 2019.

Less than 10 months have passed since Hurts, who became a starter only after Wentz was benched then traded, was so dismal in a playoff loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that Eagles fans wondered if he was really the right quarterback moving ahead.

Nobody seems to be wondering that now. It sounds fanciful, but Philadelphians are wondering if the Eagles could actually go 17-0. Of the Eagles’ 10 remaining games, only four are against teams with winning records – the first of those is in four weeks against Tennessee.

Hurts, calm, shrewd and earnest, every bit the son of a football coach, sounds as if he has other priorities. At one point in the post-game news conference on Sunday, he said: “You’ll never get to a point where you say ‘I’ve arrived.’ There is no arrival, there’s only the journey, and I’ve embraced that journey, and I’ll continue to do that and take it day by day and just try and climb.”

Because Hurts had relied more on his legs than his arm in previous seasons, the Eagles made some concessions this year, fortifying the defense, relying more on a robust running attack, and giving Hurts a big target by acquiring top-flight wide receiver AJ Brown in a draft-day trade with Tennessee.

Brown, a friend of Hurts since the two met at Alabama (Brown would sign with Ole Miss, and Hurts would transfer to Oklahoma), had a spectacular game against the Steelers, catching three TD passes and setting up another score with a 43-yard reception.

But someone had to get him the ball. Hurts lofted pinpoint longer passes to Brown, before flipping a fourth TD pass to Zach Pascal. The Eagles’ passing game was so effective that they only had 20 rushing attempts. Hurts had to run twice, both in the first quarter.

The first rush was notable. Hurts burst out of a collapsing pocket, then wisely slid before the Steelers could pound him – but he was two yards short of a first down. No problem. The Eagles grinded out three yards two plays later, then scored a go-ahead-for-good touchdown.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had said in a conference call last week that he was interested in taking Hurts in the 2020 draft, explaining that “I just really had an appreciation for his intangible qualities, his will, his commitment to the game. I liked his profile, the son of a football coach, the steady demeanor. He just displayed the intangible characteristics of a winner. And that’s been his résumé wherever he’s been. So that was really attractive.”

In 2020 the Steelers, who’d traded their first-round pick for the safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, took Chase Claypool, the wide receiver from Notre Dame, with the No 49 pick in the second round. The Eagles took Hurts with the 53rd pick. He started four games in 2020. The Eagles lost three.

Their 4-10-1 record led to the firing of coach Doug Pederson, who’d led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl triumph in 2018. Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, another son of a football coach, took over and led the Eagles to a 9-8 record and the playoffs.

Sirianni, 41, is brash and unbashful, but he seems to understand that his effectiveness as a coach is now largely – not entirely – tied to Hurts’ performance. He has not hurt his team. He has thrown two interceptions and has not lost a fumble. His passer rating Sunday was a career-high 140.3 and is now at 105.1 for the season, the fifth-best figure in the league. And he still has run for 303 yards.

“Jalen is ultra-focused, and he’s focused on the process of how he gets better every day,” Sirianni said on Sunday. “He’s not focused on what his next contract might be, or what we’re going to do in three weeks, or what the outcome of this season is or anything like that.”

Wait. Outcome of the season?

“All he’s focused on is day by day,” Sirianni said. “He’s the leader of our team. That’s huge. Everybody falls with that. It’s as if he had grown up in a football household, and he knows how to handle the waves of a season, because there are waves of a season.”

It was interesting that Hurts was pulled Sunday for garbage time, because he’d been drafted with the general idea that he’d be the guy ending games to cut the starter a break, especially with a game just around the corner. Brown was the star, but Hurts is The Guy.

After the game, Brown said of Hurts: “I think we just want to be great. This is somebody that I call a friend. He knows what I want to accomplish, and I know what he wants to accomplish. When you’re playing for somebody that you love, who you call family, it’s a different meaning behind it. And I know I can’t let him down.

“We’re just having fun and playing for one another. I’m pretty sure he knows that I’ve got his back and I know he’s got mine, too. I think that’s exactly what this is.”

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