In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 5 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, a Q&A with the quarterback leading the only undefeated team left in the league ...
PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles are currently the best team in the NFL for many reasons. The most significant is the evolution of the offense built around third-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. There have been so many questions about the viability of Hurts as a franchise player, whether his dual-threat abilities included enough skilled passing to make him consistently effective. You will have a hard time finding many skeptics of his game after the way he's started this season.
Hurts came into the NFL as a second-round pick with raw talent and a desire to learn fast. He's now leading a team that is undefeated through four games while completely immersing himself in the MVP conversation. Hurts is still causing problems with his legs, as he's amassed 205 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. He also has grown from a 52 percent passer as a rookie to a player who's completing nearly 67 percent of his attempts this season (and averaging a career-high 280 passing yards per game).
The Eagles might have resorted to a run-heavy offense to accommodate him last year. This season, he's doing everything that a star quarterback needs to do.
"He's reading the plays quickly, knowing where to go with the football versus different looks and throwing it accurately," Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni told me on Sept. 29. "He's always had the ability to create on his own and with his feet. But he's really becoming a complete quarterback by doing those things. Now we've helped him in the sense that we've figured out what he likes. That's a big part of it -- figuring out what he likes and calling it."
That comfort level is a major factor in the growth Hurts has displayed this season. Hurts offered a few more thoughts on how his play has reached new heights when he sat down for a Q&A with The First Read last Thursday.
Where do you think you've improved the most so far this season?
I'm big on execution. I don't think there's one thing that goes into that. It's all-inclusive with the relationships you build, being on the same page with the play-caller, having the timing, having the right type of connections with the receivers, having Jason Kelce and being on the same page with him, me knowing what he's thinking and being able to override it when need be. Everybody being on the same page. Obviously, I touch the ball on every play, and I take great pride in that and the responsibility of making the right decisions to put the team in the right situations.
Something I appreciate about the way this coaching staff has approached you is by playing to your strengths instead of trying to force you into a system. What does that mean to you?
It's looked different throughout the years, just with the coaching changes. Even in college, I've always had a different mind behind the mic in terms of play-callers. But I've always been able to make it my own. Being efficient or putting up numbers in the passing game or run game, regardless of who was calling the plays, it always ended up happening because of the way I play the game. Being here, I have Coach Sirianni, who brings in the background of coaching a Philip Rivers or an Andrew Luck. You have the combination of somebody like (quarterbacks coach) Brian Johnson, who's been around dual-threat guys. Just the whole mixture of all this, I feel like I can effectively do whatever needs to be done. It allows the offense to go in different ways. It just creates a different dynamic when you can truly be a threat in the run game by handing it off or reading things and getting your quarterback involved in the run game or just dropping back and throwing the ball.
This team went to a run-dominant offense midway through last season and had success. Then you bring in A.J. Brown and add him to all the weapons already here, and the offense goes to another level. Was that the plan or just the natural evolution of this offense?
It's a natural evolution. I feel like last year, we had big-time playmakers on the perimeter. For me, it's just the opportunity to be with the same coaches. This is my first time having the same play-caller ever in a consecutive year. That's big. The same system. The head coach seeing offensive football the same way I see it and not (Alabama head) coach (Nick) Saban, a defensive-minded coach where it's a whole different ball game. I know I'm on the same page as Coach Sirianni and (offensive coordinator) Shane Steichen. That's been a big benefit to everything. There are three things I think about on every play: my urgency, my operation and my communication. That's just being a field general. Am I moving urgently? Am I operating at a high and efficient fashion? And am I communicating, meaning, is everybody on the same page? If I can do that, it puts us in a good position to execute.
You talk about being with different coordinators. How challenging has it been to go into different situations having to re-learn or learn new stuff?
