A few weeks ago, I wrote about the explosion of running quarterbacks in the league. As we head into Week 11, seven quarterbacks are on pace to have 75 or more rushing attempts. Ten already have 15 or more rushing first downs. And five are in the top 50 in rushing yards.
But two – the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts – have clearly separated themselves from the pack when it has come to their running exploits this season.
For Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP, this is nothing new. He has rushed for 1,000 yards each of the last two years, and with 639 yards this year, is on pace to do it again in the NFL’s first 17-game season. He is averaging 11.8 rushing attempts per game this year, up from 10.7 in his first four seasons.
But Hurts has been staying with Jackson step for rushing step in his first full season as the Eagles’ starter. He is ninth in the league in rushing through 10 weeks with 618 yards, just behind Jackson, who is eighth.
Hurts is third in the league in rushing first downs with 45, including seven in last week’s 40-29 win over the New Orleans Saints when he became the first Eagles quarterback in franchise history to have three rushing touchdowns in a game. He already has eight this season, which is the fifth-most in the league and two short of Michael Vick’s franchise record for a quarterback.
Led by Hurts, the Eagles have rushed for 870 yards and nine touchdowns in the last four games. They notched 58 rushing first downs in those four games. Hurts has 20 of them, along with 257 of those 870 yards.
The Eagles have completely changed their offensive approach in the last month. In their first seven games under first-year coach Nick Sirianni, they had a 38.9 run-play percentage and Hurts was averaging 34.6 pass attempts per game. The Eagles were 2-5 in those seven games.
In their last four games, the Eagles have a 66.9 run percentage and Hurts has averaged just 19.5 passes per game. They’re 3-1.
“I thought they were making a huge mistake early in the year by asking him to throw the ball so much,” said longtime pro football analyst Ron Jaworski, who spent 15 years as an NFL quarterback, including 10 with the Eagles.
“You have to manage a young quarterback’s game. I think with the new emphasis on the ground game he’s found a water level now where he can manage the offense and still make the big plays with his arm and his legs and grow as a quarterback.”
The obvious risk you run with letting a quarterback run the ball as much as Jackson and Hurts are running it is that they could get hurt and your season could go up in smoke. But when their mobility is such a special part of what they bring to the offense, do you really want to remove it from their tool box?
The Ravens certainly don’t. Jackson’s running ability has been an integral part of their offense ever since Jackson replaced Joe Flacco as the starter in the second half of his rookie season in 2018.
And for the time being at least, the Eagles seem very willing to let Hurts run, whether by design, on read-options or scrambles. Hurts had a season-high 18 rushing attempts against the Saints last week. Seven of those runs came on third down. Six resulted in first downs. They don’t win that game without those plays.
“You’ve got to give the Ravens credit for buying into Lamar because there were a lot of people that didn’t see what they saw,” said former NFL head coach Brian Billick, who co-authored the best-selling book The Q Factor: the Elusive Search for the Next Great NFL Quarterback last year.
“Their success comes in not only taking Lamar, but also buying in hook, line and sinker and saying, ‘Hey, if our quarterback runs the ball 180 times a year, we’re fine with that.’
“Now, it’s not a problem until it is a problem. Until he gets that hit, like RGIII did, that puts him out. That’s what’s kept a lot of other people from buying in.’’
HURTS-JACKSON BY THE NUMBERS
|Rushing 1st downs
|10-plus yard runs
Jackson’s 176 rushing attempts in 2019, when he rushed for 1,206 yards and seven TDs to go with a league-high 36 TD passes, was an NFL record for a quarterback. His 159 carries last year were the second-most ever. And his 147 as a rookie were the third-most. Right now, he’s on a record-breaking 188-carry pace.
So far, Jackson has managed to sidestep injuries as well as he does tacklers. He’s missed just three games in his career, none because of injury. He was inactive for the last game of the 2018 season because the Ravens already had secured homefield advantage in the playoffs. He missed a game last season when he was on the COVID-19 list. And he sat out Sunday’s 16-13 win over the Bears because of a non-COVID illness.
The 6-1, 223-pound Hurts has a different running style than the 6-2, 212-pound Jackson. Jackson is slightly faster and more elusive in space. Hurts also is fast, but has more power and strength than Jackson.
“Jalen is built more like a running back than a quarterback,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “Lamar is taller and leaner. He’s not really built like a running back, but Jalen is. Jalen, from the waist down, looks like a running back. He bounces off contact.”
But is bouncing off of contact really what you want your starting quarterback to be doing on a regular basis? Hurts is on pace to run the ball 176 times season. He does a good job of avoiding hits by getting out of bounds and sliding. But he’s also not afraid to take on blocker, and in one game earlier this season, somersaulted over a tackler to pick up a crucial first down.
