SalPal on the Year of Living Dangerously
The Philadelphia Eagles, 2022
By Sal Paolantonio

This is the most anticipated Eagles season in a generation.

It has the buzz of 1999, when Andy Reid arrived as head coach and Donovan McNabb was drafted to be the franchise quarterback.

It has the sizzle of 2016, when Doug Pederson arrived and Carson Wentz was drafted to reverse years of dysfunction and disappointment.

It has the tension of 2004, when Terrell Owens attracted 30,000 fans a day to training camp in Lehigh – T.O. was a big star, but who knew how he would fit in with McNabb. And we all know how that turned out.

This year has it all. It’s the year of living dangerously with Jalen Hurts at quarterback. And the team, the franchise and the fan base have all stepped out to the edge, looking at a canyon of great expectations, a literal cliffhanger, creating one of the most unknowable moments in 3 decades of football around here.

SalPal is on air for his 30th year with the Philadelphia Eagles

And I should know. This is my 30th year covering the Eagles, first with The Philadelphia Inquirer, now for ESPN, Ch. 6, local sports talk radio, and this magazine.

In that time, there has been emotional and financial investment in Randall Cunningham, Michael Vick, McNabb and Wentz. Three of them – McNabb, Vick and Wentz – were signed to $100 million contracts, making the Eagles the only team in NFL history to give that kind of money to 3 different quarterbacks. But, as the Eagles painfully found out, money alone can’t buy you a Lombardi Trophy.

It takes a bit of magic. Nick Foles proved that.

Last year, Hurts provided some, but not enough. In his first full year as a starting quarterback, the second-round pick out of Oklahoma led the Eagles to a playoff berth. But – and there is always a but – the Eagles played an inferior schedule down the stretch in 2021 and then got unceremoniously bounced out the post-season by Tom Brady in Tampa – Hurts playing poorly in the 31-15 defeat in January.

After beating the future first-ballot Hall of Famer in Super Bowl LII in February 2018, the Eagles’ embarrassing loss to Brady stung the team and the town, leading to a full-blown debate:

Sal Paolantonio’s headshot for The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1993

Is Hurts good enough to take the team to a championship?

“I think they have assembled a pretty good football team but the great unknown is the quarterback,” says former Eagles great, Ron Jaworski. “If they can get consistent play out of the quarterback, I believe they can compete for a Super Bowl.”

Great expectation plus a great unknown equals edge-of-your seat anticipation.

On the first day of training camp, Jalen Hurts walked out to the Eagles practice field in South Philadelphia with the quiet confidence of a CEO. Fans chanted his name. The head coach wore a t-shirt with a life-size photo of Hurts on his chest. I asked Nick Sirianni, “Does the team feel like it must constantly support or defend Hurts from outside criticism? His one word answer: “No.”

Well, it sure looks that way. And you know what? That’s ok. In this town, other quarterbacks – Cunningham, McNabb, Wentz – struggled to find that kind of unconditional support. The results were not good.

For the first time since he was 16 years old, this son of a coach is with the same set of offensive coaches and offensive system 2 years in a row. But he knows the level of pressure on him: That morning, the Philadelphia Inquirer sports section will have an enormous headline: “A Lot to Prove.”

Hurts did not care. “We are all hungry to do better,” he said. “All of us.”

Sirianni, also the son of a coach, seems to be the perfect fit for Hurts – the right blend of rah-rah, football acumen and willingness to adapt. “When we told Nick we didn’t want the mandatory mini-camps in June and he changed the schedule,” says one veteran who was on the Super Bowl team, “he listens. You can see Jalen digs that.”

As a person and a football player, Hurts has all the right moves. He is earnest and hard-working. He’s a gentleman and a good teammate.

“He’s a natural leader,” says veteran center Jason Kelce.

SalPal interviews Eagles Coach Nick Sirianni for ESPN

“A good friend,” says A.J. Brown, the wide receiver the Eagles acquired in the off-season from Tennessee.

