There were no nerves, Jalen Hurts said after a 24-21 win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, his first NFL start. Instead, the message from his teammates, all of whom threw their full support behind him all week, was just to be him. Just be Jalen Hurts, the same quarterback who enjoyed such a prolific collegiate career at Alabama and Oklahoma and who stepped in a week earlier at Lambeau Field and had some success against the Packers.
Just go out and be Jalen Hurts. And have a lot of fun.
"I mean, it was a new experience for me, for sure. My first NFL start out there, I'm excited that I was able to do it with this group of guys, with this team," Hurts said. "We're ready to get back to work and fix the things we need to fix.
"The guys just told me to be you. Go out there and be J-Hurts. Everything else will take of itself. We all had each other's back. That's the beauty in all this. We had each other's back. We went out there against a really good football team. We had so much money we left on the table (missed opportunities). Moving forward, we just want to continue to build, learn from our mistakes, and hope we progress.
"We talked about energy. We talked about urgency. We talked about a lot of enthusiasm and being there for your brother. We control what we can control. Go out there and try to control the controllables. Go out there and play ball and have fun and trust in one another. That's what we did today. Lot of grit. Lot of perseverance and we were there for one another."
Hurts did everything the Eagles needed him to do, accounting for 106 rushing yards on 18 carries and 167 passing yards and a touchdown as he completed 17 of 30 passes with no interceptions and no quarterback sacks. The Eagles built up a 17-point halftime lead and then took back the momentum after the Saints closed the gap to three points after the third quarter, something they haven't done all season (more on that later).
In the first half, it was mostly about Hurts, as the rookie quarterback displayed an array of awareness and accuracy throwing the football from the pocket and from outside the tackle box, quick decision-making as he took off and ran for 75 yards, and a command with cool under pressure in a best-of-the-season 302-yard offensive output from a unit that, yes, looked decidedly different than it had in the previous 12 games.
It was breathtaking, really. The offensive design allowed Hurts to do damage with quick passes, easy completions, and some throws outside the pocket as well as plenty of run/pass options. The tempo was faster and there just seemed to be an abundance of energy from an Eagles offense that delivered 17 points on a Hurts-to-Alshon Jeffery touchdown pass, an 82-yard Miles Sanders run, and a Jake Elliott 44-yard field goal. All of that added up to a 17-0 lead and the Eagles could have had more had Elliott converted a simple 22-yard field goal as the half ended, but his kick clunked off the left upright and the momentum changed, as it has all season, right there.
For whatever reason, the receivers created space, something in demand for much of the year. A short completion to Jalen Reagor running a crossing route turned into 39 yards. Jeffery caught a back-shoulder throw from Hurts for the touchdown. The balance was terrific as the Eagles accumulated 173 rushing yards to go along with 129 passing yards and, well, it was as perfect a half as the Eagles have played since whipping the woeful New York Jets in 2019, when the Eagles led 21-0? Or when the Eagles led Chicago 12-0 in Week 9 of last season?
Whatever, it was electrifying.
"He's a natural leader. He gave us that spark that started last week," Sanders said. "I think we look like a complete team. Overall, I think this whole team did a helluva job."
New Orleans came back to within 17-14 after three quarters and had the football in Eagles' territory in the fourth quarter when defensive end Josh Sweat made the play of the game, chasing down quarterback Taysom Hill from behind and hammering the football away from Hill for a strip-sack and a takeaway, and with 9 minutes, 49 seconds remaining the Eagles had the ball at their 47-yard line, holding a three-point lead, and needing something good to happen.
It did, with the cool-under-pressure Hurts setting the example. Hurts gained 9 yards on a run right on first down, and then found wide receiver Greg Ward settled into the middle of the field for a 14-yard gain to the New Orleans 30-yard line. An end-around pitch to wide receiver Jalen Reagor gained 19 yards to the 11-yard line, and the running game went to work from there, with Sanders, after a series of penalties, carrying three times and finally pushing into the end zone from 1-yard out.
The Eagles led 24-14, but the game was far from over. Wil Lutz missed a 57-yard field goal and the game seemed well in hand, but Hurts made his only mistake of the game when he turned the ball over on a fumble on a running play and the Saints quickly converted on a Hill touchdown pass to tight end Jared Cook. The teams lined up as New Orleans attempted an onside kick that resulted in a wild scene, mass confusion, and, finally, Jalen Mills emerging with the football to seal the improbable deal.
"There was a lot to learn from and a lot to build on," Hurts said. "It's a different game, but I mean I think we're all happy here. We're all excited. We're all excited to get back to work. I'm excited to get some work in. It felt good. Always a great feeling to get a W. All week we talked about executing, dominate our box. Coming out at halftime and not even looking at the scoreboard. I've said it a lot – just having a standard of play. We got this week, but is it up to our standard of play? No. That's why I say we have so much to build on, so much more to work on. We've got to continue to build, continue to learn. Every game is an opportunity to learn and we need to use it to our advantage moving forward."
There were plenty of other standouts in this one. The defensive front four recorded five quarterback sacks, two each from Sweat and Javon Hargrave. The secondary played much of the second half without cornerbacks Darius Slay (head) and Avonte Maddox (knee), and safety Rodney McLeod (knee). They hung in there. They battled.
And in the end, they won a game that nobody outside the NovaCare Complex gave them a chance to win. It was that kind of magical day in South Philadelphia, and the energy and the excitement on the sidelines and after the game were real.
"It was just exciting for all of us," Hurts said. "Now, it's on to the next one."