Jalen Hurts: From backup to leader of the Eagles’ quest for perfection

Wwith more than nine minutes left in Sunday’s game — still plenty of time to add to his stellar stat line — Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts stopped on the sideline and pulled on a headset, ready for the day. Gardner Minshew, his backup, had 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 undefeated team at 7-0, are set to play again Thursday, at Houston. They will need Hurts to continue to play 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 the audacity to make the World Series after barely making the playoffs. But Philadelphia will soon return to being a football town, and its world will revolve around Hurts.

He was good in college but has been 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, $128 million contract extension in June 2019.

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

No one seems to wonder now. It sounds fanciful, but Philadelphians wonder 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 which is in four weeks against Tennessee.

Painful, calm, clever and serious, every bit the son of a football coach, sounds like he has other priorities. At one point in Sunday’s post-match press conference, he said: “You never get to a point where you say, ‘I’ve arrived.'” There’s no arrival, there’s only the journey, and I’ve embraced that journey, and I’ll continue to do it and take it day by day and just try to climb.”

Because Hurts had relied more on his legs than his arm in previous seasons, the Eagles made some concessions this year, bolstering the defense, relying more on a robust running attack and giving Hurts a big target by acquiring top wide receiver AJ Brown in the 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 scoring another with a 43 -yard reception.

Jalen Hurts celebrates with wide receiver AJ Brown after a touchdown connection against the Steelers.
Jalen Hurts celebrates with wide receiver AJ Brown after a touchdown connection against the Steelers. Photo: Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

But someone had to give him the ball. Hurts high up a long pass to Brown, before flipping a fourth TD pass to Zach Pascal. The Eagles’ passing game was so efficient that they had just 20 rushing attempts. Hurts had to run twice, both in the first quarter.

The first rush was remarkable. Hurts burst out of a collapsing pocket, then wisely slid before the Steelers could hit him — but he was two yards short of a first down. No problem. The Eagles ground out three yards two plays later, then scored a go-ahead touchdown.

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

In 2020, the Steelers, who traded their first pick for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, took Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool 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 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 record with 9-8 and the playoffs.

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

“Jalen is ultra-focused and he’s focused on how to get better every day,” Sirianni said 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. season results?

“All he focuses on is day by day,” Sirianni said. “He’s the leader of our team. It’s big. Everybody falls with it. It’s like he was raised 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 last Sunday for garbage time, as he had been drafted with the general idea that he would be the guy who ends plays to break the starter a break, especially with a game right 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 play for somebody you love, what you call family, there is another meaning behind it.and i know i can’t let him down.

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

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