Jaworski says: “He takes responsibility for his mistakes. He doesn’t point fingers.”

I’ve had several private moments with Jalen Hurts, actually more in just 2 years of knowing him than I had with Wentz, Foles, McNabb or Vick.

Hurts is honest and forthright. He’s passionate, yet quiet. He intuitively understands the requirements of being the leader of the whole football team, the whole organization. Post-Wentz, that’s critical.

Case in point: When the Eagles participated in Gun Violence Awareness Day in June, I was there to provide ESPN’s support, and I had a chance to interview Hurts one-on-one. His face was full of pain as he pleaded into the camera to stop gun violence.

“We must protect these children and babies who are not coming home to their families,” he said. He spoke deliberately in a soft, low tone so that every word and emotion had the right impact. I was very impressed. It became obvious to me right there why the Eagles were willing to put their faith in him as a man, as a leader, despite the fact that some of his abilities as a quarterback have yet to fully flower.

On the football field, Hurts has proven, so far, to be just as tough minded. He uses his natural running ability to escape any problem an opposing defense creates, no matter what the danger. In 2021, Hurts led all quarterbacks in rushing yards (784) and rushing touchdowns (10). The Eagles led the NFL in running the football – remarkable considering they don’t have a star running back.

But the NFL is a passing league. The new rules are set up to generate points out of the passing game. And on defense it has become a blitzing game, defenses sending extra bodies at the quarterback more and more, and more effectively. That should create opportunities for the quarterback to connect with his receivers – if he can connect. In other words, the quarterback must learn to pass his team out of trouble.

Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells defined a good NFL quarterback in the simplest terms possible: “He has to be able to get the team into the end zone.”

If an NFL team scores more than 400 points in a season, it usually makes the playoffs. Last year, the Eagles scored 444 points, 6th most in the NFC. But the Cowboys scored 500 points, winning the division. To supplant Dallas, the Eagles’ passing game must improve.

“That’s our number-one priority as a football team this year,” Sirianni says.

It started in the off-season. First, after unsuccessfully exploring the trade market for a possible replacement for Hurts, the Eagles settled on him as the starter. But the team also stockpiled enough draft picks in 2023 to make sure they can select a quarterback or trade for a veteran – if Hurts falters this year.

To be blunt, that’s called hedging your bet. Translation: It’s a prove-it year for Hurts. Everybody in town knows that, Hurts included.

“This season will determine the future of this franchise and Jalen Hurts,” says Derrick Gunn, the host of Sports Take on Jakib Sports Media who has been covering the team for 25 years. “So absolutely, this is a prove-it year – and it all revolves around the quarterback.”

To make sure Hurts fully understood he had the team’s support, General Manager Howie Roseman swung the deal to get Brown, Hurts’ close friend.

And Hurts traveled to California in the spring to work with quarterback coaches on his lower body mechanics, so he can deliver the ball accurately and with more zip.

Greg Cosell, the quarterback guru at NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, has spent the off-season dissecting Hurts, trying to figure out what he can do better in 2022.

Hurts, Cosell wrote in a scouting report, “showed a tendency at times to not plant his back foot on his drop, leaving his feet unsettled and his balance and base uneven to deliver the football. Result at times was poor ball placement.”

The bigger issue, Cosell noted, was that Hurts abandoned the passing plays too early in the down, meaning he was too willing to leave the pocket after “perceiving pressure,” instead of maneuvering around the pocket and finding the open receiver.

This was especially true on third down, when it’s critical that a quarterback be able to throw his team out of trouble and advance the football.

Last season, Hurts completed just 54 percent of his passes on third down. That ranked 26th among 32 full-time starting quarterbacks. Overall, he was too slow to process information in the pocket, taking 3.1 seconds from snap to release to  deliver the football – that was worst in pro football last year.

This is the big problem. If it doesn’t improve, the Eagles won’t get better and Hurts will not become this team’s franchise quarterback.

Hurts showed incremental improvement last year, but the team shifted to a run-based offense to hide his deficiencies. And in the playoff loss in Tampa, that was exposed.

