Eagles’ fate hanging on the health of Jalen Hurts

When Jalen Hurts was fully healthy, the Philadelphia Eagles were a behemoth. They went through much of their schedule in the first three months. Even when the games were closer than expected, they still looked like a dominant team.

That all changed on Dec. 18 in Chicago, when Bears defensive tackle Trevis Gipson threw Hurts to the ground at the end of a run late in the third quarter. The Eagles quarterback suffered a sprained SC joint in his right shoulder, an injury that would have forced him out of the final three games of the regular season had the Eagles not had to rush him back to the final to help him reach the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

They haven’t looked like that old juggernaut since, because the 24-year-old Hurts are everything to the Eagles’ offense. Without him at full strength, being the two-way threat and MVP candidate he was for 14 games, they just haven’t been the same offensive, dangerous, versatile team.

That’s why the news Eagles coach Nick Sirianni delivered Tuesday was a huge sigh of relief for everyone in his building.

“He’s better today than he was two weeks ago,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “And it just keeps getting better. It feels good.”

And in case Sirianni wasn’t clear, Hurts confirmed “I’m fine.”

The Eagles didn’t say much else about Hurts on Tuesday, other than he was a full participant in their guided practice and is no longer even listed on their injury report. But the world will find out just how “good” and how much “better” Hurts really is on Saturday night (8:15 p.m. ET on FOX), when the Eagles (14-3) take on the sixth-seeded Eagles. Giants (10-7-1) at Philadelphia. Clearly, they need it to be as close to 100 percent as possible, and even close to “big.”

Because if there’s one lesson the Eagles learned from the last three games of their season, it’s that if Hurts isn’t at his best, they won’t have the Super Bowl run they’ve spent the season hoping to have.

And that means he can’t just be on the field, throwing the ball and otherwise avoiding any hits to his right shoulder. They need him to be that MVP candidate who can wreck defenses with his arms and legs. He and the Eagles were virtually unstoppable when he did both, throwing for 3,472 yards and rushing for 747 in his first 14 games, and totaling 35 touchdowns. His ability to run and throw from outside the pocket constantly kept defenses off balance and made the Eagles the top three offense they were all year.

They lost that dimension in the two games – and two losses – with Gardner Minshew at quarterback. They even struggled when Hurts returned for the finale against a Giants team that didn’t start a single defensive starter, mostly because the Eagles’ priority seemed to be protecting Hurts’ shoulder by not allowing him to run.

That game may have been a 22-16 division win, but it was also a warning sign. Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen only called one running play for Hurts: a quarterback. The only other times he ran was when he was dragged out of the pocket, and he mostly ran straight down the sideline to avoid getting hit.

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It was a calculated risk to ensure Hurts would be healthy and available for the postseason. But the result was an offense that struggled, especially in the red zone. They were unusually susceptible to pressure because Hurts suddenly became a virtual statue behind the line of scrimmage. The Eagles’ usual multi-dimensional offense was a shadow of its former self.

Hurts, of course, is usually anything but sculptural. In those first 14 games of the season, he played on 16.8% of the Eagles’ snaps (156) for 13.5% of their total yards (747). And the threat of a quarterback gaining nearly 5 yards per carry not only kept opposing running backs on their heels, but opened holes for running back Miles Sanders (1,269 yards) to take advantage of off-balance defenders who they couldn’t be sure who would bring the ball.

It has to be that again for the Eagles to look like the Eagles, even if it jeopardizes Hurts’ still-healing shoulder, even if Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s blitz-happy scheme means that there is a big target on the right side of Hurts. .

“I get a reward every week I go out on the field,” Hurts said. “So I’m going to go out there and just play my game. Whatever happens, happens.”

Yes, if Hurts gets hurt, the Eagles are doomed. But this is the opportunity they have to take because of how important he is to their plans. He went beyond the 11 carries and 53 yards and nearly a rushing touchdown he averaged per game in those 14 starts. It was what his running ability did for everyone else around him and what made opposing defenses tick.

Take that away and sure, maybe the Eagles can still beat the Giants defense in other ways. In their first meeting on Dec. 11, after all, Hurts threw for 171 yards and two touchdowns in the first half as the Eagles jumped out to a quick 21-0 lead on their way to a 48 -22. Of course, they put that game away in the second half with a rushing attack that finished with 253 yards. And the 1-2 punch of Hurts (77 yards) and running back Miles Sanders (144) kept the Giants defense guessing even when they knew the Eagles were going to run.

If Hurts isn’t running like he can … well, a 1-hit just isn’t the same. The Eagles would still be fine, but they would be much closer than normal, which would be a huge step back. And they would be very vulnerable against a Giants team that displayed a nice 1-2 punch with quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley in their wild-card playoff win at Minnesota on Sunday afternoon.

So they need to let Hurts be Hurts, no matter how much it hurts. He’s certainly tough enough to handle it, and now he’s had three of the last four weeks off to rest. Now he has to make a full comeback, because everything depends on him regaining his old form.

So will it be? Will everything be back to normal with Hurts and the Eagles on Saturday night?

“I don’t know,” Hurts said sheepishly. “I think it depends on how it goes.”

It probably won’t go well if it isn’t. If it is, the Eagles could be back on the Super Bowl track.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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