PHILADELPHIA — One of the most violent hits in Sunday’s opener between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots came at the expense of quarterback Jalen Hurts.
With a little over three minutes remaining and the Eagles holding a 25-20 lead, offensive coordinator Brian Johnson dialed up a QB draw on first-and-10. Hurts found a crease, rumbled up the left seam and lowered his shoulder as he approached oncoming traffic. Safety Jabrill Peppers was flying downhill and got even lower. The hit stopped Hurts in his tracks and sent him airborne, jarring the ball loose. New England recovered, and for a moment, both the outcome of the game and Hurts’ health were put into question.
The Eagles held on to win, and Hurts, who rushed nine times for 37 yards, said afterward that he avoided any real damage despite absorbing 15 hits — tied for fourth most among quarterbacks in Week 1.
“I’m ready for Thursday,” Hurst said as he prepared for the Eagles’ showdown with the Minnesota Vikings at Lincoln Financial Field (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) for their 2023 home opener.
Sunday’s game was largely par for the course. Over the past two seasons, Hurts has rushed 304 times — a league high among quarterbacks and 59 more times than No. 2 on the list, Josh Allen, who has appeared in three more games over that span. The Eagles have called 173 designed rushes for him, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, which is also tops in the league (Lamar Jackson is second with 148). Predictably, Hurts has also been hit at a high rate: His 375 quarterback contacts the past two years is second to only Allen (379).
Coach Nick Sirianni made it clear he had no plans to drastically change how he deploys Hurts shortly after his quarterback signed a record-breaking five-year, $255 million contract back in April.
“We’ll always think about protecting him first,” Sirianni said, “but we didn’t pay him more to do less.”
Hurts’ “triple-threat” approach — beating defenses with his arm, legs and mind — lifted him to MVP-caliber status last season as he guided Philadelphia to Super Bowl LVII against the Kansas City Chiefs, where he set a quarterback record with three rushing touchdowns in a narrow 38-35 loss.
Hurts had 760 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground during the regular season, the second-most rushing TDs by a QB behind only former Carolina Panthers signal-caller Cam Newton (14 in 2011). Hurts is the only quarterback in NFL history to post 10 or more rushing scores in consecutive seasons. In the Super Bowl era, Hurts has recorded the second-most rushing attempts by a quarterback within his first three seasons. Alongside him on that list is Jackson, Newton and Kyler Murray, all of whom have missed significant time with injuries. Jackson has missed 10 games in the past two seasons, Murray is currently recovering from a torn ACL, and Newton has dealt with many injuries.
There is no denying how effective the 25-year-old is as a high-volume runner. And it’s essential in the run-pass option style of offense the Eagles utilize, in which Hurts’ threat as a runner opens space for his running backs and receivers. The question is whether it’s a sustainable approach for a team that hopes to be playing deep in the postseason for the foreseeable future.
“He said it last year: He’s willing to do whatever he has to do to win a football game,” former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Robert Griffin III said. “So we’ve seen him run for 100-plus yards in a game, we’ve seen him throw for 300-plus yards in a game, and he doesn’t care which one takes over, it’s just whatever the game is calling for in the moment. And I think that’s the difficult thing to manage for guys like Jalen Hurts and for Josh Allen because they are so competitive and they’ve been so successful in their careers doing it the way they’ve been doing it, you don’t want to take that away from them.”
HURTS’ INJURY HISTORY is well documented. He missed a pair of games down the stretch last season with a sprained shoulder and played through pain in the playoffs.
The most recent injury came when Hurts’ throwing shoulder was driven into the frozen turf by Chicago Bears defensive lineman Trevis Gipson at Soldier Field in Week 15 of last season following a 3-yard run.
“Stay down, stay down!” left tackle Jordan Mailata told Hurts.
Hurts was quiet for a moment as Mailata readied to signal to the sideline for the trainers — until Hurts finally spoke up.
“Get me the f— up.”
He stayed in, engineering a long drive that resulted in a field goal. He ran three more times during that series and finished with 17 rushes for the game to help Philadelphia pull out a 25-20 win. But he missed the next two games before returning for the regular-season finale against the New York Giants.
He was also hobbled in 2021 because of a left high ankle sprain that required offseason surgery.
Hurts reportedly sustained a broken collarbone while playing at Alabama. He also suffered a right high ankle sprain there in 2018 and had surgery this offseason to remove hardware put in following that ankle injury.