It's unsettling and it's challenging. But I don't look at it like 'boo-hoo.' I feel like I took that adversity and turned it into a positive. I look at it now and say, 'OK -- I haven't had consistency as a play-caller.' But I've used it as an opportunity. Coach (Lane) Kiffin, for example, he taught me how to do this in this way (when Kiffin was an offensive coordinator at Alabama). I remember that from seven years ago. Coach (Brian) Daboll and coach (Mike) Locksley -- they taught me to do x, y and z a certain way (Daboll and Locksley also served as coordinators at Alabama). I remember that. That's in the back of my mind. I've been coached the same play to read it a number of different ways. I have all that in my memory bank. That has allowed me to have a different type of wisdom at an earlier point in my career, just being able to recall those things.
I can't think of another young quarterback who's gone through more ups and downs between college and the NFL than you (Hurts lost his starting job at Alabama to Tua Tagovailoa, became a Heisman Trophy finalist in his final college season after transferring to Oklahoma and didn't become a full-time starter in Philadelphia until the Eagles traded Carson Wentz prior to the 2021 season). How have you been able to stay focused and improve through all that?
I can't tell you another guy who's endured what I've endured. But that's also what makes me who I am. I think that's what makes me different. I feel like the fact there's nobody else who can really relate to that, I'm built for it. Regardless of what's in the way, I'll find a way in the end with diligence and patience. It's tough. It's not easy. It's just the mental makeup you have in terms of how you want to tackle a situation. There's probably been a few different negatives throughout the times, but I've always found a way to turn those into positives and come out on top in the end.
Dallas Goedert talked about working out with you in California with the other receivers and really seeing the growth in you. I know you trained with (respected quarterbacks coach) Tom House in the summer. What did you do this offseason that had the biggest impact on your play today?
The biggest thing I did this offseason was the time in OTAs. Getting A.J. up here. Getting on the grass. Going through seven-on-seven. Mental makeup of the offense and what we wanted it to look like in the passing game. That was big.
I interviewed Tom Brady (who's also a client of House) when he first started playing in New England and we talked about how he went through his own adversity at Michigan, including splitting time his senior year with a top recruit. One thing he said that always stuck with me was that you never give anybody a reason to take you out once you have a chance to play. How does that compare to the way you operate?
Tom Brady lost his job in college?
He split time as a senior after being the full-time starter as a junior, and it was a major factor in him winding up as a sixth-round pick. I've heard you talk about how this is your offense now. Is your mindset similar to that because of the adversity you've faced?
Not from that viewpoint. I will say this is the first time I've ever heard that story. ... That's crazy to me. I have a lot of the same energy, just in terms of how important it is to stay steadfast and disciplined on what I'm supposed to do. He's the greatest quarterback to play this game. I have a lot of respect for him as a player and his history of how he got to this point. That's a great foundation for a guy like me.
I bring him up because I hear people talk about your relentless work ethic and the way you approach the game. His mindset as a young player was that nothing was going to be given to him. How does that compare to your approach?
It's always been that way. When I went to Alabama, I wasn't supposed to be the guy. Everybody else was the No. 1 quarterback in the country in their class. I was just a four-star guy from Texas, dual-threat and a little different from everyone else in the room. But I believed in myself, and the rest is history. I feel like it's all in the preparation. Sorry -- I'm still kind of blown away by the Brady stuff. But I think it's all in the preparation. I feel like wherever it's been or what it's looked like, I've been able to make it my own. It's a testament to everybody on offense here, as far as how we're doing. Everybody staying together as one and growing together. It's really nice to have a group of guys like Quez Watkins, Dallas Goedert, Smitty (DeVonta Smith), A.J. and Miles Sanders. We all graduated high school around the same time. For us to be able to experience this together, that's creating value and forming what's to come. It's a journey. ... If I can stake claim to anything in this offense, that's what I want this offense to be about, just the constant climb and growing and trying to build. It's beautiful to experience all this stuff together and know there's still more out there for us.
The identity of this offense -- and even this team -- feels a lot like your identity, in that it doesn't really matter how it looks as long as the results happen. How accurate is that?
