Sports

The Many Legends of Jalen Hurts

The Eagles’ new starting quarterback might be a sports movie hero.

Jalen Hurts passing as two Eagles' linemen block Green Bay Packers pass rushers
Jalen Hurts during the fourth quarter of the Eagles’ game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Imagine this basic plot of a satisfactory sports movie: Rookie quarterback is told he’ll never be as successful in the pros as he was in college—not just because he’s a rookie, but because he’s not a quarterback in the first place.

Does our hero give up on his dream of being an NFL quarterback? No, because this is a sports movie. He works hard, smiles a lot, makes it onto the field a handful of times per game, and gains fans in the City of Brotherly Love. And then, with his team down 20-3 and on the verge of its fourth loss in a row, he gets his shot.

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The rookie’s skeptics are beside themselves as he throws a scrambling touchdown on his second drive, outplaying the guy ahead of him on the depth chart. The team never looks back, en route to the Super Bowl.

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“It was the spark that I was hoping for,” says his head coach.

That is the story of Jalen Hurts’ NFL career to this point, minus that Super Bowl part. For one thing, his Eagles are an NFC East team, and therefore pretty bad at football. For another, his NFL ascent includes all of eight completed passes. But stay with us here.

Hurts’ head coach, Doug Pederson, faces a long-boiling quarterback controversy, as five-year starter Carson Wentz has fallen from 2017 NFL MVP candidate to 2020’s league leader in interceptions thrown and times sacked. All backup quarterbacks represent hope, but there’s some simple logic in Hurts’ favor: If neither QB is a great thrower, at least Hurts is a great runner. And behold:

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Diving in against FPI’s sixth-ranked defense isn’t ideal, but it’s settled for this week. Still, this months-old drama could linger during all of next season as well. Wentz’s contract could keep him in Philly for years.

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Luckily, drama is nothing new to Hurts. His college career was defined by high stakes proving grounds, requiring him to prove his own merits against better-known, better-regarded starters.

On a Saturday night in December 2015, four-star recruit Hurts showed up early at Alabama. For most freshman athletes, enrolling early means a chance to get ahead on classes and in the weight room. For Hurts, it became his first of many that-only-happens-in-the-movies moments.

Within 36 hours of dropping his bags in his new dorm, Hurts was under center on the practice field, helping the Crimson Tide prepare for the National Championship against Clemson by mimicking Tigers superstar Deshaun Watson. That was no gimmick. To prepare for Watson, a Heisman finalist, the Tide needed Hurts’ dual-threat skills. Watson was not only one of the country’s best passers; he’d also rushed for 1,032 yards that year. The five mostly lumbering quarterbacks on Bama’s actual roster would’ve prepared nobody for Watson.

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Thanks in part to one interception by a rolling-out Watson—during his otherwise horrifying eruption for 478 yards—Bama won the national title.

“Jalen did a really, really good job,” coach Nick Saban said of his pre-freshman. “He’s very athletic, and I think that was a real plus for our team to have him there for a few days to be able to have that kind of quickness for us to try to react to.”

So that little undercover mission had been Hurts’ Rogue One. His debut season the following year as Bama’s starter became A New Hope, as the freshman avoided passing mistakes and ran for three times as many yards as any of Saban’s Bama QBs ever had. But that season ended with Deshaun Watson Strikes Back. In the Alabama-Clemson rematch, Hurts ran for a 30-yard score that would’ve made him the first freshman QB to win a title since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985, but Watson led a buzzer-beating drive. Some adversity for our protagonist.

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(That season also included the comic-relief subplot of Bama’s offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin being semi-fired between the semifinal win over Washington and the title game against Clemson. Saban felt his OC’s attentions were divided between the Tide and Kiffin’s upcoming job as FAU’s head coach. So Hurts’ first year included both a “Modernizing Alabama Football with Kiffin” episode and a “Might’ve Won the Title with Kiffin” episode. OK, maybe this is more of a TV series than a movie.)

In 2016, sophomore Hurts established himself not as a Watson-style game-breaker, but as a steady game-manager, throwing only one interception all year. He kept the chains moving, always more willing to run for four yards than to force a throw, as Bama’s defense performed its typical suffocations.

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But to beat top 10 teams, even the Tide need more than competence. Hurts produced little in a loss to Auburn, a gruesome semifinal win over Clemson, and a scoreless first half in the Championship against Georgia.

And as always, all backup quarterbacks represent hope.

At halftime, Saban benched his starter for five-star freshman Tua Tagovailoa. The Dawgs, who’d been content to bottle up the cautious Hurts, were shocked. A reckless Tagovailoa lunged at their throats and threw for three touchdowns, bombing the game-winner in overtime. This could’ve been the instant end of Hurts’ story.

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But things got downright Hallmark. The photo of the season wasn’t DeVonta Smith celebrating the winning reception, but Hurts and his replacement embracing.

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“He’s destined for stuff like this,” a beaming Hurts said two hours after losing his longtime starting gig.

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Surely THAT was the end of the movie, and it’d turned out to be one of those vaguely religious ones that are more about team-first humility than about trophies. Well, no. It sort of was. But no.

One year later, the Tide found themselves in another refracted sequel, again trailing Georgia in the postseason. Full-time starter Tagovailoa had produced one of the greatest seasons ever, breaking Baker Mayfield’s FBS mark for season passer rating, but was struggling with a high ankle sprain.

And once again, the backup quarterback meant hope.

Hurts hadn’t transferred out after losing his job, instead serving a year as Tua’s backup and closer. This time, as he took over for his former understudy, it felt like the entire college football Twitter fandom was both suddenly rooting for Alabama and aware of the inherent oddity in doing so. Do you know how hard it is to get neutrals to root for the Football Galactus? And it wasn’t just that Hurts had been a team-first good dude now getting a shot at redemption. It was that so many viewers, including Tua-traumatized Georgia fans, knew exactly what was about to happen.

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That full circle is the most Hollywood thing I’ve ever witnessed in sports.

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“When he went into the game,” Bama linebacker Mack Wilson said afterward, “I was telling [teammate] Dylan Moses, `Man, it’s like déjà vu.’ I was like, `Watch him go in and bring us back and win the game.’ I knew he was going to do that, and I’m pretty sure everybody else did, too.”

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“I know at Alabama, there’s always an opportunity to win,” Hurts said this time. “I’m so happy, so happy for everybody.”

Oh, and then there’s a montage about Hurts’ last year in college, in which he announces he’s transferring to Oklahoma, gets a hero’s send-off from Tuscaloosa, finishes second to Joe Burrow in Heisman voting, and heads for the pros.

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As an NFL prospect, the book on Hurts remained what it’d been during his college career: Shaky passer, but versatile athlete and poised leader. NFL.com’s official analysis began with a grim omen: “Like Tim Tebow.” Fortunately, there was more to that sentence: “Hurts is a winning dual-threat quarterback known for his strength, toughness and character.”

In 2020, the Eagles using a second-round pick on him produced every possible reaction. Great value for such an experienced talent? Bad value for a low-ceiling passer? A situational type who can expand the playbook? Unfairly tagged with assumptions based on his race? Insurance in case of Wentz’s continued descent? Added pressure that might hasten Wentz’s descent?

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Sure, maybe all of those. And considering Hurts’ first start will come in a duel against fellow unorthodox QB Taysom Hill, we might not be any closer to knowing Hurts’ future as a pro.

So that moment when he threw a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers?

That might’ve been the high point of Hurts’ career, with the credits finally rolling soon.

Then again, we’ve said that pretty much annually for about a half-decade now.

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