How Jalen Hurts' injury could impact the Eagles' Super Bowl hopes

PHILADELPHIA -- As the locker room doors inside Lincoln Financial Field opened Sunday evening, players were shedding their shoulder pads and jerseys for division-champion hats and black-and-green T-shirts reading “CONQUERED EAST.” The Philadelphia Eagles had just clinched the NFC East and the No. 1 overall seed in the conference playoffs with a 22-16 win over the New York Giants in the regular-season finale.

But Jalen Hurts sat shirtless on a steel chair facing his locker stall minutes after the game had ended, bent over with elbows on knees as the bass from “Thought I was playing” by 21 Savage and Gunna shook the floor and a modest celebration went on behind him.

Assistant special teams coach Joe Pannunzio -- who was on the Alabama staff when Hurts played there -- approached Hurts’ locker and had a lengthy conversation with him. Quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson followed. It was a scene more likely to unfold after a tough loss.

Turned out, it was just a painful three hours for a quarterback playing through an injured throwing shoulder.

"We didn't feel like there was more risk [of further injury], but I know he was hurting, and he was hurting bad," coach Nick Sirianni said.

"Coming into this game, I've been really pushing myself beyond measures to try and be available," Hurts added. "The risk-reward of playing [Sunday], whatever that was, we did what we had to do. We're the No. 1 seed and we're NFC East champs and that's the goal we set out to do. Now I can continue to recover and be ready for the playoffs."

There is much riding on that right shoulder. Hurts is dealing with a sprained sternoclavicular (SC) joint, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter, an injury suffered on December 18 against the Chicago Bears when he was driven into the ice-cold Soldier Field ground by defensive lineman Trevis Gipson following a 3-yard run. Hurts missed the next two games before returning to face New York.

The NFC playoffs run through Philadelphia after the Eagles finished with a franchise-best 14 wins that netted them a first-round bye. They have a defense ranked first in pass defense (180 yards per game) and sacks (70) and an offense that finished behind only the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs in points per game (28.1). Both units are fueled by a loaded roster that produced a league-high eight Pro Bowl selections and nine Pro Bowl alternates.

A Super Bowl berth is well within their grasp -- if Hurts is healthy enough to lead them there.

The latest on Hurts

Hurts did not throw during the portion of practice open to the media on Thursday. While quarterbacks Gardner Minshew and Ian Book warmed up during individual drills, Hurts simulated the motion while holding a towel.

With the benefit of not having to prepare for a game this weekend, it’s clear the Eagles were easing him into the scaled-back work week.

“I’m feeling better,” Hurts said afterward. “I’m just taking it day by day. I think the whole world knows I’ve been dealing with something. I think the whole point of that [Giants] game was coming back and getting done what we needed to get done and obviously having this time to rest, so here it is.”

Hurts said he couldn’t provide a number when asked how close he’ll be to the Hurts we’re accustomed to seeing.

Understanding the injury

Dr. Brian Sennett, chief of sports medicine at Penn Medicine, called the fact that Hurts was still in a good deal of pain Sunday “concerning.”

“Just from a perspective of, it tells you he’s still sore, he’s still symptomatic, and the question is, how much is that going to calm down in the next two weeks?” he said. “I think there’s going to be concern of falling on this. You can reaggravate these things if you get the same blow to it. In an SC joint injury, every time you’re tackled or sacked or fall on your shoulder, you’re potentially going to injure that joint."

The SC joint connects the breastbone to the collarbone and is held in place by ligaments, Sennett explained, and when that joint is injured, “you’re calling on these ligaments to give you that stability, and it hurts.” The collarbone “moves back and pulls on that area” when a player throws, adding to the pain.

Though the organization is expressing confidence Hurts isn’t at risk of injuring the shoulder further by playing, Sennett referenced a saying in his field: It may make your shoulder hurt, but you’re not necessarily going to hurt your shoulder. It signals that while the joint likely has good stability, lowering the risk of further injury, it’s still inflamed.

Sirianni said he could not answer whether Hurts will be playing through pain the rest of the way.

“It really will depend on how much he gets tackled, sacked or gets collisions,” Sennett said. “Obviously the way that he plays, he’s pretty high-risk for all those things. I think he will probably stay sore throughout the playoffs, but hopefully every week he has less and less soreness. I would not expect that he would become symptom-free in the next three weeks.

“Personally I don’t have any concern that he’s going to play, because if he was able to play this past week, he’s probably going to be able to play in two weeks. The question is, how much does the pain of that joint not only affect his play but how they put him at risk or don’t put him at risk as far as running plays and getting tackled?”

Moving forward

The Eagles coaches altered their offensive approach in Hurts’ first game back.

They typically dial up about five designed runs per game, but largely stayed away from those against New York. It appeared to impact the unit’s effectiveness, even as the Giants rested the bulk of their starters with their playoff seeding secured. A normally potent red zone offense scored just one touchdown on five trips inside the 20-yard line.

The threat of Hurts pulling the ball on the zone-read and run-pass option plays keeps defenses honest. Without that threat, the offense isn’t nearly as dynamic or dangerous, even with playmakers like A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Miles Sanders and Dallas Goedert on the field.

Hurts, though, will be two weeks further removed from the injury the next time he suits up in the divisional round, and the expectation in the locker room is that he will be back to his old ways.

“He’s a guy that’s a competitor,” center Jason Kelce said. “He’s always got this aura about him that he can do whatever he wants [on the field] and he’s the man. It was not evident on game day that he was hurting.

“I think he’ll be fine. He’s got [time] to get healthy before this next game. And yeah, he’ll be good.”