PHILADELPHIA — Receiver AJ Brown was asked if he examined the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster before agreeing to a four-year, $100 million extension in April to finalize his trade from the Tennessee Titans.
“No, unfortunately,” he said last week, as preparations for Super Bowl LVII got underway. “All I needed to know was who was going to be my quarterback. That told me everything I needed to know.”
That confidence in Jalen Hurts, and what his presence means for the direction of this franchise, was developed over hours of intense throwing sessions on remote Mississippi fields and through years of friendship, Brown said.
The public was not as sold. Hurts showed undeniable leadership traits and some on-field promise in his first full year as a starter in 2021, but questions about his ceiling — driven mainly by subpar accuracy numbers — lingered into last offseason.
“My first year here [people] probably didn’t even want [me drafted] here. It was probably one of those things. But it always handles itself,” Hurts said following Philadelphia’s 31-7 win over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game. He pointed to a Bible verse that has stuck with him.
“John 13:7: ‘You may not know now but later you’ll understand.’ Hopefully, people understand.”
Even some of his biggest supporters didn’t see this season coming: an MVP-caliber campaign, a 16-1 record as the starter, and a trip to the Super Bowl (6:30 pm ET Sunday, Fox), where Hurts and the Eagles enter as 1.5-point favorites over the Patrick Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs.
It feels sudden and unexpected. But to see the past seven months through the eyes of Hurts’ teammates and those closest to the 24-year-old, his rise to unquestioned captain of arguably the best team in football happened moment by moment, brick by brick.
IF THIS SEASON were made into a movie, the opening scene would be of Hurts, Brown, receiver DeVonta Smith and Smith’s brother, Christian, working out in the driving rain in Burlington County, New Jersey, one early July morning.
Marine Corps veteran Gabe Rangel, who trains a number of NFL players, including Hurts and Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, likes to bring his athletes to a local park for speed work because of a steep hill that rests between the playground and some playing fields.
Brown had just gotten to town, and the group had agreed to meet at the park at 6 am But the conditions weren’t great. There was torrential rain. The hill turned muddy, and the bottom was a puddled mess. The mix of cold rain on a warm surface created a fog.
“I showed up to the field first that day. I’m the Marine special forces guy, and I was kind of like ‘Oh, s—.’ In my own head, I’m like, they’re probably going to cancel,” Rangel said. “I have my truck parked and Jalen pulls up next and gets out and starts throwing his cleats on. And then DeVonta pulled up next and then AJ There was no hiccup. They just sat down in the wet grass and started lacing them up.”
According to Smith, it was the first time he, Hurts and Brown were all together, increasing the urgency to get the job done in no matter the elements.
“Most guys today in the NFL wouldn’t show up to a workout like that or go home,” Brown said. “It was real work applied out there.”
Hurts set the tone, making sure he was first in line for every rep, Rangel said. If they needed any extra motivation, it was written on the back of Hurts’ sweatshirt: There are those who make excuses and those who get it done. We only live once — get it done.
Each of them ran the hill 20 times, except Hurts. Brown had started his hill work later than Hurts and Smith, so Hurts continued climbing after hitting his number to ensure Brown didn’t run alone.
“That let everybody know, let the team know, how serious we were about this,” Brown said. “That we’re coming into work no matter the circumstances and we’re going to get it done.”
Nothing was going to stop Hurts.
“He is just unfazed,” Rangel said.
THE BUZZ PICKED up as the offseason training program got underway.
Hurts and Brown were in rhythm from the jump. Training camp opened with a touchdown toss from Hurts to Brown in the left corner of the end zone to the delight of the NovaCare Complex crowd. That became the theme of the summer: Hurts to Brown. Hurts to Brown. Rinse and repeat.
The excitement over that connection was trumped only by the notable progress in Hurts’ overall game: The ball was coming out quick, and his reads were sharp, the benefit of being in the same offensive system for a second consecutive year for the first time since his dad was his coach in high school. And, Hurts was showing improved mechanics, the benefit of his time in Southern California with quarterback trainers who focused on his footwork and release.
“I’m noticing a big difference,” coach Nick Sirianni told ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio. “What I see is a crisper ball. The accuracy I’ve been very pleased with.”
Meanwhile, Hurts was laying the groundwork with teammates behind the scenes as he took on a larger leadership position.
“It was the second week of camp. I went in at 5 am one time to watch film in the receiver room and he was already in there watching film,” undrafted rookie receiver/punt returner Britain Covey said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my bad,’ and he was like, ‘No, come watch it with me.’ And at the end of the day we didn’t really watch film. He just paused it and basically encouraged me, told me what he thought of me as a player.
“Your first camp is so eye-opening, and you’re so stressed about getting cut and all these things, and he gave me some peace.”
Connecting with players across the locker room was done through small gestures. For tight end Jack Stoll, it was shooting hoops with Hurts on the basketball net in the team meeting room and chopping it up with him in the sauna. For defensive tackle Milton Williams, it was his regular run-ins with Hurts in the practice facility late in the day when Williams was leaving the massage room and Hurts was headed in after another round of film study.
“‘Hey, what’s up Big Milt? What’s up with it? You good?'”
