No one expected much of the 2021 Eagles, who welcomed first-time full-timers at head coach and quarterback following the collapse of the Doug Pederson-Carson Wentz era the year prior. So by all accounts, new coach Nick Sirianni and new starter Jalen Hurts exceeded expectations, guiding Philadelphia to a 9-8 finish and wild card appearance. But Sunday’s brutal loss at the hands of Tom Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers was a reminder just how far the Eagles are from returning to true contention. It was also a firm argument that, regardless of Hurts’ promise, Sirianni and Co. must explore QB alternatives in 2022.
Hurts has a lot going for him. The former second-round pick is just 23, the youngest Eagles QB to ever start a playoff game. He’s a smooth runner who’s built like a running back. He’s always unfazed. And he showed genuine improvement as a passer in his first season as a starter — under a new coach and alongside just so-so weapons, for that matter. But just because Hurts flashed in middling circumstances doesn’t mean he’s built for (or earned) the QB1 job in 2022, let alone beyond next season.
The Eagles followed a general pattern in 2021: against similar or lesser teams, they thrived as a run-first attack, with Hurts rightly deployed for his legs as much as his arm. Against actual contenders (or, alternatively, when they just tried too hard to throw the ball), they failed. Hurts’ defenders might pin blame on Sirianni for refusing to lean on the ground game more, and the coach certainly put a big burden on the young QB out of the gate, but that’s ignoring the greater reality: when push came to shove against good teams like the Bucs, Hurts and Sirianni tended to hurt — not help — each other.
And in today’s NFL, you shouldn’t be able to criticize a coach for asking his quarterback to consistently pass the ball. That’s not to say Hurts can’t grow as a decision-maker, or that the duo can’t run it back in 2022 with better help and better results. But the former Alabama and Oklahoma star has long leaned more on scrambling than passing to win, and that remained the case in big spots this year, with Hurts notably struggling to read opposing looks or properly time throws early in games.
The fact the Eagles enter 2022 with literally three first-round draft picks — a rare blessing for any organization — puts more pressure on the guys up top. If Sirianni, general manager Howie Roseman and team owner Jeffrey Lurie believe their assets can help them secure a more talented QB this offseason, they owe it to the team, the fans and themselves to consider their options.
The last time Roseman and Co. gambled with picks to take a big swing on a QB, they landed Carson Wentz. That name may elicit more wincing than smiling these days, both in Philly and Indianapolis, but Wentz’s elite gifts coming out of the draft were a primary reason for the Eagles’ sudden 2017 ascent, which ended with a Lombardi Trophy. There may or may not be a franchise QB in the 2022 draft, and veterans like Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson and, heck, even lower-tier starters like Derek Carr, may or may not be worth the price of potential trades. But the Eagles have the ammunition to explore everything, so they should.
Again, that doesn’t mean the Eagles can’t use all their resources to build around Hurts, hope for more growth and re-evaluate in 2023. But they can’t proceed without at least looking elsewhere.
Why? Because 2021 was never about contending for a title as much as it was evaluating the new coach and QB combo. And at the end of the day, a QB with elite gifts — or at least a top-tier ability to pass — hides warts better than most anything in the NFL. It’s not every day you properly evaluate or acquire, say, a Justin Herbert, but just imagine how differently the Eagles would’ve looked Sunday with the Chargers QB under center. Herbert’s team didn’t even make the playoffs in 2021, but his talent alone offsets so much. It gives you a chance. And that, really, is what matters.