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Was this merely a challenging season for Jalen Hurts, or something more?

2023 Jalen Hurts was not 2022 Jalen Hurts, but how much of it was him and how much of it was outside of himself?

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Philadelphia Eagles v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Let’s make this clear right from the get-go. Jalen Hurts was not the No. 1 problem with the Philadelphia Eagles this year, and he probably wasn’t top-three.

It’s important to get that out of the way first, because there is a segment of his fanbase that will read anything critical of Hurts as character assassination rather than an attempt to take an objective look at the player the team signed to a massive $250+ million contract last off-season. Hurts played very well at times in 2023 and, given better coaching and an offensive scheme that made sense, likely would have taken this team deeper into the postseason.

Hurts was let down by his coaching staff. Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson had no answers for what opposing defenses were throwing at them, especially late in the season and against the blitz, and based on Joe Santoliquito’s outstanding report published here on Bleeding Green Nation, issues with Sirianni and his new OC were present going back to training camp and festered all season long.

Even before the season, omens were springing early something was wrong. Sirianni was far more vocal in training camp than he was the previous year, doing more correcting than coaching, and spending time coaching the coaches, plugging up myriad mistakes as to the right personnel on the field and what Hurts should be recognizing.

It’s difficult to imagine any quarterback having much success in that environment.

By now we’re all familiar with the finger-pointing that took place through the media in the days leading up to the Eagles’ humiliating loss in Tampa — one side said Sirianni meddled in Johnson’s game plans and sowed confusion in the process, another side Johnson was a poor play-caller and stunted the offense, and still a third said Hurts played outside the structure of the offense too often and butted heads with Johnson at times as well.

It’s likely there is some semblance of truth to all of it and, in my eyes, it’s clear Jalen Hurts did not enter the 2023 campaign the same way he entered 2022.

Right from the start, he looked different. He looked indecisive. He didn’t see the field as well. He missed wide open receivers. He seemingly locked in on A.J. Brown to the detriment of the offense and his other teammates and, perhaps most alarmingly, he ceased being a playmaker when running the football.

So the question that the Eagles, and Jalen Hurts himself, must figure out this off-season is whether 2023 was merely a challenging season for Hurts, or whether the regression we witnessed this year will linger.

We also must get an understanding from Hurts as to whether he’s going to go back to being the type of runner we see in Josh Allen, the type of threat with his legs he was in 2021 and ‘22. Even before his knee was injured in the middle of the season, Hurts was reluctant to take on contact and seemed unable to evade tacklers, juke to the outside or beat players to the sidelines and turn upfield. Some of that may be defenses learning to better mush rush Hurts, but it also appeared from the very start of the season that he was a different runner. He appeared slower and less athletic.

In an appearance on Birds 365 last week with Jody MacDonald and John McMullen, I postulated that Hurts’ truncated off-season, filled with numerous new obligations on his time, affected his ability to get ready for the season.

I believe this wholeheartedly, and Santoliquito’s sources indicate they believe that had something to do with his performance on the field this year as well.

Hurts was coming off a Super Bowl where he arguably outplayed the Super Bowl and NFL MVP, Patrick Mahomes. Hurts’ representation (LeBron James’ Klutch Sports Group) put him out there. He was on magazine covers. He was doing commercials. His face was in many places it was not before. Hurts is a creature of routine. His schedule was altered. According to those who know Hurts, he would have rather been wiping sweat from his face throwing passes in Texas heat than doing commercials and “brand building.”

That same scenario is unlikely to occur this off-season. With an early exit after the wild card round, Hurts will have an extra month to get himself where he needs to be, and we’ll see if there was an injury that was negatively affecting his ability to run the ball, too.

Football is also one of those sports that, when things go south in the locker room, it can affect what takes place on the field, and it appears his standing there took a big hit this season, too.

One source on the team described Hurts as a “good dude” who sometimes does not realize the times he’s acting like a prima-donna “expletive” (we’ll use the word “jerk”). Multiple sources close to and inside the Eagles confirmed this. Teammates wanted to include him in functions. Hurts would wave them off. He’s been described as “detached,” “stoic,” “isolated,” “unapproachable.”

But again, sources explained to Santoliquito that Hurts is not like Carson Wentz, the last franchise QB this team employed whose fall from grace was spectacularly awful. What we’re seeing and hearing now with Hurts is similar to what we saw with Carson, although team officials clearly believe Hurts is more mentally tough than Wentz was.

As we parse through the rubble of the 2023 season, it’s important to hold every player on the team to the same standard. No one, including me, wants to criticize Hurts too directly because he seems like a good guy. We’ve seen him play at an elite level, he’s the franchise quarterback, and the team’s fortunes ride on his arm and legs. We want to believe the best in Hurts, and despite some inane arguments in sports media, no one should be thinking about bailing on Jalen.

I mean, this is just silly.

But it would also be insane to not ask the hard questions about Hurts given how most of us blinded and deafened ourselves to the Wentz criticism when it began five years ago. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

One of the most disappointing aspects of this season is that we thought we knew what we had in Jalen Hurts. After that Super Bowl performance, I was sure we had a top-three or top-five QB on our hands, but this season, he played like a mid-tier quarterback. Again, it was mostly the fault of the coaching staff, but to absolve Hurts of blame would be negligent.

Hurts talks all the time about learning from the losses, learning from disappointment, and learning from setbacks. Throughout his football life, he’s done that. In every year but this one, he improved.

One hopes Hurts can get back to being that dynamic, plus-one threat we expected to see in 2023 but never did, that with a good offensive coordinator and play-caller, he will be in an offense that utilizes his skills properly and allows this exceedingly talented offense to soar. And one hopes he learns a bit about himself as a leader, what his teammates need from him and how he can change in order to find that combination of being approachable, accountable, enthusiastic, inspirational and down-to-earth.

That’s a lot to ask of one person and perhaps it’s unfair, but no one said being the franchise quarterback of a team with Super Bowl aspirations was easy.

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