At times the gestures were more overt, like when Hurts gifted every offensive lineman a Louis Vuitton bag and every quarterback Air Jordan 11 sneakers for Christmas.
Safety Reed Blankenship described Hurts’ pregame speeches as “crazy,” not because he goes Al Pacino in “Any Given Sunday” on them — Hurts is fond of saying, “I don’t have to give y’all no rah-rah speech,” the implication being the identity is set and the group plenty motivated. But, the message always matches the mood and comes from the heart with a strong voice that “gets you ready to go.”
Tight end Dallas Goedert pointed right back at Hurts’ address during a team meeting as a tone-setter for the Eagles’ 38-7 divisional playoff beatdown against the New York Giants.
“I’m not hungry. I’m starving for this s—,” he told the group.
“Whatever he says, goes,” Goedert said. “He is the leader of this place.”
In truth, the tone was set by Hurts weeks earlier, in a similarly strong performance against the Washington Commanders in Week 3 when all phases clicked for a convincing 24-8 victory.
“We went in [to the locker room postgame] and everyone was kind of happy,” Covey said. “And he went in there straight-faced and was just like, ‘This is going to be the standard for the year.’ He said, ‘After this, we don’t even need to be happy when we play like this because that’s what’s expected.'”
TOO MUCH TOO the Hurts highlights to choose from during his MVP bid — he threw 22 regular-season touchdowns and rushed for 13 more — it was a 9-yard completion on third down in the first quarter against the Giants in Week 14 that really got his teammates’ attention, and had cornerback Darius Slay contemplating switching positions.
“It was the out route to Quez [Watkins] on the blitz off the back foot before [Watkins] came out of the break. It was a dot. I was like, I’m gonna go to receiver because I know bro can give me the ball anytime right now. I’m about almost ready to retire this DB s— and go to receiver because I know I’m going to go for 1,500 [yards].”
Linebacker Nakobe Dean called it “one of the best throws I’ve ever seen in person.”
“The amount of growth in a year?” Slay said. “It’s up there.”
The season took a worrisome turn when Hurts was driven into the frozen turf on a running play against the Chicago Bears a week later and sprained the SC joint in his throwing shoulder. He finished the game but missed the next two weeks and has been playing hurt ever since.
Left tackle Jordan Mailata and tight end Grant Calcaterra were the two players closest to Hurts as he lay on the ground. What happened next has come to define the level of grit and determination Hurts has shown his teammates.
“I could tell he was kind of hurt, and I was like ‘Oh s—,'” Calcaterra said.
“Stay down, stay down!” Mailata told Hurts.
Hurts was quiet for a moment as Mailata readied to signal to the sideline — until Hurts finally spoke up.
“Get me the f— up.”
“Yes, sir,” Mailata said.
BROWN GETS FRUSTRATED by Hurts because he’s so serious. The two first bonded when Hurts hosted Brown during a recruiting trip to Alabama and have since become best friends. They spent the ensuing offseason working out in Brown’s hometown of Starkville, Mississippi, where they’d shout at each other to throw a better ball or run a crisper route.
When Brown agreed to the extension that set his trade from Tennessee to Philly in motion, he knew exactly what type of competitor he was linking up with.
“He wasn’t even on my team [when we used to train together] and we were working on stuff, trying to get it down pat.”
Backup quarterback Gardner Minshew likened them to “an old married couple” because, while it’s obvious they’re tight, they bicker. “Where I get upset is I’ll be like, ‘Have fun sometimes,'” Brown said.
Hurts wears the same straight-faced expression almost no matter the situation. But he has been flashing some personality between the white lines this year.
“Jalen’s hilarious, dude,” Mailata said. “Sometimes he’ll break the huddle: ‘Let’s f—ing do it, motherf—er.’ He’s got some funny sayings: ‘Let’s run this motherf—er right here.’ ‘Let’s get this first down — Uh!’ But he says it much calmer, and I believe him. ‘Yeah, let’s go get it.'”
Multiple teammates referred to his touchdown celebration against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11 as their favorite Hurts moment of the season. The Eagles were trailing 16-10 with just over a minute to play when, on third-and-goal, Hurts took off on a QB draw up the middle and raced into the end zone untouched. The Colts’ mascot, Blue, was standing just a few feet away and began thrusting his oversized belly in Hurts’ direction. Hurts responded in kind while raising the ball above his head.
Tight end Dallas Goedert did not travel with the team that week as he dealt with a fracture in his shoulder. He said he was feeling down watching his team from afar but had his spirits lifted by Hurts in the final moments.
“That’s just him: He doesn’t ever look like he’s having that much fun but he has fun playing the game,” Goedert said. “Just a little dance and then right back to the stoic straight face on the sideline.”
That (mostly) all-business approach was captured perfectly in the second quarter of the Eagles’ first game against the Giants on Dec. 11. With Philly rolling up 21-0, cameras showed Brown and Watkins laughing and carrying on while Hurts sat next to them on the bench, stone-faced.
“It was like, ‘Bro, crack a f—ing smile. Do something, bro. We’re f—ing up.’ But that’s him,” Watkins said. … “I guess if we win this f—ing Super Bowl he’ll be smiling ear to ear.”