Matt Rhule knows Jalen Hurts all too well.
The now-Carolina Panthers head coach played the now-Eagles quarterback twice in 2019, back when Rhule was the head coach at Baylor and Hurts the QB at Oklahoma.
Rhule lost them both.
“When he was at Oklahoma, he would put the team on his back and play with tremendous physicality in the run game,” said Rhule on Thursday. "I think you look now, and you see a quarterback who has the deep ball.
“…It’s a scheme that fits his talents. It’s not one of those deals where you have to defend him 30 plays, you have to defend him every play because of the RPO game, the zone-read game, and the drop-back passing game. I’ve been very impressed the way he played this whole season, but especially last week, I thought he was excellent.”
Ah, last week, the game that began the great divide among a fan base.
One side criticized Hurts despite accounting for 434 yards of offense with his arm and legs because the Eagles lost to the Chiefs, because he isn’t as accurate as they want, because all his stats are achieved against bad teams or when the outcome of the game was already out of reach. Twitter was ablaze with some very harsh criticisms.
Another side sees hope that maybe he can be the long-term answer at the position, or at least through 2022, which would allow the Eagles to use next spring’s draft capital to address other much-needier positions.
The latter is the side Ruhle would land on.
“I thought he was an excellent competitor, a really good passer, a really good runner, and I think you see him getting better, more comfortable, and I think the coaching staff there, (head coach) Nick (Sirianni) and (offensive coordinator) Shane (Steichen), have done a really nice job of building the offense around him,” said the Carolina coach.
“You’re starting to see some of their playmakers really emerging. I think DeVonta (Smith) is playing excellent and all those guys. It’s a tough scheme to go against.”
That’s another thing in the pro Hurts side of the ledger. The development between him and some of the young weapons such as Smith, who leads the team in yards, Quez Watkins, who leads the league in yards per catch, and Jalen Reagor, who is finding ways to make an impact.
Rhule had a front-row seat to see Hurts play twice in 2019 - on Nov. 16 and again on Dec. 7.
In November that year, Oklahoma went to Waco, Texas, and ended the Bears’ nine-game winning streak, needing to overcome a 31-10 halftime deficit to win 34-31.
Hurts played without his top receiver that day, CeeDee Lamb, yet still completed 30 of 42 throws for 297 yards, and four touchdown passes with one interception. He ran for 114 yards on 27 carries.
Just weeks later, in the Big 12 title game, Oklahoma trailed 13-10 at halftime and, behind Hurts, won 30-23 in overtime.
Hurts was 17-for-24 for 287 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He ran for 38 yards, and Lamb had eight receptions for 173 yards.
“I thought he was excellent there at Alabama,” said Rhule. “We played Oklahoma, he brought them back against us when we were ahead, beat us in the championship game, so I just think that he’s doing different things, but I had a lot of respect for him.”
Hurts could help himself in the eyes of the naysayers – or maybe not, because they are so adamant in their opinion that he isn’t the long-term answer – by beating a stout defense like the one the Panthers possess.
His output against an improved Dallas defense wasn’t very good until later in the game. Then against the Chiefs, he struggled to put up touchdowns in the red zone, which in turn led to field goals when the Eagles needed touchdowns to keep pace with Kansas City.
“If we score points in the red zone, we’re sitting here with a different record, all of that,” Hurts said. “We’re going to learn from it. We’ve learned from a lot to this point. Who am I to say we’re going to stop learning? We’re going to continue to learn, we’re going to continue to grow, and it’ll click. When it does, it’s going to be real pretty.”
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.