PHILADELPHIA — The blatant late hit on Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts by New York Jets linebacker Quincy Williams in Friday’s preseason game sent coach Nick Sirianni into a frenzy.
Livid over the play on the opposite sideline in which Williams barreled into Hurts with a high hit well out of bounds, Sirianni stormed onto the field and fired a string of obscenities in the direction of Jets coach Robert Saleh — a friend of his — before slamming his headset onto the turf.
“I was just sticking up for Jalen. I’ll never apologize for sticking up for my players,” Sirianni said, adding that he probably should have handled the situation better than he did.
In one sense, it was the exact kind of reaction you would expect from a coach whose quarterback’s health was put at risk by an “egregiously awful” hit (Saleh’s words) in an exhibition game. Same for the reaction of 6-foot-8, 365-pound left tackle Jordan Mailata, who immediately got in Williams’ face and told reporters he was “seeing red” and fixing to headbutt Williams in retaliation before thinking better of it, seeing as Mailata had just been cleared from concussion protocol.
But it also fits a pattern of behavior seen throughout the organization this offseason of going above and beyond to have Hurts’ back, from the way his teammates have defended him — on the field, at the podium, online — to the moves the front office has made all the way down to the apparel that they wear.
“Because of the type of person he is,” said Brandon Graham, the veteran defensive end and team leader. “He’s a great teammate, great person. We’ve got a lot of good guys on this team, man, that we’re all willing to fight for. Jalen is definitely one of them because he’s already proven that he’s going to be the guy doing it for us this year, so we want to make sure we take care of him and protect him at all costs.”
It’s ‘Hurts SZN’
Such messaging was rather overt at the start of training camp. Sirianni set the tone on the first day of practice by walking out in a green T-shirt with a large illustration of Hurts’ face smack in the middle of it.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) July 27, 2022
“Just an easy way to connect with the player,” Sirianni said.
A day earlier, when receiver A.J. Brown reported to camp, he wore a black hat with white lettering that read, “HURTS SZN”.
“I’m big on showing love. When I showed up in the hat, I wanted everyone to know that it’s Hurts season,” Brown said. “I’m excited for him, the growth, he’s working really hard, and I’m going to be right beside him every step of the way.”
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) July 26, 2022
The Brown acquisition itself signaled considerable support for Hurts from the front office — at least for the 2022 season. Hurts and Brown call each other best friends, their relationship dating back to when Hurts tried to recruit Brown to Alabama when Brown was coming out of high school. They meet at the practice facility around 6 a.m. before most other players arrive to detail their day, are often attached at the hip during idle moments at practice, and have been racking up completions over the summer, with Hurts targeting Brown more than any other player.
He is entering a critical season in his quest to secure the QB1 spot in Philly long term. He’s eligible for a contract extension after this year. The Eagles hold two first-round picks in April’s draft, which is expected to be quarterback rich, and must decide which direction to take the franchise. These next few months will help determine their course, and they’ve equipped Hurts with everything he needs to put his best foot forward.
Not only should Brown complement Hurts well on the field — his ability to make contested catches and run after the catch can only make life easier on him — but he also serves as an advocate off it. When a report emerged detailing Hurts’ struggles during a portion of the offseason training program, Brown took to social media to push back in defense of Hurts, with other teammates jumping in.
“It’s important because, No. 1, it’s the quarterback of my team,” Brown said, “and he’s my friend, No. 2.”
Sharks, steaks and handshakes
If Hurts doesn’t reach all of his goals in the NFL, it won’t be for a lack of allies. One longtime staffer said he wants Hurts to succeed more than any other player who has come through during his time with the team. There’s a feeling of investment throughout the building, because the investment is reciprocated.
Hurts, just 24, excels at building relationships. One associate joked that he can’t name a player on the team without Hurts replying, “Yeah, I just had dinner with him the other night.”
It’s a series of small gestures, like joining a handful of Eagles coaches and players on a day trip to the Jersey shore for some surf fishing in May (Hurts caught a shark), to organizing a trip to Miami with his receivers and tight ends during their down time this offseason, to hopping into the kitchen at the Eagles practice facility to help the staff prepare his specialty dish: crawfish.
Secrets from our favorite chef:
Cr: J’s IG pic.twitter.com/uk5xfWtRBO
— portabella (@portabella) June 13, 2022
And he knows where his bread is buttered. Last season, he took the entire offensive line out to Del Frisco’s, one of the top steakhouses in Philadelphia.
“Jalen’s great. He’ll come sit with us at breakfast, lunch, dinner, just chop it up with us,” offensive lineman Jack Driscoll said. “Whether we’re shooting hoops before a team meeting, Jalen’s always going out of his way to get to know us, talk to us, and that goes a long way because we have his back and he has our back. It just helps. Obviously we want to play hard for whoever, but you kind of get that connection, you want to play as hard as you can and give it all for him.”
On learning the importance of relationships, Hurts cited two things: his experiences as a coach’s kid at Channelview High School in Texas and his time under Nick Saban at the University of Alabama.
His father, Averion, coached his players hard and his sons harder, and had high standards for how they conducted themselves.
“If you didn’t take care of your grades or if a teacher was to call him, you will be disciplined or you will sit out that game or whatever the punishment should be at that time. He always expected us to be young men first. Respect others and not think that we’re better than anyone else on the campus,” said Jackie Hinton, a former standout player at Channelview and one of Hurts’ primary influences coming up. “He wanted to teach us how to be young men first, a student and then a football player.”
Once that part is established, the work of proving yourself between the lines begins.
“You step on the field as a true freshman against USC and win 52-6,” said Eagles quarterbacks coach/longtime family friend Brian Johnson, citing Hurts’ Alabama debut in 2016. “It’s not about what you say, it’s your actions, it’s how you behave that ultimately gains people’s trust and respect. He’s fully aware of that and he always has been.”
When Sirianni was asked about his flip-out on Friday night, and whether there was anything about Hurts specifically that brought that raw emotion out of him, he said “Sure, yeah” and referenced all the time they spend together as coach and quarterback. Then he started talking about handshakes. He and Hurts have one that ends with them both playing air guitar. Sirianni does that particular handshake with only one other person: his son. And now Hurts and Sirianni’s son will greet each other with it.
“Him and I are close,” Sirianni said, “and I look forward to continuing to work with him.”
How long the Sirianni-Hurts pairing lasts will depend on results. The Eagles appear to have a well-constructed roster. Expectations have shot up this offseason following a playoff appearance in 2021 and a series of acquisitions that included Brown, cornerback James Bradberry and edge rusher Haason Reddick. If those expectations aren’t met, the chatter about Hurts’ future will only intensify.
He has a bunch of backers who don’t want to see that happen.
“I just like Jalen. He’s my quarterback,” tight end Dallas Goedert said. “Anytime you’ve got a guy that works as hard as he does, cares as much about the game as he does, wants to win as bad as he does, it’s easy to follow a guy like that. He’s a great leader. He’s got one desire and that’s to win, to be legendary, be great. And if I can help him do that, that’d be pretty awesome.”