It’s no secret that this is kind of a big year for Jalen Hurts.
If he plays well in this, his third NFL season and his second as the Eagles’ full-time starter, if he takes his team deep into the playoffs, there will be no offseason debate about whether the Birds should use one of their two first-round picks in the 2023 draft on a quarterback.
They won’t. Hurts will be The Guy. And he’ll be in line for a new contract that will pay him The Guy-like money.
For the first time since high school, Hurts will be playing in the same offensive system two years in a row, which almost certainly should benefit him. He’s got 20 NFL starts under his belt, including one in the playoffs last season.
He worked his butt off in the offseason to improve his mechanics and his accuracy and his decision-making, which is great. But he still has to go out there this season and prove to the Eagles that he has a franchise-quarterback ceiling.
Count Marty Mornhinweg among the people who think Hurts will do that.
Three years ago, Mornhinweg was Jalen’s NFL drill sergeant. Doug Pederson hired the longtime NFL coach as a senior offensive consultant in 2020. Marty’s primary responsibility that season was to train the rookie second-round pick out of Oklahoma and get him ready for NFL battle. Hurts made cameos as a gadget guy before Pederson benched Carson Wentz and gave him four season-ending starts.
“I’m biased toward him because I basically spent my last year there training him and got to know him really well,’’ Mornhinweg said last week in a telephone interview from his retirement home in Montana.
“He’s a talented young man who is built to play quarterback at a high level in the NFL, both physically and mentally. He got a lot of reps last year. There’s no question in my mind that he is right on track to take another step.’’
Whether that step will be big enough to convince the Eagles that they have found their long-term answer at quarterback remains to be seen. He had an up and down season last year, making more noise with his legs than his right arm.
He rushed for 784 yards and finished seventh in the NFL in rushing first downs with 56 and was tied for sixth in rushing touchdowns with 10.
But his passing numbers weren’t nearly as stout. He finished 22nd in passing (87.2 passer rating), tied for 23rd in touchdown passes (16), and 26th in completion percentage (61.3).
“I studied his college film before the draft,’’ Mornhinweg said. “When he went from Alabama to Oklahoma, there was a huge jump as far as accuracy, decision-making, timing, gut instinct. Those are the biggest factors for playing quarterback at a high level in the NFL and I saw a huge jump there.
“Then that first year in Philly, another huge jump, even with the restrictions of COVID on the whole learning process. I thought he needed just one more step, and that was a bunch more reps and game experience. And he got that last year.
“There’s a real fine line between a good quarterback and a great quarterback in this league. It’s typically up to the player which one he becomes. Can he play at that high level consistently enough, play to play, game to game, week to week, year to year, to become a great quarterback. That’s where he’s at right now. Can he do that? We’ll see. But I think he can and will.’’
Mornhinweg has coached a lot of dual-threat quarterbacks during his NFL career. Had Brett Favre in Green Bay and Steve Young in San Francisco and Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick in Philly, Lamar Jackson in Baltimore, and Hurts his second time around with the Eagles.
“My biggest concern with that style [of quarterback] is, early on, [dealing with] too many third-and-seven-pluses,’’ he said. “They just haven’t had enough reps in those kind of situations.
“You’re crazy if you think you’re going to be as good with an inexperienced quarterback in situations like third-and-long as you are with an experienced guy who’s been in those kind of situations many times. He just hasn’t had the reps.
“We tried to play directly to the quarterback’s strengths. We’d run once or twice more in those third-down situations. It might be the quarterback.
“If you think when you’re game-planning in the red zone that you can simply do all the things with a young guy that you’d do with a 10-year veteran, uh-uh. Uh-uh. It’s not going to happen. You’ve got to play to the young quarterback’s strengths.’’
Hurts wasn’t very effective at situational football last season. He didn’t throw the ball particularly well either on third down or in the red zone. He finished 23rd in third-down passing (82.0 rating) and 28th in third-down completion percentage (59.2). He threw just four touchdown passes in the red zone in the Eagles’ last eight games.
On third-and-seven or more, just 10 of his 44 passing attempts, or 22.7 percent of them, produced first downs. Twenty-nine other quarterbacks had a higher third-and-seven-plus success rate.
That’s the bad news. The good news is Hurts’ running ability helped the Eagles finish with the league’s fourth-best third-down success rate (45.7). His 22 rushing first downs on third down were the second most in the league, behind only the Bills’ Josh Allen.
Nick Sirianni’s decision to become a run-heavy offense in the second half of the season took a lot of pressure off of Hurts and helped the Eagles. They faced the fewest third downs of seven yards or more – just 76 – in the league. They had the second most third-down plays of three yards or less – 77, converting 64.9 percent of those.
One of the things to look for early on this season is whether the Eagles want Hurts to run less. His 139 carries in 15 games last year were the most by any quarterback. Jackson had 133 in just 12 games. Allen had 122 in 17 games.
“When you’re dealing with young, active quarterbacks like Lamar and Jalen, they’re going to take off,’’ Mornhinweg said. “Why? Because they trust it. They know they can do it and make positive yards.
“My instructions always to these quarterbacks is play the quarterback position first. Go through your reads, go through your progressions, trust your protection, all of those things. Trust the players around you.
“But when you’re forced to move, then go. And go like a bat out of hell. But maintain your discipline. All of the drill work that you did, utilize it. Keep your discipline and finish, whether you’re running or whether you’re scrambling and looking to throw the football. All of that ESPN scrambling means nothing if you don’t finish with a strong, accurate throw down the field.’’
Mornhinweg isn’t bothered by Hurts’ overall 61.3 completion percentage last season. He said he pays more attention to a quarterback’s yards-per-attempt average. Hurts finished in the middle of the pack in that category last year, averaging 7.3 yards per attempt. Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady both were right in front of him at 7.4.
“I always look at the yards-per-attempt,’’ he said. “Not that you can’t win if it’s a little lower. But over the course of a long season and into the playoffs, yards-per-attempt is big. A guy might only complete 58 percent of his passes, but if he hits three deep ones, you might win by double digits.’’
The Eagles have surrounded Hurts with an excellent offensive cast. Their offensive line is one of the best in the NFL. He has a plethora of talented pass-catching weapons at wide receiver, tight end, and running back. The table is set for success. The ball is in his court.
“This dude is a leader of men,’’ Mornhinweg said. “So I would expect that team to rally around him. There are some players who can lift a team and make them better than they really are. He’s one of those guys.
“With young quarterbacks, you want to see how they react when things go well, but also when things don’t go well, which is going to happen. Jalen Hurts will motor through it and will come out the other end even better.
“Some guys kind of wilt, kind of fold a little bit when things aren’t going really well. That won’t happen with this young man. Like I said earlier, he’s built to play quarterback in this league.’’