PHILADELPHIA − The Eagles’ plan was working great until Jalen Hurts got hurt.
Then the questions about Hurts possibly running too much came almost as soon as Bears defensive lineman Trevis Gipson tackled Hurts, with Hurts’ right shoulder landing on the frozen Soldier Field ground.
Hurts was diagnosed with a sprained shoulder, and won’t play Saturday against the Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles won’t have their MVP candidate at the helm when they can clinch the NFC East and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, with the first-round bye that comes with it.
But it’s not as simple as telling Hurts to run less. If he did, he wouldn’t be an MVP candidate. And he also wouldn’t be as effective as a passer.
‘For us to be the explosive offense that we want to be − Jalen is a very good passer, and he’s shown that he’s become a better passer by each game that he plays,’ Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. ‘(But) he’s in that MVP race because of his dual-threat ability, with his ability to not only do what he’s been doing passing the ball, but also what he’s been doing running the football.’
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And there’s another aspect to this as well. Hurts’ running not only opens up his passing, but it also opens up running lanes for Miles Sanders, who has 1,110 yards rushing.
Hurts makes all of it possible. That’s because teams have to devote a defender to Hurts on read-options. That’s one less defender stacking the line of scrimmage to stop Sanders. And it keeps the safety closer to the line of scrimmage, and thus slower in providing help on the Eagles’ wide receivers in A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith.
Brown has 1,201 yards receiving, just 209 yards shy of the Eagles’ single-season receiving record. And Smith has 901 yards, just 99 yards away from giving the Eagles’ two 1,000-yard receivers for the first time in team history.
‘We are who we are as an offense, explosively, scoring-wise, all those different things, because Jalen can do so many things, both running the football and passing the football,’ Sirianni said.
Added Brown: ‘I can’t change the way he plays, but as a receiver you don’t want to see your quarterback get hit … I can’t say he needs to do this, he needs to do that. It has worked this long. It was kind of like a freak accident.’
A closer look at how Hurts runs shows that he’s not often at risk, even though Hurts ran the ball 17 times for 61 yards against the Bears, and even though he has 156 carries this season, just 21 shy of the NFL record set by Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson in 2019.
Hurts will likely break the record if he plays in the last two games. But that seems unlikely now.
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Against the Bears, Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen said there were ‘six or seven maybe designed quarterback runs. He had four quarterback sneaks.’ The other six or seven carries were scrambles on passing plays.
That seems about average for Hurts this season. A look at other games shows that the Eagles typically call about five designed runs for Hurts per game. There are usually about four scrambles per game and about three QB sneaks.
The sneaks are basically Hurts running behind the offensive line, so that’s minimal hard contact. The scrambles usually result with Hurts sliding or running out of bounds, so that’s also minimal contact.
Some of the designed runs are minimal contact as well. For example, there was absolutely no contact on Hurts’ 22-yard TD run late in the first half against the Bears.
Sure, Hurts took some hard shots against the Bears, and he has in other games as well. Even Hurts acknowledged that.
‘It’s not the first time that I’ve had things that I’ve had to overcome,’ Hurts said. ‘Being in these type of situations (with the shoulder injury), it just happens to be public. There have been a number of times we all have to persevere through and have a lot of courage through.’
No one was complaining when Hurts ran for 157 yards on 17 carries against Green Bay on Nov. 27, or the week before that when Hurts had 16 carries for 86 yards against Indianapolis. The Eagles won that game 17-16, rallying from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
On the game-winning drive with 1:20 left, Hurts converted a 4th-and-2 at the Colts’ 9, then scored on a quarterback draw. Again, no complaints about Hurts being in harm’s way.
‘We’re always going to think about his safety first,’ Sirianni said. ‘I know you guys are probably like, ‘Well, he got hurt.’ Well, he also ran for (157) yards against Green Bay. I get it. Sometimes it’s a result-based thing. ‘Well, he didn’t get hurt in that (game); he’s our MVP.’
”Oh, he did get hurt; what are you guys doing?’ I get that that’s going to be part of the scrutiny.’
It goes beyond that. Look around the NFL. For every quarterback who got hurt running the ball, there are many others who got hurt in the pocket. Hurts’ sprained ankle last year resulted when he was hit in the pocket.
The Eagles trust in Hurts because he’s good at sliding, running out of bounds, and avoiding unnecessary hits.
‘I think some of those (mobile quarterbacks) have a natural feel of when to get down, when to slide, and (Hurts) has been doing a good job of that,’ Steichen said. ‘The one he got his shoulder on, the guy just landed on him. The weight just fell down on him. That was kind of just a freak thing.’
And if Hurts wasn’t good at avoiding contact? ‘Obviously if you’re around a guy that (runs) it a ton, that doesn’t have a natural feel, then you really want to study some guys that have a good feel for it.’
If they don’t get the feel, then don’t run them.
But when those QBs do have a feel, and they get hurt anyway, sometimes that’s just football. That’s why the Eagles have a backup like Gardner Minshew just in case.
Dallas in Dallas
Of course, the Eagles can beat the Cowboys without Hurts. They’ll just have to do it differently behind Minshew.
Minshew isn’t going to run it 17 times, or throw 50-yard strikes down the field. But he’ll hit his checkdowns. And the return of tight end Dallas Goedert, especially on intermediate routes that Minshew excels at, will help tremendously. Brown excels at getting yards after the catch, especially on a slant.
And the Eagles do have Sanders. It should be noted that the Cowboys gave up 192 rushing yards to Jacksonville last week, and allowed more than 200 yards rushing in two other games. Sure, the Cowboys have linebacker/edge rusher Micah Parsons, but he can’t be everywhere.
‘Definitely roles will probably be a little bit bigger, but we’ll see,’ Sanders said. ‘We’ll just take what the defense gives us and play each play one at a time.
But this game will be won on turnovers. The Cowboys have the most takeaways (26) and the Eagles are second (25). The Eagles are first in turnover differential (plus-12) and the Cowboys are second (plus-9).
It just so happens that Cowboys QB Dak Prescott has thrown 7 interceptions in his last 4 games. And the Eagles will get pressure on him as they lead the NFL with 55 sacks. But Prescott has dealt with pressure before, and he, too, has top running backs in Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott, not to mention talented receivers to rely on.
The Cowboys are second with 49 sacks, so they’ll get pressure on Minshew, too. And they might force Minshew into one mistake too many.
Prediction: Cowboys 26, Eagles 24
Contact Martin Frank at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.