The sight of Jalen Hurts leaving the pocket and scurrying toward the New York Jets’ sideline should have filled Nick Sirianni with, at worst, a sense of disappointment, not a rising rage he couldn’t quell.
On his only series Friday night in the Eagles’ preseason-opening 24-21 loss, on a third down with 5 yards to go, Hurts looked at one receiver and was in little danger of being sacked when he decided to dash to the right. The truest measure of Hurts’ improvement as a passer was a play like this one, a sequence when he might test his ability and willingness to stand in, find a secondary or tertiary receiver, and deliver him the football. That’s what Sirianni and the Eagles want from him. That’s what they need from him. But Hurts ran instead. He was well out of bounds, having gained no net yardage, when Jets linebacker Quincy Williams launched himself, helmet-first, at Hurts’ head.
The officials rightly called an unnecessary roughness foul on Williams for the late hit, and Sirianni scanned the opposite side of the field to find Jets coach Robert Saleh.
“Saleh, what the f—?” Sirianni screamed toward him. “That was f—g bulls—.”
In the hierarchy of blame for Williams’ cheap shot and the damage it could have wrought, Sirianni had his rankings wrong in his initial reaction. Saleh was less responsible for his player’s recklessness than Hurts was for giving Williams, or any Jets defender, the chance to tee off on him. Hurts never should have taken off in the first place. The football should have been out of his hand, either because he had found another receiver to target or because he was throwing it away.
“I told him on the sideline, ‘Don’t take the big hit. Slide,’” wide receiver A.J. Brown said. “But he was just trying to move the drive. His mindset is that he wants to run the ball. I don’t like that at all. He needs to slide. It’s too much risk.”
Brown is right, partly. The problem isn’t that Hurts is mobile, of course. His mobility is one of his greatest assets. And just because he runs more frequently than the average NFL quarterback doesn’t mean he’s necessarily putting his body at risk more frequently than the average NFL quarterback. He might run to avoid a big hit and, in turn, a potential injury. He might run because Sirianni or offensive coordinator Shane Steichen has called a play that requires him to run. He might run because at an important moment in a more important game, the first-down marker is 4 yards away and he has 7 yards of empty green in front of him. And he can free himself to make a throw that a less-elusive quarterback couldn’t. Case in point: his first throw Friday, a 28-yard strike to Quez Watkins that Hurts released as he was rolling to his right.
“There are a lot of guys in the league who do a lot of special things from the pocket,” Hurts said. “I think I can do those things. There aren’t too many guys in the league who can do the things I can do in terms of extending plays, throwing on the run, getting freaky, getting down the field, making plays with my legs.”
Hurts is right, partly. The problem is that he tends to run when he doesn’t have to run, and this was one of those occasions.
“It was a good decision,” Sirianni said before adding the customary disclaimer that all coaches wield in their postgame press conferences: “I’ve got to watch the tape.”
When he does, he’ll see what the replay makes clear. Go ahead. Fire up YouTube or your DVR, find the play, and watch it again. Hurts was under no serious pressure. He was not in peril until he put himself in harm’s way by breaking upfield.
There was as much revealed about Hurts in that moment as there was in his going 6-for-6, with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Goedert, against soft Jets coverage and with the Eagles’ offensive line providing him plenty of time and protection. The Eagles will learn little about Hurts, and he will learn little about himself, if he’s comfortable making difficult throws only when he perceives that the conditions around him are perfect. If this had been a regular season game, if there had been more at stake for Hurts and the Eagles, one could understand, if not completely excuse, his decision to use his feet to try to earn a fresh set of downs. But this was a preseason game, and there was more for Hurts to gain in resisting his instinct to run, in challenging himself to do that which doesn’t come naturally to him yet.
“He’s 6-for-6 with a perfect quarterback rating, and you’re questioning one of his decisions to escape the pocket,” Sirianni said. “Kind of funny.”
Only a little. If this critique seems too harsh or nitpicky, if it seems a standard too high for Hurts to meet, then maybe everyone should lower expectations for the Eagles this season. An NFC East championship? A deep playoff run? Those are possible. First things first, though: At some point in the next five months, when there’s a throw to be made with more on the line than a preseason game’s opening possession, Jalen Hurts will have to prove that he no longer has to take his path of least resistance.
This content was originally published here.