Jalen Hurts might be the anti-Kyler Murray. Is that enough for the Eagles to succeed?
PHILADELPHIA — Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts didn’t overlap at the University of Oklahoma, the two poles of the NFL’s latest, hottest quarterback debate never touching, the two young men barely talking to each other. Murray transferred to OU from Texas A&M, spent a year backing up Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, then won the award himself with the Sooners in 2018. Hurts transferred there from Alabama in time for the 2019 season, finished second in the Heisman voting, and never had more than a few passing conversations with Murray, who was leaving college behind and getting ready for the NFL draft.
“I didn’t really get to spend a lot of time with him,” Murray told reporters in 2020, “just because that was a quick time period for me, getting drafted as well as trying to make him as comfortable as possible in his transition from Alabama to OU.”
The Arizona Cardinals made Murray the No. 1 pick in that draft, and better that he was training for that moment than passing the time in the same manner that he has over the subsequent two-plus years. He and the Cardinals have been the league’s laughingstock since Monday, with the revelation that Murray’s contract extension, worth as much as $230.5 million, includes a clause directing him to spend at least four hours a week studying film and other material so he will be adequately prepared for each game. Four hours a week? There are quarterbacks for whom four hours a day is a light brush-up.
Murray’s fondness for video games and TV apparently was too much for the Cardinals to trust him fully, but not enough to stop them from handing him nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. What a strange and silly situation. If you believe in Murray, why put that clause in the document? If you feel the need to put that clause in the document, if he is that negligent when it comes to the baseline amount of work for any successful starting quarterback, why do you believe in him so much? Such is the measure of Murray’s talent — and the Cardinals’ ineptitude — that they would still take so great a chance on him. And such is the weight that NFL coaches and evaluators place on physical skills when judging a quarterback, even if his willingness to work and his ability to inspire others are beyond reproach.
For an ideal example of the anti-Murray, one needed only to stop by the NovaCare Complex on Wednesday for the opening practice of Eagles training camp. That session lasted just 58 minutes, but that was plenty of time to get a sense of the full spectrum of hopes and concerns swirling around Hurts. In 7-on-7 drills, he made a couple of nice throws but also had a pair of ugly sequences on back-to-back plays: fumbling the ball after Miles Sanders bumped into his arm, having a pass to Dallas Goedert, on an end-zone corner route, intercepted by Marcus Epps.
Though relatively insignificant, those mistakes were enough to reaffirm the uncertainty around Hurts ahead of this season, the doubts that he can quell only by throwing more frequently from the pocket to the middle of the field and by completing a higher percentage of his passes. But before and after practice, the Eagles took care to mount a united front of support for Hurts the person, Hurts the leader, Hurts the dedicated teammate who arrived at NovaCare at 6:30 a.m. for Wednesday’s 10 a.m. practice.
Nick Sirianni wore a T-shirt with a rendition of Hurts’ face on the front. A.J. Brown explained why he leapt to Hurts’ defense over a report earlier this month that suggested Hurts had been struggling at practice. And Hurts himself made it clear that his background in the sport — his father was a high school coach — informs his approach as a quarterback and the importance he places on those intangible aspects of his role.
“I think any time I can spend with my teammates, whether it’s in Florida or Cali or Texas or in Philly, here, at home, at the bowling alley, it all matters. It all matters,” he said. “Understand that when you’re playing a team sport, it’s not always about Xs and Os. A lot of it is ball, but the other part of it is getting to know that person, getting on the same page with that person, knowing how that person thinks, and getting to know them thoroughly. We’ve got a lot of time to do that right now — a lot of time.
“For me, just growing up around the game, the fieldhouse was my daycare. That’s all that I knew. All I saw was being around high school athletes, being around my dad, being around my brother in the fieldhouse. I just saw how the guys had that camaraderie, how they spent time with one another, how they bonded, and I think that’s very important.”
Asked if he’d ever had a coach or anyone else demand that he put in a certain number of hours studying film each week, Hurts said he hadn’t. And no, no one would dare to doubt that Hurts is near the top of his class in those qualities. Still, nothing about being a quarterback in the modern NFL is so simple. Not with a salary cap. Not with Hurts’ rookie contract nearing its end. Not for an Eagles team that considers itself a Super Bowl contender — that traded for Brown, signed Goedert for big money, drafted DeVonta Smith in last year’s first round, and expects its quarterback to feed them the football. Murray may be an expensive and risky bet, may lose the Cardinals games because he can’t help losing himself on Xbox. But Jalen Hurts has his own questions to face, and there’s no price to be put on the answers.