“That game gave me pause,” says Jaworski. It gave pause to a lot of people who want to believe in Hurts – and the promise of the 2022 season.

But that game was his first taste of the playoffs. He was playing on a bad ankle that required immediate off-season surgery. The Bucs head coach, Todd Bowles, is one of the top tactical minds in the game – in 2020 he helped Tom Brady win a Super Bowl in Tampa as defensive coordinator. And on the other sideline at quarterback was Brady, the future Hall of Famer.

Nevertheless, if you study Hurts’ performance in that loss, he had many missed opportunities. On the sideline, you could see the frustration of the Eagles coaches and players. They thought they had a shot to win. The blowout loss stung.

As the 4th quarter of that game slid to a bitter close, I left the press box of Raymond James Stadium and made my way down to the field-level hallway before security closed off access. I wanted to see the faces of the Eagles players as they walked into the visitor’s locker room.

Lane Johnson, Miles Sanders, Dallas Goedert and Hurts – all of them looked straight ahead with a quiet anger.

A few minutes later, Hurts – with his ankle in a walking boot – sat at a press conference table and announced: “Nobody enjoys this feeling. My third year starts tomorrow.”

So far, Hurts has made good on that proclamation. And so has the coaching staff and front office. There will be an intense level of focus on Hurts, but there are other areas on this Eagles team that must also live up to the bargain.

Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon must find more creative ways to get to the opposing quarterbacks. And the newly acquired veterans – Brown and cornerback James Bradberry – must stay healthy and productive.

And the head coach, in his second year, must find a way to support Hurts, without shielding him. No doubt, at the first signs of Hurts struggling, there will be calls in this town for the charismatic back-up quarterback Gardner Minshew to step in.

Remember: Hurts got benched at Alabama and had to finish his career in Oklahoma. The “here-we-go-again” chorus on sports talk radio will be inevitable – and deafening – if the team gets off to a poor start.

How this will all go, we just don’t know. “And we won’t know until they play the Lions in Detroit Week 1,” says Jaws.

After a practice this summer, I talked to Hurts one-on-one. I asked him what he did differently in the off-season. His core looks slimmer with more muscle in the arms and shoulders. “Working hard and eating better. Got to. It’s show time, baby,” he says. “It’s show time.”

 


30 years of Eagles reporting & commentary

SalPal, Marianne Aleardi and Doug Pederson at SJ Mag’s “Leadership” event

With the start of this year’s NFL season, SalPal will celebrate 30 years covering the Philadelphia Eagles. His career in journalism actually began as a political reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1985. But in 1993, his beat switched to the Eagles and the rest, as they say, is history – in a “wow, what an incredibly impressive career” kind of way.

He joined ESPN in 1995 and has covered 27 Super Bowls, including the Eagles’ championship in 2018. He is currently a national correspondent, covering the NFL for 4 ESPN television programs and ESPN Radio. He also hosts the long-running X’s and O’s weekly TV show, “NFL Matchup.”

SalPal catches Doug Pederson coming off the field after the Super Bowl win

The first time Sal turned up in SJ Magazine, it was 2005 and he was the one being interviewed for his newly released book “The Paolantonio Report.” Eight years later, he started writing for the magazine, taking readers behind the scenes with Eagles coaches and players. The week leading up to Super Bowl LII, he sent us daily video updates for a series on sjmagazine.net. And after the Super Bowl win, he joined us to add his perspective to the in-person “Leadership” event we hosted with Doug Pederson.

To put it lightly, SalPal has been a much-loved, fan favorite for Eagles fans and SJ Mag readers for decades. He’s our South Jersey neighbor who loves his job – in the best and worst of times. We thank him for that. And can’t wait to see what the upcoming season will bring. We certainly know who we can count on for insightful Eagles commentary (and the incredible inside scoop).

 


Sal Paolantonio is a senior national correspondent for ESPN. This is his 30th season covering the Philadelphia Eagles.

September 2022
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