“I would be concerned about committing to Jalen’s running style 150-170 carries a year because he can’t protect himself as well as Lamar or (the Cardinals’) Kyler Murray,” Billick said.
Jaworski doesn’t think 10 carries a game is a good long-term recipe for either Jackson or Hurts.
“There’s a reason so many of the performance of so many of these running quarterbacks begins to go down late in the season,” he said. “It’s because they’re beat up. A sore shoulder. A sore arm. A nicked finger.
“If you’re a left tackle, nobody gives a damn. Tape it up and play. But a quarterback, those injuries affect his performance. They wear down as the season goes on. You have to manage their game very carefully.”
While Hurts and Jackson may have the same skill-set, Jaworski said they’re very different players in very different offenses.
“People are going to look at their (rushing) numbers and say, ‘Oh, they’re both rush quarterbacks,’’’ he said. “But they are really different.
“I think Jalen’s a very good runner. But he’s running a different kind of offense. Lamar is a dynamic runner. In space, he can make people miss. He’s that kind of dynamic Michael Vick-like runner.
“I think eventually Jalen will be more judicious. He’ll take those running opportunities when they come. He’ll get down, like he did on slides several times against the Saints Sunday. He’ll make people miss every now and then. But most of the time, when he sees contact, he’ll get down.
“When I watch the Ravens ever since (offensive coordinator) Greg Roman got there, it is the most unique running game in the NFL. Greg Roman is to the NFL running game what Sean Payton is to the passing game. They’re designers. They’ll try anything. Cool stuff. Old stuff.
“And that’s why I think Jalen and Lamar are different. Because I think Greg Roman is so much different than any other offensive coordinator in the league. I don’t think anybody is any better at designing run plays than he is. And he’s got a guy like Lamar who gives him the ability to do all of that crazy stuff.”
That said, both Jackson and Hurts probably are most dangerous as runners on pass-play scrambles rather than designed runs or zone reads.
“With both of them, I think some of their best runs are called passes where they just find a running lane against man coverage or whatever and just take off,” Baldinger said.
Hurts is fourth in runs of 10 yards or more with 22. Jackson is sixth with 20. More than half of both of their double-digit-yard runs this season have come on scrambles.
Hurts’ passing numbers this year are about what you’d expect from a quarterback with 15 starts. He’s done a very good job of protecting the football. He’s tied for sixth in interception percentage (1.6) with just five picks in 320 attempts. He’s lost just one fumble.
But he’s 28th in completion percentage (61.6), 23rd in passer rating (90.4), 21st in yards per attempt (7.1) and 17th in QBR (52.0).
“Lamar is further along because he’s played a lot more and he’s been coached more,” Baldinger said. “Jalen has said that the only guy that really coached him at the quarterback position before this year was (Oklahoma’s) Lincoln Riley.
“Sometimes we forget about that aspect. We just look at these guys and think the playbook is the playbook. But these guys have to be coached. What to read. How to decipher coverages. All of those kinds of keys to help them pre-snap and post-snap.
“I saw improvement in Jalen at Oklahoma with Lincoln Riley and I’m seeing it now. Lamar probably sees the field a little bit better right now. But again, he’s played a lot more games in this league than Jalen. I mean, if you go back and look at what Lamar was three years ago when he first came into the league and see how far he’s come, he’s come a long ways. I think Jalen is on that same path.”
Jackson’s passing numbers have dropped since his MVP season in 2019. His touchdowns-to-interceptions differential went from plus-30 to plus-17 to plus-6 this year. His touchdown percentage has dropped every year. So has his passer rating.
“I actually think he’s gotten better as a passer,” Jaworski said. “Coming out of Louisville, I thought he was a little mechanically quirky. He still is to a degree. Throws sidearm and drops the elbow at times, and throws off-balance. But that’s who he is. It’s like Brett Favre. You weren’t going to change who he was.
“I think Lamar is the same kind of guy. His off-platform throws are very unique. And while I think he’s gotten better, I also think he’s got a ways to go as a passer.
“I still think there are times where he misses open receivers. It’s not always the ones you hit. I look at the misses that are critical during the course of a game, during the course of a season. I still think, for the long haul, it’s an area he has got to get better at.”
Jaworski thinks Hurts will continue to get better as a passer.
“I think he’s got everything he needs to be successful,” he said. “Early on, I admit I was a little concerned by some of his underthrows. There were some flaws. But I haven’t seen them rear their ugly head as of late.
“His arm is strong enough. There were times he couldn’t follow through on a couple of throws. There were other times where he didn’t snap his hip around on some of those deep balls. But everything I saw was correctable.”