I agree with that. It can look a number of different ways. We all know how it went last year toward the end of the season. We were very efficient in the passing game, and we ran the ball so well. In Week 1 (this year) I ran for almost 100 yards and Miles ran for 100 yards and A.J. had a big game. Then (in Week 3) Smitty has a big game and A.J. has 80 yards. It looked different. We're so selfless here. That's my mentality and I want that to be the mentality of not only the offense but the team. We're doing this together. That's what it's about.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) NFC East is a beast: We were supposed to be talking ad nauseum about the brilliance of the AFC West by now, especially after all the powerhouse offseason moves by the teams in that division. Instead, the best division in football feels very much like a collection of franchises that haven't been part of that conversation for a long time. You've already heard ample praise for what the Eagles have become in Year 2 under Sirianni. They can hurt you in every phase of the game, and Sunday's win over Jacksonville was as on-brand as it gets. The Eagles fell behind by 14, then battled back to take control and claim a victory. What's most surprising about the division is what the Cowboys and Giants have shown in the first month of this season. Dallas has ridden backup quarterback Cooper Rush and a smothering defense to three wins while Dak Prescott recovers from thumb surgery. The Giants are proving to be resourceful, as well. They've only allowed 16 points per game in their three wins, and that's without some key personnel on their own defense. On Sunday, they lost their starting quarterback (Daniel Jones) to an ankle injury and their backup quarterback (Tyrod Taylor) to a concussion. With the two QBs out, head coach Brian Daboll turned to the Wildcat offense and asked running back Saquon Barkley to close out the win over the Bears. Yes, the Washington Commanders are in the running for worst team in the league, but that shouldn't diminish what's happening here. The NFC East boasts three teams that are resilient, well-coached and consistent. It's been a long time since the division could make that claim.
2) Run game rules: The NFL might be a passing league, but the running game is starting to enjoy a renaissance. There were plenty of teams who came into this past weekend looking to rebound from a loss or build on momentum already established. Most of them found their way to success by going with an old-school, grind-it-out approach. The Chiefs might not have looked as impressive in a 41-31 Sunday night win over Tampa Bay if they hadn't gashed one of the league's top run defenses for 189 yards. Tennessee improved to 2-2 while riding Derrick Henry, who had 114 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries against the Colts, while Las Vegas secured its first win for head coach Josh McDaniels by doing the same with Josh Jacobs (28 carries, 144 yards and two touchdowns). When you factor in performances from Barkley (31 carries for 146 yards), Philadelphia's Miles Sanders (27 carries, 134 yards and two touchdowns) and the committee approach Atlanta employed in its win over Cleveland (the Falcons had 202 rushing yards), it's obvious that offenses are becoming more pragmatic. Some of this is related to the two-high safety looks that are proliferating around the league -- and slowing down explosive passing attacks. Those schemes aren't going anywhere, so more teams are taking what's being given to them and deciding that light boxes deserve to be rewarded with plenty of smashmouth football.
3) Parity proliferation: We knew this NFL season had a chance to be crazy because of all the aggressive moves that occurred in the offseason. We just didn't know it would be this thrilling this fast, with the past weekend foreshadowing what should be expected in the coming months. Going into the Monday night game between the Rams and 49ers, 14 of the 15 games played in Week 4 had a one-score differential at some point in the fourth quarter. That ties an NFL record. There have now been four games this season that involved a team overcoming a deficit of 17 or more points to win or tie, including the Buffalo Bills' 23-20 win over Baltimore on Sunday. There has only been one time in league history where there's been more comebacks of that nature through Week 4 of a season. We got a taste of this in last year's playoffs, when the final seven postseason games (including the Super Bowl) were decided by one score. We'd better prepare for even more drama as this year plays out. There are teams that were written off because of quarterback issues that are playing like playoff contenders (Cleveland and Dallas). There are a handful of teams that stunk last year but have become pretty feisty (Jacksonville, Atlanta, Seattle, Detroit and the New York Giants). And then you have all the teams that had high expectations coming into the year. The league has never been this competitive or fun. It's also why this will end up being the wildest on record.
The second-year head coach is getting the most out of a Falcons team in transition. Atlanta's 23-20 win over Cleveland was its second straight victory. The Falcons are also one blown lead (they had a 16-point advantage in a season-opening loss to the Saints) and one narrowly missed comeback (they erased a 25-point deficit in a Week 2 loss to the Rams) from being undefeated. This isn't a team stocked with talent, and the Falcons are relying on Marcus Mariota at quarterback. But they play hard and don't back down from anybody. That says plenty about how Smith is leading them.
