PHILADELPHIA — As Jalen Hurts’ teammates say, there are two screens.
“A two-computer setup,” says Philadelphia Eagles receiver AJ Brown, “no monitor.”
The Eagles’ $255 million quarterback runs home movie sessions through multiple simultaneous engines. Why not? In game situations, Hurts must process multiple sources of information and react instantly.
With his fourth pro campaign and coming out with a caliber MVP 2022, Hurts has shown growth in that distillation. His game last season benefited from long-awaited play-caller continuity after seven consecutive years of change.
Subsequently, Philadelphia offensive coordinator Shane Steichen was hired as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, teaming Hurts with a ninth play-caller in eight years. The benefit changes.
But maybe it has even grown.
Because not only is Hurts preparing to play in a returning system overseen by Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni and featuring an offensive coordinator in Brian Johnson, who has known Hurts since Hurts was a kid. Coaches and teammates say Hurts is also increasingly leveraging defenders’ reactions to actions and plans, while the Eagles look to increase their attention to detail and quality of execution.
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“It just gets deeper and deeper — just like your relationship with your wife,” Sirianni told Yahoo Sports over lunch on Wednesday. “That conversation is getting deeper [in] relationship, but also with the knowledge and the productivity you get in the quarterback room.
“As a quarterback, you build on the bank of like, ‘Okay, last time I saw this, I hit here. Last time I saw this, we checked for this.’
“You have to have the reps and the obsession. And he has them both to get those conversations going.
How to take the Jalen Hurts Eagles experience to the next level
On repeat, a word echoes through the Eagles’ quarterback room: completions.
Completions can be explosive, like the 50-yard go ball Hurts that fell into the hands of receiver AJ Brown during the final snapshot of first-team practice drills during Wednesday’s training camp practice.
Completions can be subtle, like the four-step way out of an empty formation that Hurts completed on third-and-short a few days earlier, per third-string quarterback Ian Book, a reminder that the long ball isn’t always the best option.
And sometimes completions are particularly fun, as the gadget plays. Book says Johnson has “a really good sense of calling… at the right time on a given yard line.”
But ahead of style points and right there with decision making lies the importance of completions. Second-tier quarterback Marcus Mariota, who joins the Eagles with 87 career game experience in three different NFL franchises, reiterates the power of a completion across the position group.
“He said a coach once told him, ‘The game will probably work itself out if you just play the ball to someone every time,'” Book told Yahoo Sports. “If you watch Tom Brady clips, he throws five-step, five-foot lift routes all the time. Or he throws it 2 meters at the running back and makes those running backs miss someone.
So Hurts’ improvement as a passer this season shouldn’t be measured solely by the expansion of worthy plays with highlights. Efficiency, as the Eagles saw last season, can drive a Super Bowl run.
The Eagles’ evaluators weren’t concerned about Hurts’ arm strength in the 2020 NFL Draft, even as the second-rounder’s mobility lessened his reliance on the passing play. Nevertheless, Hurts’ year-over-year improvement has been steady and sharp. Hurts improved from a rating of 77.6 rookie passers to 87.2 in 2021 to 101.5 last year. He completed 66.5% of his pass attempts last season after previous campaigns with 52% and 61.3%. Hurts’ third-year passing touchdowns tied his first two seasons combined, while his NFL-best 1.3% interception percentage last season tied for fourth. That’s all on top of his 13 rushing touchdowns last year.
Sure, critics will notice the arguments about the Eagles’ fraught roster heavily affecting Hurts’ ability to produce. But those who know Hurts best and those who spend the most time talking to him about football see tangible changes in his technical consistency and how he conveys his understanding of concepts. His confidence has helped simplify game scenarios, they said. Take the Eagles’ 35-10 victory over the Titans last December, Brown explained to Yahoo Sports.
With the score tied at 7, Hurts had sailed a 40-yard touchdown pass to Brown at 2:05 p.m. to play in the second quarter. But Brown stepped out of bounds five feet early. The touchdown was reversed after review. Never mind: Hurts still loved his man and still loved the way out against the news. When the Eagles broke the group, Hurts warned Brown, “Do it again.” He added, “Pump it.”
Brown flipped to the left, cut out, then cut back in with a double flick. A wide-open 40-yard touchdown followed against the team that drafted Brown and eventually traded to Philadelphia, the Titans unable to catch up for nearly three quarters. Brown does not recall a coach questioning the audible.
“Because they have that trust in us,” Brown said. That’s why this is my favorite quarterback. Favorite place to be because of the freedom we have.
“It certainly makes playing football a lot easier.”
“The quest for ultimate consistency” is Hurts’ next frontier
The pressure to perform will increase this season as the Eagles move from the 2022 all-time favorites to the 2023 favorites in the NFC. Each team has the Philadelphia number. It’s a level of pressure that can cloud a quarterback’s ability to field quickly and clearly.
But if the Super Bowl is any indication, Eagles fans need not worry about Hurts.
Hurts completed 27 of 38 attempts for 304 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. He rushed for another 70 yards and three touchdowns, though he did give up a punishing fumble in the 38–35 loss.
“If there were any doubters, they shouldn’t be now,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said after his Kansas City Chiefs’ win. “That was a special achievement. I don’t want it to be lost in the loss they had.
“Make sure you appreciate that when you look back at this game.”
Hurts then said he would turn the loss into a teachable moment, reiterating Thursday at training camp that “time is the greatest teacher and experience is the greatest teacher.”
“The more I get a chance to play with this group, the more I grow and learn,” said Hurts. “So I think that’s an ongoing evolution.”
Hurts now aims to maintain that level both physically and mentally this season.
“There is plenty of talent out there [and] he has enough talent to make the spectacular and ‘wow’ game every time he takes the field,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports. “But I think a big part of that is just the quest for ultimate consistency [when] guys just make routine plays really routine.
“He’s on the verge now, in third year in the system, of understanding the answers and anticipating the problems within certain plays.”
The sources of information that Hurts is processing are uniting, the pieces of the proverbial puzzle falling together. On the field, that two-motor film study is starting to look like one processor.
So much so that there may come a time when Hurts’ real screens with two computers suddenly appear as one input with an extended monitor.
Brown can speed up both processes.
Maybe a birthday present for his quarterback who turned 25 on Monday?
“Maybe,” Brown said. “That might be something to think about.”