USA TODAY Sports Weekly

Leading OFF

Eagles knew Hurts would be great, even with Wentz on team

- Martin Frank

PHILADELPH­IA − Dallas Goedert couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

It was training camp in the summer of 2020, and it was a little more than a year after the Eagles committed to Carson Wentz as the franchise quarterbac­k, with a then-record $108 million guaranteed over four years.

But Goedert couldn’t stop noticing rookie Jalen Hurts in the training camp practices.

Remember, this was the first time Goedert or any of the Eagles had seen Hurts in person. The outbreak of COVID-19 had shut down every NFL team’s facility during the spring organized team activities, so everything was done remotely until training camp.

A few months earlier, the Eagles had drafted him in the second round, a stunning move considerin­g that many figured Hurts would either spend at least his first few years as a backup to Wentz or get flipped to another team.

Think Jordan Love, a firstround pick the same year Hurts was drafted, sitting behind Aaron Rodgers for three full seasons in Green Bay.

But Goedert saw something right away.

“He started making plays against the defense,” Goedert said. “He would take off and scramble and just leave everybody in the dust. And I remember everybody was like, ‘Well, he won’t be able to do that in the games.’

“And well, he does do that in the games. So it was early on that you could tell that he was a special player. I think (management) saw it, I think everybody kind of saw it. It was pretty cool, and pretty fun to see all the strides he had made.”

Hurts didn’t get a chance to “do that in the games” until the third quarter against Green Bay on Dec. 6, 2020. Until then, Hurts came on the field for gadget plays, coming on for a play as Wentz lined up out wide, then coming right off the field.

Hurts had attempted just three passes in the first 11 games. But Wentz was having an awful season, as were the Eagles, when former coach Doug Pederson made the switch with the Eagles trailing 20-3.

It would be a fairy tale to say Hurts lit up the scoreboard and brought the Eagles back to a scintillat­ing victory at storied Lambeau Field.

That didn’t happen. Hurts was 5-for-12 passing for 109 yards, and the Eagles lost 30-16.

But Hurts’ first pass came on his first series, the Eagles facing a 3rd-and-4 from the Eagles 31. He found Jalen Reagor, of all people, for 34 yards down to the Packers 35. One drive later, Hurts threw his first touchdown pass, a 32-yarder to Greg Ward, who has spent most of his career on the Eagles practice squad.

“You go back and look, and I think he’s been throwing the ball really well since he came into this league,” Goedert said. “Obviously, he’s gotten better, and that’s to be expected with a player like him.”

The next week, Hurts became the first Eagles quarterbac­k since Michael Vick in 2010 to throw for at least 100 yards and run for at least 100 yards, when he led a 24-21 win over a Saints team that had won nine straight games.

Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox noticed something else about Hurts that year. It wasn’t as much his throwing or running as much as his leadership.

“I’ve been in that position when I was a rookie, and you kind of don’t know what to say to guys,” said Cox, who’s in his 11th season. “You have to learn your teammates. But when you’re the starting quarterbac­k, you have to learn really quick, and I think that’s one thing he did.

“When he speaks to us (now), even as one of the older guys in the room, listening to a guy in his third year ... the way he speaks and the way he approaches his teammates, and you’re like, ‘Man, this guy really wants it.’

“He wants what’s best for the team and not what’s best for Jalen.”

Still, there were questions. Hurts barely completed 50% of his passes over those 4 1⁄2 games. Even after the Eagles fired Pederson and hired Nick Sirianni, then traded Wentz in the spring of 2021, Sirianni had Hurts compete with veteran Joe Flacco for the starting job in camp.

The competitio­n didn’t last long, of course.

Then even after last season, there were rumors that the Eagles were looking into trading for Russell Wilson and/or Deshaun Watson.

“Obviously, there was still speculatio­n of (Hurts) getting traded and us trying to get somebody else,” Goedert said. “But I think that was more speculatio­n from the outside. I think everybody in the building was happy and comfortabl­e with where we were with Jalen.”

Through it all, Hurts kept improving and the Eagles kept getting better players around him. He went from a 51% completion rate in 2020 to 61% in 2021 as the Eagles drafted wide receiver DeVonta Smith in the first round. Hurts led the Eagles to a 7-3 finish and a first-round playoff loss.

Then Hurts improved to a 66.5% completion rate, went 14-1 during the regular season, and became an MVP finalist. This after the Eagles traded for wide receiver A.J. Brown, Hurts’ best friend since college.

The two had worked out together a week before the draft night trade, just like they had for the previous few years. And Brown remembers one day in particular.

“We all got together in the morning, and it was pouring down rain, and we were running a hill, and that let the team know how serious about this we were,” Brown said. “We’re working no matter the circumstan­ces. We’re going to get it done.

“Most guys today in the NFL would not show up to a workout like that, or (they would) go home.”

Hurts is well known for arriving to the practice facility earlier than anyone else. As Sirianni put it recently: “He’s always here.”

Here, now, is Phoenix, for the Super Bowl, where he will play the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 12. There are no more questions about Hurts’ future as the Eagles quarterbac­k. The only question is how much is he going to make on his next contract, which could start in the $45 million-$50 million a year range.

“When we drafted him, it was the upside we were banking on,” Eagles chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie said. “We thought he had a huge upside. It takes a couple years. And somebody so dedicated as Jalen and such a great teammate, inevitably he is going to maximize everything he has, and that’s what he’s done.”

 ?? MICHAEL CHOW/USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Jalen Hurts deplanes after arriving at Goldwater Air National Guard Base in Phoenix. The Eagles went 14-1 in his starts at quarterbac­k in 2022.
MICHAEL CHOW/USA TODAY SPORTS Jalen Hurts deplanes after arriving at Goldwater Air National Guard Base in Phoenix. The Eagles went 14-1 in his starts at quarterbac­k in 2022.
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