After selecting him with the 53rd overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft — a stunner of a move, even to many on the team — the brass went on offense to explain to the frenzied masses why they would take a quarterback in the second round 10 months after handing then 27-year-old Carson Wentz a four-year, $128 million extension.
Former vice president of player personnel Andy Weidl described Hurts as “part of the new guard [of] mobile quarterbacks in the league that can win throwing it or running it.” He called Hurts a “natural leader” while noting the importance of having a solid insurance policy at the position. General manager Howie Roseman stressed Hurts being a good teammate. He forecast that, over time, Hurts’ value would exceed his draft slot. That has all held up well.
What they miscalculated was how those qualities would alter the internal dynamics. They knew Hurts had a gravitational pull, but didn’t realize how close the situation with Wentz was to flying off its axis.
“Nobody is going to be looking at a rookie quarterback as somebody who’s going to be taking over [for] a Pro Bowl quarterback, a guy who’s been on the cusp of winning an MVP,” Roseman said at the time, later adding: “There’s no threat to Carson here.”
Hurts took over for Wentz in a Week 13 game against the Green Bay Packers. Wentz didn’t play another down for the Eagles.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Hurts is enjoying a red-hot start to his second season as the Eagles’ full-time starter. After a dominant performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football, in which he racked up 390 yards of offense and three touchdowns, his odds to win the MVP moved from 14-1 to 8-1 at Caesars Sportsbook — behind Josh Allen (+325) and Patrick Mahomes (+450). Wentz is on his third team in as many years but, after a roller-coaster season with the Indianapolis Colts, is off to a strong start with the Washington Commanders. His seven touchdowns are tied for the most in the league and he ranks second in passing yards with 650.
On Sunday, Hurts and Wentz will square off for the first time at FedEx Field (1 p.m. ET, Fox). ESPN spoke with members of that 2020 Eagles team to get an understanding of what led to such a dramatic shift in direction at quarterback. While there are many variables to the equation, the combination of Wentz’s poor play, Hurts’ charisma and some relationship gaps with Wentz in the locker room factored into a swift organizational 180 that altered the trajectory of each player’s career.
“I’m just glad those guys are in different places. [Hurts is] the guy now and Carson is over in Washington … I’m happy for him,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “I didn’t think it had to end the way it did, but you just never know what people were going through at that time.”
‘FAST FRIDAYS’ DURING the 2020 season were designed to get the players in, out and on their way. They’d gather for a quick meeting, practice for an hour and then dedicate the rest of the day to recovery.
Everyone, that is, except Hurts. When his obligations were through, he’d go to a side field with assistant coach Joe Pannunzio, who would call out coverages as Hurts executed the full offensive play sheet for the week.
“Carson was the guy — he was playing, he was starting — but Jalen would stay after and go through the entire game plan by himself on the field, just going through his reads, one by one,” running back Boston Scott said. “Those were the little things I would see. Just seeing a guy that’s committed on that type of level, you just kind of knew what was coming with him.”
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Nobody predicted how fast Hurts’ time would come. Wentz was really struggling. He committed 11 turnovers and was sacked 25 times over the first six games as the Eagles stumbled to a 1-4-1 start. It would be another six games until coach Doug Pederson benched him against the Packers.
Trust was at the heart of the issue. Wentz was often reluctant to play within the system during his time in Philadelphia, sources with direct knowledge of the offense’s inner workings said. He became irritated, one of those sources said, when his freedom to operate the offense was largely stripped from him as injuries and inefficient performances piled up during the 2020 season. His relationship with Pederson became strained. With coach and quarterback pulling in different directions, the offense flopped.
Much has been made of Wentz’s standing among his teammates during his days with the Eagles. The bottom line is this: Wentz was largely viewed as a good guy and good teammate — several players said they spoke with Wentz just in the past week and were complimentary of him as a person and player — but he ran in a tight circle and therefor didn’t have strong relationships built up across the entire locker room. So when Wentz would target good friend Zach Ertz significantly more than the other receiving options over the course of a season — like when Ertz had 48 more targets than any other pass-catcher in 2019 — it would rub some players the wrong way because they did not have the same access to him off the field as Ertz did.
Hurts, meanwhile, had a natural way of connecting with teammates and was working to build up those relationships behind the scenes.
“Talking to [Hurts] through that process, he was trying not to step on anyone’s toes or anything but he was trying to earn the respect from the older guys, the veteran guys around here as far as Fletch [Fletcher Cox], BG [Brandon Graham] so they could trust him to lead this offense and lead this team,” receiver Quez Watkins said.
