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‘Built for the journey’: How Jalen Hurts keeps answering critics

Quarterback Jalen Hurts will lead the Philadelphia Eagles into the postseason Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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PHILADELPHIA — As the railing at FedEx Field collapsed and bodies draped in green fell, Jalen Hurts didn’t flinch. He just sidestepped the chaos and checked on the people suddenly scattered on the ground around him. The startled Philadelphia Eagles fans scuttled to their feet, but instead of scurrying to the locker room, Hurts wrapped his arm around them and posed for cellphone snapshots.

There’s being unfazed, and then there’s Hurts. To understand how a 23-year-old in his first full season as a starter became the youngest quarterback to lead the Eagles to the playoffs, don’t bother combing over his breathtaking touchdown runs or the times he scrambled out of the pocket to dot an “i” with a pass. Instead, check out the time he turned a near disaster into a selfie opportunity. Hurts was everything that stadium railing wasn’t Jan. 2: sturdy, dependable. He wasn’t dismayed by the confusion; he was seeking solutions.

“That is a common thread or trait that I find in successful quarterbacks — that ability to never get too high and never get too low despite all the things that are going on around them,” Quincy Avery, Hurts’s longtime quarterback skills coach, said in a telephone interview. “He has a really tremendous outlook.”

After their 2-5 start, not much is expected of the Eagles in their postseason matchup against the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But Hurts has made a career of upsetting convention.

Little was expected of him when he arrived at Alabama as a 17-year-old fourth-stringer who would eventually become the first true freshman to start under center for Coach Nick Saban and lead the Crimson Tide to the national title game.

Questions swirled about his passing ability when he left Alabama, after a 26-2 record as a starter, and landed at Oklahoma. But he left Norman, Okla., as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in a system built on throwing the ball. Even less was thought of Hurts when the Eagles drafted him in the second round in 2020 to possibly play a gadget, change-of-pace role as Carson Wentz reestablished himself as the franchise quarterback. But he snatched away the starting job by the end of his rookie season.

Hurts’s father, Averion, remembers how he would motivate his son by reading articles or telling him what his doubters and worst critics had to say. Even if Jalen never reacted immediately, the response would always come through his performance. Those days are over, Averion said, because Hurts no longer needs to be fueled by negativity. But the outward stoicism still masks the raging competitor inside.

“He has a belief in himself, so he doesn’t want to prove people wrong. He wants to prove himself right,” Averion said in a telephone interview. “I like to gamble. And I always tell people, the thing I don’t do, I don’t bet against him, because of his mental makeup and his drive. I don’t bet against him. It traditionally don’t come out well.”

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Averion is the football coach at Channelview High in Texas, just outside Houston, where his sons, Averion Jr. and Jalen, would hop in the truck every morning and tag along to school. The field house where the boys hung out helped the father avoid expensive day-care bills and exposed them to football drills. Hurts was never forced into playing football, but the immersion offered little resistance. Averion at times found himself overcompensating, careful to make sure his son received no preferential treatment. That father-son dynamic allowed Hurts to connect with fellow coach’s sons Saban and Eagles Coach Nick Sirianni, who both grew up around the game.

“I probably wasn’t as hard as those guys,” Averion said, pausing. “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. But one of the things he’s always been told is he’s built for this journey. I never knew what the journey was — just that he was built for it.”

Hurts has a way of viewing a difficult situation as an opportunity to defy expectations, not an excuse to wallow in. It’s a trait that has served him well. He has never been concerned with the aesthetics of his performance — only the outcome. Quarterbacks are usually judged by metrics that sound good when rattled off by a computer. But Hurts always has focused on doing what it takes to win. He led all quarterbacks this season in rushing yards (784) and rushing touchdowns (10).

“No matter how you get things done, did you get it done? Yes or no?” Avery said. “I think that Jalen is really talented and really underrated. I want there to be a day when he gets his due, because he does things that other people aren’t doing. All these things throughout a game that a random or average quarterback couldn’t do, and he does it week after week.

“As we move on, not only will he be making these special plays but all of the routine things. . . . He’ll be in position to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.”

When the Eagles struggled early this season, it would’ve been easy to dismiss the rookie coach and the inexperienced quarterback, but Hurts never lost sight of the opportunity. He repeatedly told his teammates and anyone else willing to listen, “It’s coming.”

Sirianni gained a better sense of his personnel and devised a scheme that played to Hurts’s strengths as a mobile playmaker. The Eagles found a groove, reeling off seven wins in nine games to qualify for the playoffs. Hurts was able to make more plays with his arm as the passing game opened up, and he found himself in a familiar position — as a winner.

Before the incident at FedEx Field, the defining moment of Hurts’s season came in the first matchup against Washington, a got-to-have-it game Dec. 21, when a careless turnover early led Sirianni to chew out his young quarterback on the walk back to the sideline. Hurts looked away, unmoved, without retort and then coolly rallied the Eagles to a 27-17 win. Sirianni joked afterward about the need to yell at Hurts more often.

“Jalen is a student of the game. Jalen wants to get better, craves to get better, has high football character and … plenty of times, guys that have high character, high football character, and guys who love football are going to reach their ceiling,” Sirianni said. “I couldn’t ask for a better guy to work with.”

The success hasn’t come without persistent questions about his arm strength and his ability to connect on the most mundane passing routes. Those criticisms are fair, and no quarterback, no matter how mobile, can escape the scalpel of scrutiny. But Hurts and New England’s Mac Jones — both Alabama products — are the only first-year, full-time starters in the postseason. Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa, who replaced Hurts at Alabama, and Wentz, who was dealt last offseason to Indianapolis, are watching the postseason on television.

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“Some of the criticism he receives is the residue of things that happened at Alabama,” Avery said. “We’ve seen him improve as a passer. And we’ll continue to see that throughout his career in the NFL because he works so hard. That, to me, is his best quality. People say you’re not going to outwork them all the time, but you’re really not outworking Jalen.”

If he hadn’t already experienced an unexpected benching at Alabama during his second national championship game appearance, Hurts might be unable to handle the constant questions about whether he has secured the role as the Eagles’ starting quarterback going forward — that he’s a future worthy of building around, not a place-filler. But he always has responded to those doubts by putting in more work, with a determination to correct his flaws. His uniting presence makes him a leader in most situations. And the Eagles’ second-half run featured Hurts improving his accuracy and making pressure throws that complement his ability to make explosive plays with his feet.

“I’ve preached about the process. You either get better or you get worse. You don’t stay the same,” Hurts said. “Any experience that I had prior to coming to the NFL, all of those games — played those games in college at Oklahoma and Alabama and been on some stages — I think all of those things have kind of helped me. I definitely want to use those things to my benefit, going into this game, regardless of the stage, regardless of what the name of the game is.”

Hurts brushed aside a question this past week about his earliest memory of seven-time champion Tom Brady, perhaps unwilling to get caught up in the aura of a 44-year-old opponent preparing to play in his 46th playoff game. Those close to Hurts will contend he’s not content with reaching a first-round playoff game as the lowest-seeded team in the second year of the expanded postseason.

“His situation is a deal where, depending on who you listen to, every week is a prove-it-to-me deal,” Averion said. “So that’s where the beauty of his makeup is: ‘Okay, I’ve got to show you.’ Eighteen weeks later, some guys have had their exit meetings and are heading home to see their families around the country or whatever. He’s got a game Sunday.

“No one foresaw this. But I guarantee his mind-set ain’t to be happy he’s going to Tampa just to say he went to Tampa. He wants to go and come back with a win.”