The fourth-year linebacker is following a breakout 2021 season with a dominant start to this year. He's already produced five sacks, and two of those came in Sunday's 27-24 overtime win over New England. That's great timing for a player who is going to be talking about a long-term extension in the not-so-distant future, with one more year remaining on his rookie deal. It's also more evidence of why the Packers weren't worried about losing Za'Darius Smith in free agency. Gary is turning into a star.
Brown begged his way out of Baltimore. So far, he's proving why he wanted to be traded to a pass-first offense. He has 20 receptions over his last two games, and he's on pace for 128 catches. It's not likely that he'll get there, but it's clear he's been an essential target for Kyler Murray as the Cardinals wait for wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to return from a six-game suspension. Brown has been targeted 28 times in the last two weeks. That level of attention isn't going to change anytime soon.
It's not hard to understand why the Colts are struggling so much offensively. They can't find a way to unleash the league's best running back. Taylor had 161 rushing yards in a season-opening tie with Houston. He's had 167 total rushing yards since. He's also averaging just 3.3 yards per carry during that stretch of futility. The Colts (1-2-1) are supposed to be a power-running team with an intimidating offensive line. They need to rediscover that identity quickly if they want to win consistently, and that means they'll need a healthy Taylor, who is dealing with ankle and turf toe injuries.
The Broncos' running back had a huge fumble that turned into a 68-yard touchdown return for Raiders cornerback Amik Robertson in Denver's loss to Las Vegas on Sunday. That kind of gaffe has become all too common with Gordon these days. He has four fumbles already in 2022, and that's not even the truly bad news for Denver. Gordon will be carrying the football even more after Javonte Williams sustained a season-ending ACL tear in that loss to the Raiders
The Lions had better start stopping some people if they want this to be a breakout season under head coach Dan Campbell. This team wants to be known for grit and toughness. Well, Detroit currently has the league's highest-scoring offense (35 points per game) and its worst scoring defense (35.3 points allowed per game). The Lions want to pressure and play a lot of man coverage, but they're just not consistent enough to be that aggressive right now. The Seattle Seahawks had scored 47 total points this season before facing the Lions. They scored 41 on offense in their 48-45 win on Sunday (the other touchdown came on a 40-yard interception return by Tariq Woolen).
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
SCOUT FOR NFC TEAM: "No. It's still Aaron Donald. He's been doing it so long and can play all over a front. Plus, he's such a unique player himself, even at 31 years old. I love Micah and maybe someday he'll be in that rarefied air. There just have been too many freak athletes who've exploded onto the scene who can't sustain it year after year and that's an important part of this conversation. You need to see that impact sustained after offenses adjust to a guy. Micah is great but he gets a ton of free rushes. That's the brilliance of how Dan Quinn schemes him up. When Von (Miller) was in his prime, you knew where he was on every play, and you still couldn't block him even when you had extra help. There's a lot to Micah's game but I still need to see him more in those 'gotta have it' moments. Those truly special defensive players are catalysts for their teams' winning championships because they dominate in big games. When Micah starts doing that, you can really put him in those conversations beyond just being one of the five most talented defenders in the game today."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates as I see them, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 5 (odds courtesy of FanDuel are current as of 8 p.m. ET on Oct. 3):
Weeks in Top 5: 4
Next game: vs. Bengals | Sunday, Oct. 9
Weeks in Top 5: 4
Next game: vs. Raiders | Monday, Oct. 10
Weeks in Top 5: 2
Next game: at Cardinals | Sunday, Oct. 9
Weeks in Top 5: 4
Next game: vs. Steelers | Sunday, Oct. 9
Weeks in Top 5: 3
Next game: at Browns | Sunday, Oct. 9
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Bills over Eagles.
Previous picks ...
- Week 4: Bills over Eagles
- Week 3: Bills over 49ers
- Week 2: Bills over Buccaneers
- Week 1: Bills over Packers