There wasn’t a division in the ultra-dramatic sense, but the product on the field was poor and the setup was extraordinary during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic with most meetings being held virtually and players being split up more than normal.
“I didn’t get to throw with [Hurts] nearly as much. I was with Carson the whole time because he was the starter,” tight end Dallas Goedert said. “But he definitely had the young receivers behind him.”
THE DECISION TO draft Hurts was a head-scratcher considering the team had just committed big money to another quarterback, especially to those who know the force of Hurts’ personality well.
Josh Palet, a former quarterback at Alabama, watched firsthand as Hurts walked onto campus as a 17-year old in 2016 and proceeded to become the first freshman to win the starting job for the Tide since 1984.
“He never acted like he was a freshman or the youngest player on the team. He acted like he was the starting quarterback even when he wasn’t,” Palet told ESPN in January.
“Truthfully, the [other quarterbacks] didn’t like it. I mean, how would you feel if the youngest guy in the room talked like he was the starting quarterback when he was the fourth-string guy and acted like he was the man when he wasn’t? It rubbed people the wrong way.”
Similarly, Hurts didn’t acquiesce to being Wentz’s backup. He was professional by all accounts but wasn’t particularly chummy with Wentz or Wentz’s good friend in the QB room, Nate Sudfeld. It was rare to see them interact on the field. He was there to compete and win the job. That didn’t always sit well.
Hurts was beginning to open some eyes at practice by the way he was commanding the scout team. While opinions are split on this, some sensed Wentz spent too much time looking in the rear-view mirror at the fast-approaching Hurts.
“That whole quarterback situation, Jalen handled it the best because I’m sure he was just focusing on his craft every day, which I would have been doing, too,” said Graham. “If I’m Carson, I would have did the same thing because, shoot, they paid me $100 [million] already. How much more do I got to show you that you’re the guy?”
Hurts began receiving first-team reps prior to the Seattle Seahawks game in late November. Wentz was visibly upset over the development, a source who was at the practice said.
For as uncomfortable of a situation as it was, teammates contend there was never any beef between Wentz and Hurts, even when Hurts replaced him in the lineup the following week against the Packers.
“I don’t think it was ever too bad between those two,” Goedert said. “I think it got more awkward between the upstairs, the head coach at the time and Carson more than Carson and Jalen. Carson came into work every day. Getting benched is never easy. But when he came in here after that, Carson was trying to help Jalen, doing everything that he could from the position he was in.”
“When Jalen got called to start he was ready, he had the offense rolling. One thing I remember about Carson is he had the scout team, he gave a great look for the defense. He probably took a little bit of his frustration out on the defense, trying to show them what he could do, try to tear up the defense, per se, on scout team.”
On Wednesday, Hurts spoke of a mutual respect between he and Wentz. He called that season a “teachable moment” and said he uses it as example for the younger players now to “take advantage of the opportunities you have when you’re not playing because it pays dividends in the end. You just have to be patient, be a sponge and soak it all in.”
With the preferred direction clear, the Eagles traded Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts in February 2021 for a third-round pick and a conditional second-round pick, which eventually turned into a first-rounder.
Hurts officially took over as the starter on Dec. 13, 2020 against the New Orleans Saints — a surprise 24-21 win in which Hurts threw for a touchdown with no interceptions and added 106 yards on the ground, an effort that won his teammates over further.
“If Carson would have dealt with it differently, we would have been behind him, too. At the end of the day, you’ve got to, because these are the guys that they brought in, you’ve got to make it work for the year,” Graham said. “Even if they ain’t right, still got to make it work.”
Improbably, Hurts had become the front man — a position that, despite heavy speculation to the contrary each offseason since, he maintains.
Following that win over the Saints, safety Malcolm Jenkins, who had returned to New Orleans that season after being the Eagles’ leader the previous six years, found Hurts on the field to deliver a message. “Hey, keep doing your thing,” he said. “This is a tough city but you’re ready for it.”
“I know his story,” Jenkins told ESPN, explaining why he decided to deliver that message, “with his history at Alabama [losing the starting spot to Tua Tagovailoa] and having to battle and prove himself in college and the journey he took to coming to the Eagles and the questions behind it. And even just the recent success and relationships with quarterbacks that the Philadelphia fans had just gone through. The expectations are very high.
“I recognized that, and this is really for any athlete in Philadelphia: If you can weather the storm of some rough times or even people doubting you, you can truly just embrace being the underdog in every aspect. It will make you unbreakable and the city will love you for it. That’s what I saw in him.”