“He’s a competitor, he’s going to try and go get it, and I can’t fault him for that,” receiver A.J. Brown said after the Patriots game. “But as a wide receiver, as a friend, I would like for him to slide a couple more times.
“You’ve gotta let him be him,” Brown added, placing his hands together, “so prayers up.”
Hurts is unsure whether he’ll throw more and run less as his career progresses. For now, he’s “embracing the uniqueness” of his game.
“Being someone knowledgeable and understanding of what’s going on — on the field — being able to make those throws and being able to cause problems on the ground as well, those are the three areas as a quarterback I’m embracing, and that I want to continue to excel at,” Hurts said.
That win over the Bears marked the sixth game in 2022 in which Hurts ran the ball 15-plus times. For perspective, Michael Vick rushed 15 times in a game once in his career — in 2004 with the Atlanta Falcons. Randall Cunningham’s career high was 14 rushes in a game, while Donovan McNabb topped out at 12.
Hurts ranks second among quarterbacks with games of 15-plus rushes (eight) since 1950, behind only Jackson (14).
Griffin, the multithreat Heisman Trophy winner who rushed for 815 yards and seven scores as a rookie to go with 20 touchdown passes to five interceptions, had the trajectory of his career altered dramatically late in his first season. He injured his right knee on Dec. 9, 2012, against the Baltimore Ravens on an open-field hit from Haloti Ngata following a scramble. He returned prematurely for a playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks and tore his ACL and LCL in the same knee.
“The bottom line is I should have been taken out of the game,” Griffin said. “I shouldn’t have even been given the opportunity to play. But that’s the organization’s responsibility to the player because if you ask any player, they’re going to tell you, ‘Oh yeah. I’ve only got one finger of 10 fingers? I can play!’ If you tell a player, ‘Hey you don’t have a kneecap.’ They’re like, ‘F it, put some tape on it, I can play.’ That’s a player’s mentality.
“What I would say for Philly … look at what they did last year when he hurt his shoulder. They held him out of the [next two] games. Could he have played in those games late in the season? Yes, he could have played. But they didn’t play him. In my opinion, they checked the box of, ‘We’re willing to do what’s in Jalen Hurts’ best interest for the long-term future.'”
Hurts doesn’t need to look far to see how one major injury can turn a career on its head. His predecessor, Carson Wentz, looked to be on a superstar track before tearing multiple knee ligaments while diving into the end zone on a scramble against the Los Angeles Rams in December 2017. He never regained his form and is currently out of the league.
DESPITE THE LARGE number of hits he has absorbed, Hurts’ game does not come off as reckless.
“We always take into consideration how much we’re putting him in harm’s way, specifically in the run game,” Johnson said. “There are some things that naturally happen throughout the course of a game or throughout the course of a play where it becomes second reaction football. But Jalen has always had a great feel for avoiding contact and being able to get himself down in certain situations.”
Hurts tends to pick his spots for when to open himself up to contact — like in the closing moments Sunday — and generally does well to avoid the big hit. At 6-foot-1 and 223 pounds, he’s a former powerlifter who can squat 600 pounds. And the large number of QB sneaks the team runs — they converted 29 of 32 attempts last season — inflates some of his rushing numbers.
“As he continues to grow and develop as a player, it’s really important that he just uses everything he has in his toolbox to make sure that he’s playing as well as he can,” Johnson said.
Still, there’s a case to be made that he should be utilized as a runner less frequently, especially now that he has shown dramatic improvement as a passer.
He elevated his completion percentage from 61.3 in 2021 to 66.5 last season while throwing for 3,701 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. Sirianni said he has seen another jump in Hurts’ game since last season in terms of accuracy and decision-making.
The passing game looked rusty against the Patriots — Hurts was 22-of-33 for 170 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions — but the pieces are in place to have one of the best aerial attacks in the league led by receivers Brown and DeVonta Smith, tight end Dallas Goedert and running back D’Andre Swift. The Eagles are in a position where they can pull back some on Hurts’ rushes during the regular season to keep him healthy, with the option of going full-throttle in the postseason.
“There are ways to utilize the strength of Jalen Hurts and try and do it in a way that it minimizes the likelihood of him getting injured,” center Jason Kelce said. “I think the coaches are firmly aware of all these things, but at the same time, you want to be able to take advantage of his dynamic ability because it makes our offense incredibly dynamic and explosive.”