Mike Sielski: The Eagles are beginning a new era with Jalen Hurts, but they may not finish it with him
PHILADELPHIA — There are a few ways to track and think about the history of the Eagles and, in turn, think about the here and now of the Eagles. One is to break up that history into segments based on who the franchise's owner was: the Jeffrey Lurie era, the Norman Braman era, the Leonard Tose era. If you want to cut the past into smaller pieces, you could do it by head coach: the Doug Pederson era, the Andy Reid era, the Buddy Ryan and Dick Vermeil eras.
But if you really want to thin-slice that block of time, if you want to get a more accurate gauge of where the team was at a particular time and where it is now, you should do it by quarterback: the Carson Wentz era, the Donovan McNabb era, the Randall Cunningham era. The position and the player occupying it matter that much. Don't believe me? Just remember: Reid went 92-49-1 here in the games that McNabb started. Without McNabb, Reid went 38-44. Chip Kelly went 14-4 with Nick Foles and 12-17 with everyone else. Pederson was a hero here, the coach who dared to call the Philly Special on fourth down for the sake of winning a Super Bowl. But once Wentz fell apart and Pederson couldn't coax him back to competence, the Eagles decided the hero needed to hit the road.
The Kelly era — or the Foles-Michael Vick-Mark Sanchez-Sam Bradford era, to maintain consistency — is actually the proper period to evoke ahead of this Eagles season. More specifically, the 2013 season, Kelly's first with the Eagles, is the most recent set of circumstances that's comparable to those that the team faces now. Just like 2013, the Eagles have a head coach who has never been an NFL head coach before. Then, it was Kelly. Now, it's Nick Sirianni, who not only hasn't been an NFL head coach before but hasn't been a head coach at any level of football. And just like 2013, the Eagles don't really know who their starting quarterback is.
Now, before you start screaming Give Jalen Hurts his respect! at the screen of your smartphone or laptop, let's review what happened in 2013 and understand why its context is relevant. Ahead of Week 1 that season, Vick and Foles competed to determine who would be the Eagles' No. 1 quarterback. Vick won that competition outright, not merely because he outplayed Foles in training camp and during the preseason, but because, in the aftermath of the Riley Cooper racial slur scandal, Kelly relied on Vick to be a leader in the locker room, to quell the tensions that bubbled there so Cooper could return to the team.
Those factors were all significant credits to Vick. But any honest and realistic projection of how he would fare as the starter had to take one thing into consideration: His size (6 feet, 210 pounds) and style of play (his willingness, often eagerness, to run) put him at substantial risk of injury. Kelly and the Eagles could not count on Vick to be their long-term starter because they couldn't count on him to stay healthy over an entire season. Vick had missed three games in 2011 and six in 2012, and sure enough, he got hurt in Week 5, got hurt again in Week 8, and, after Foles took over, never started another game here.
That was the last time the Eagles — and by "the Eagles," I mean the collective opinions, beliefs and actions of Lurie, Howie Roseman and the head coach — entered a season with any doubts about who their starting quarterback was and would be. After Foles had his enchanted 2013 season (27 touchdowns, two interceptions, 119.2 passer rating), Roseman described him at the 2014 NFL combine as "a young quarterback who really fits our culture and chemistry." He gave every indication that the Eagles regarded Foles as their QB of the future, and that impression lasted right up to the moment that Kelly, after wresting player-personnel power away from Roseman, traded Foles to the Rams for Bradford.
Since then, the Eagles' choice as their No. 1 quarterback has been clear-cut every year: Bradford in 2015, Wentz from 2016-20. They were going to ride with that guy that season, no matter what. But this season is not one of those seasons. As much as the team's fans and followers might like Hurts' potential, as much curiosity might surround the prospect of seeing a 23-year-old quarterback with four games of full-time NFL experience — a quarterback who was drafted to be a backup — try to develop into a star or even just a full-time starter, the Eagles themselves are not counting on it. They paid a relatively heavy cost to sign Joe Flacco to back up Hurts. They acquired Gardner Minshew, a player who is still on his rookie contract but is more accomplished in the league than Hurts. They have allowed rumors about their interest in Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson to churn all summer.
Hurts isn't getting a commitment from the Eagles. He's getting a chance. That's all. A chance. That 1 p.m. game on Sept. 12 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta does not mark the beginning of the Sirianni era. It marks the first step toward the Eagles' next era at quarterback, the kind of era that matters most, and they have only the slightest idea yet who its centerpiece will be.