How much is too much with Jalen Hurts?
Through five games, the Eagles quarterback has run the ball 68 times.
That’s far and away the most by any quarterback in the league, including the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, who is a distant second with 49 carries.
Hurts has had 15 or more carries in three games – 17 against Detroit in Week 1, 16 against Jacksonville in Week 4 and 15 against Arizona on Sunday.
He’s on pace for a whopping 231 carries this season, which would shatter the single-season record for a quarterback of 176 by Jackson in 2019. To put that number in perspective, last year, just seven running backs in the league had more than 231 carries.
The days of the classic stay-in-the-pocket-and-don’t-run quarterback are pretty much a thing of the past.
NFL general managers and coaches want – need – quarterbacks who can run.
“The game has changed,’’ said Rich Gannon, who did his fair share of running during his 18 seasons as an NFL quarterback. “It’s evolved in the fact that it’s wide open, it’s spread out.
“You’ve got all of these amazing pass rushers who can run like the wind. GMs and coaches are looking for [quarterbacks] with some mobility. Players capable of creating and manufacturing some offense on their own. Guys that can escape pressure. Guys that can extend plays. Guys that can pick up two or three first downs a game with their legs.’’
Hurts’ running has been a big part of the Eagles’ early-season success. He had eight rushing first downs and both of the Eagles’ touchdowns in last week’s 20-17 win over the Cardinals.
He's third in the league in rushing first downs with 22, just four behind Raiders running back Josh Jacobs and five behind Browns running back Nick Chubb (27). His six rushing touchdowns are second to Chubb’s league-best seven.
But how much is too much, even if it is confounding opposing defenses? Hurts does a good job of avoiding hits by sliding and getting out of bounds. But he still takes an occasional big lick, like the helmet-to-helmet hit from Jacksonville’s Devin Lloyd on Hurts’ three-yard touchdown run in Week 4.
Can he keep playing like this? Do the Eagles even want him to keep playing like this?
Gannon believes the main reason the Ravens are reluctant to give Jackson a completely guaranteed contract is because they wonder how much longer he can play this style of football.
Many other mobile quarterbacks have toned down their running as their careers have progressed and they’ve learned to function as a pocket passer.
Russell Wilson had 90 or more rushing attempts in five of his first six seasons in the league. Rushed for 849 yards in his third year with Seattle. The last four years, he’s averaged just 67 carries per season.
The Cardinals’ Kyler Murray had 133 carries in his second season in 2020. Last year, he had just 88. Aaron Rodgers averaged 58 rushing attempts in his first five years. In his last five: just 36.8.
With the addition of wide receiver A.J. Brown and the fact that he’s in the same offensive system with the same offensive coaches for the second year in a row for the first time since high school, Hurts’ passing numbers, with the exception of touchdowns (just 4 in 5 games), have taken a huge jump this season.
His completion percentage has increased from 61.3 in his first full season as a starter last year to 67.9 this year. He’s second in the league in yards per attempt (8.5) after averaging 7.3 last year.
But he’s been prolific as a runner, and if you took that away from his game, the Eagles wouldn’t be the league’s only unbeaten team right now.
Last year, he finished seventh in rushing first downs with 56, which was 34.3% of the Eagles’ total rushing first downs. This year, he already has 22 of their 52 rushing first downs (42.3%), which puts him on pace for 75.
He has a fullback body and can deadlift 620 pounds and has become almost automatic in and-one situations. Particularly with tight end Dallas Goedert lining up directly behind him and pushing him from behind.
Four of his eight rushing first downs against the Cardinals were quarterback sneaks. He’s already converted 11 of 13 and-1s this season on third and fourth down.
“We’re going to do what we need to do to win the football game,’’ Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “One of the things that makes Jalen a really good quarterback is the ability that he has to throw the ball, read the defenses and have the ability to move around and make plays.’’
While he’s running a lot, he’s also been doing a better job of keeping his eyes downfield when he is flushed out of the pocket, and has been more accurate on those throws outside the pocket.
Last season, he was pretty much incapable of throwing when he ran to his left. It was hard to watch.
Against the Cardinals, he was flushed left on one play, stopped as he was being pursued, flipped his hips and threw a 22-yard strike to open wide receiver DeVonta Smith in the middle of the field. He couldn’t do that last year.
“I think his [running attempts] eventually will go down,’’ Gannon said. “I think each year he plays and gets more comfortable and more efficient and more productive from the pocket, I think those numbers will go down.
“What happens is, you might have four progressions. You might have corner to crosser to flat to checkdown. Some of these guys only get to the corner and crosser. They ain’t getting to the flat or the checkdown. That’s just not happening. Their eyes and their patience won’t get them there. So they take off at the slightest sign of trouble.
“I think as Jalen gets better in the system, gets more reps, he’s going to be able to play faster from the pocket. And when you’re able to play faster from the pocket, you don’t have to rely on your legs as much. And that’s the whole point of the evolution at that position.’’
Hurts’ carry number is a little bit skewed. Take away the 13 and-1 plays and the seven victory-formation kneel downs at the end of games and you’re talking about 48 actual runs. And he’s avoided hits with slides and running out of bounds on about 30 of those.
Still, it only takes one hit.
“He’s smart with how he takes hits,’’ Sirianni said. “He’s not going to be able to protect himself completely every single play. But he knows how not to take a hit.
“We trust him. Again, you’re not going to be completely perfect with that. He’s going to be like all our other guys at this point of the year where you’re five games into it and right now, your body is not going to feel like it did at the beginning of training camp.
“But are we always trying to be smart with him? Of course. We don’t want to put him in danger. There’s a difference between running him recklessly and really going through every play of when he is a running threat and saying, ‘Are we putting him in harm’s way?’ Which is what we do in each and every case.” *