How Jalen Hurts transformed his passing game to help make the Eagles contenders

PHILADELPHIA -- Quincy Avery first watched Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts throw when he was a junior at Channelview High School just outside of Houston.

Hurts was taking part in an Elite 11 regional event -- a program designed to sharpen the skills of top high school quarterbacks. Avery, a quarterback trainer whose current client list includes Hurts, the Cleveland Browns' Deshaun Watson, the Seattle Seahawks' Geno Smith, the San Francisco 49ers' Trey Lance and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, was part of Elite 11's staff.

"I saw somebody who was really talented but a bit raw," Avery said. "He was more of a mechanical thrower. It didn't look fluid; it didn't necessarily look natural."

The question then was the same one that followed Hurts to Alabama, then Oklahoma, then Philadelphia when he was drafted in the second round by the Eagles in 2020: Can Hurts develop enough as a passer to become an elite quarterback at the highest level?

The steady drip of doubt became familiar over the years, like drops splashing off a porcelain sink. But if you focus on it for a moment, you'll notice the drip has stopped.

More than a quarter of the way through the season, Hurts is among the front-runners for league MVP with the 5-0 Eagles. And while his legs certainly have something to do with that -- his 266 rushing yards is second among QBs, and his six rushing touchdowns is the second most in the NFL -- it's his arm that has made the difference. Hurts ranks fifth in completion rate at 67.9% through five games -- a major jump from his career average of 60.9% -- and is second in yards per pass (8.5).

There's a fair amount of crow eating going on in Philadelphia and nationally by skeptics who thought what Hurts is doing in his second year as a full-time starter could never be done. And while there was perhaps a degree of foolishness in prematurely writing off a gifted, football-crazed 24-year-old who has improved every year since coming onto the scene, the dramatic leap he has made as a passer is no ordinary feat, catching even some of his closest allies by surprise.

"I've had the opportunity to work with a lot of different quarterbacks. I've seen thousands of quarterbacks. And I've never seen someone turn themselves into what looks like a really natural passer in the way that Jalen has," Avery said. "There's no one who has done a transformation like him.

"To me, he's playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League, and honestly, that shocked me," Avery said. "I told people before the year he was going to be a top-10 quarterback. I didn't know he'd be battling for the first spot."

With Hurts eligible for a contract extension after the season, the conversation is shifting from whether Philadelphia will pay him big money to when. And it's no longer about whether he's good enough but about how good he can become.

"I don't think we've seen Jalen's ceiling. I know we haven't seen Jalen's ceiling," coach Nick Sirianni said. "I just think you've seen tremendous progression from him because he works at it and he loves it."

HALL OF FAME quarterback Peyton Manning seemed perplexed by Hurts' response.

During Hurts' appearance on Monday Night Football's ManningCast on Oct. 3, Manning asked him what quarterbacks he studies to gauge how upcoming opponents might defend him. Hurts said that although it's key to watch other quarterbacks who are a threat in the run game, his coaches have been showing him film of Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck. Hurts added that he likes to watch a lot of Tom Brady on his own.

"Philip couldn't run out of sight in a week," Manning joked. "Why are you watching film of Philip Rivers with all of the runs you all are doing and the sprint-outs?"

"There's no other quarterback like him," Eli Manning interjected. "He didn't want to give the answer because there's no one like him, Peyton."

The explanation behind watching Rivers and Luck is pretty straightforward: These are QBs who have worked with Sirianni and Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and have operated in similar systems.

"We really want Jalen to throw it a little bit like Philip does," Sirianni joked, making a sidearm motion. "You're running a concept that you've run in the past that you want to see versus a certain look. ... You're trying to give Jalen an extra rep and try to bring the play to life."

Watching Brady speaks more to how Hurts is wired and the mountain-peak level he's trying to scale.

"He's so great at what he does because he's so consistent. He's been able to maintain that for a long time. And I've mentioned that consistency can breed eliteness. That's him," Hurts said of Brady.

" ... I like to watch football. I'm obsessed with this game. I'm obsessed with taking steps and just growing. That knowledge comes from all types of players."

Added receiver A.J. Brown, on lessons learned from Brady: "Everybody works on things they're good at. Work on things you're not good at."

Hurts' throwing mechanics needed work, so he spent about two months in Southern California this offseason with throwing experts, focusing on his footwork and release, Sirianni told ESPN's Sal Paolantonio back in June.

"I'm noticing a big difference," Sirianni said. "What I see is a crisper ball. The accuracy I've been very pleased with. You can just see him taking strides every single day with his accuracy because of the fundamentals he has with his feet and his upper body."

One thing in particular that held Hurts back from maximum efficiency over the years was something called a "left leg lockout" -- a mechanical hitch former QB Trent Dilfer first noticed when he worked with him at Elite 11. He described it as "kind of a death sentence" on a recent appearance on the Ryen Russillo podcast. Dilfer recounted telling Hurts: "Jalen, you're amazing, I love you, please don't take this bad, but if you don't fix this, you have no chance."

Hurts fixed it.

"When he would stride his left leg would get really, really straight," Avery explained. "When your leg is straight, you kind of pop up and down, your head goes up and down, you lean forward and rock forward. It's really problematic. You look really, really jerky. That's something that caused a ton of problems for him. And he's been able to just smooth it out. I think that's one of the things that has allowed him to look so smooth."

The second part of the equation to Hurts' improvement as a passer, besides mechanics, is comfort. As Hurts has mentioned countless times, this is the first season he has worked in the same offensive system -- and with the same playcaller -- since his father, Averion, was his coach back in his high school days at Channelview. Eagles quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson described Hurts as someone who "understands the puzzle of 22 and how it fits together each and every single play." But solving a puzzle takes time. Just as a batter's job becomes easier as he picks up on a pitcher's tendencies throughout a game, so too does a quarterback's as he runs the same play against different coverages and gradually discovers the answers for each.

"Jalen is the type of person that doesn't usually make the same mistake twice," Johnson said. "You start to build that memory bank of plays in your brain, and it helps you process it and accelerates your vision to where it needs to be."

Johnson described the early going of training camp this summer as "very special" because that melding of improved mechanics and increased comfort materialized in the form of speedier processing and better accuracy. The Eagles knew their young quarterback was about to take off.

THERE ARE A handful of plays over the first five games that highlight Hurts' heightened acuity and execution as a passer. Three came in a single half against the Washington Commanders in Week 3.

Hurts' 45-yard deep ball down the right sideline to DeVonta Smith "is literally, by the drawing of the play in the book, perfection," ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. "One, two, three, hold your safety in the middle of the field with your eyes, one hitch and the ball gets up. You want it to be 44 yards, 2 yards from the sideline. It's absolute perfection."

Facing a third-and-goal from the Commanders' 9-yard line late in the first half, Hurts identified the defensive leverage the cornerback opposite Brown intended on playing pre-snap and made a handcheck to Brown to adjust his route. Touchdown.

"When I saw him give the check, I was like, 'Oh, yeah, perfect.' Everyone knew it. It was like, this is perfect, it's going to score," Steichen said. "It was a hell of a job by him."

Moments later, with time running down in the first half and no timeouts, Hurts took the playcalling duties upon himself on a fourth-and-goal from the 2 yard-line, dialing up a call that wasn't even part of that week's game plan. Touchdown, Smith.

One of the reasons folks openly questioned whether Hurts could make a significant leap as a passer is because the list of modern-day quarterbacks who have done so gets mighty thin after Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills.

It seems what wasn't properly accounted for in the projection of Hurts was his "obsession" with his craft -- a word that came up time and again when speaking with teammates, coaches, trainers and Hurts himself.

"Jalen is one of the most attentive workers that I have ever been around. It's not just that he works hard. He is truly singularly focused on whatever task that he's committed himself to get better at that day," Avery said. "If he goes a whole workout and makes the same throw over and over again until he feels like he has it perfect, that's not beyond Jalen."

While Sirianni doesn't know what Hurts' ceiling is, he is confident his quarterback will reach it because he has the ingredients necessary to maximize his talents: toughness, the love of the game and instincts.

"Those guys that reach that ceiling are what Jalen has inside, and that's what's so special and that's why you're continuing to see him develop in my opinion," Sirianni said.

"That's the type of guy that you never want to make judgments on too soon," Eagles receiver Britain Covey added, "because where he is now is not where he'll be in a year."