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The significance of historic Hurts-Mahomes Super Bowl LVII QB matchup

Andy Reid spent his first 14 seasons as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and hasn’t lost to them since he’s left.

Travis and Jason Kelce will be the first brothers to play against each other in the Super Bowl.

But neither of those are the narratives carrying the most significance into Super Bowl LVII.

Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts are a combined 51 years old, the youngest QB matchup in the big game’s history — 13 days younger than the number Joe Montana and Dan Marino added up to in 1985.

But it’s not these pivots’ historic youth that most bares mentioning ahead of Sunday’s tilt between the Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, it’s their race: the game will mark the first time that both Super Bowl starting quarterbacks are Black.

If these two talents had been born in a previous era, they wouldn’t have graduated to this stage. Mahomes likely would have chosen to pursue professional baseball instead of dealing with the QB racism that is an occupational hazard for minorities playing the position. Hurts would have been made a running back or defensive back, if he too didn’t decide to pick up a bat. If both had stuck it out at QB, it would be north of the 49th parallel in the CFL, not in the NFL, let alone on its biggest stage.

For the vast majority of the NFL’s history, Black players have been an endangered species in the middle of the field. Safety, middle linebacker, centre and quarterback, the leadership positions, were all filled by white players. 

The fact the sport historically marginalized and pigeonholed African American players not only limited their freedom, it limited their earning potential. It’s no coincidence those central positions are the ones typically seen as a road into careers in coaching.

Ahead of the 1972 NFL Draft, Chuck Ealey’s agent told teams not to draft him unless they planned to play him at quarterback. They listened and Ealey was passed over, so he took his talents to Canada and became the first Black QB to win the Grey Cup that same year.

As a point of comparison, the first time two Black quarterbacks started in the Grey Cup was 1981, when future US congressman J.C. Watts and the Ottawa Rough Riders faced off against Edmonton and Warren Moon. Moon remains the only Black QB in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Upon entering the NFL in 2021, Hurts was forced to answer the same questions about changing his position as Ealey was 40 years earlier.

“I’ve always been a team-first guy, but I’m a quarterback,” Hurts said at the time.

That treatment isn’t unique to Hurts. We only have to look back to Lamar Jackson being asked to work out as a receiver during the 2018 NFL combine, even though he’d just won the Heisman as a sophomore quarterback at Louisville. Jackson refused the request and has since won an MVP at QB, which may make the whole combine incident look harmless in retrospect, but saying no took bravery because Black QBs constantly have to balance watching out for themselves against being labelled selfish.

If he wasn’t converted into a receiver or running back, Hurts was supposed to be the Black Taysom Hill, more gadget guy than franchise player. One of the early supposed knocks against him was his ball placement wasn’t elite enough for the NFL. This year, when targeting players opposite press coverage, he leads the league in yards per attempt (10.8), TD passes (4) and is tied for the league lead in interceptions (0). The Eagles QB’s 1.1 per cent turnover ratio is the best in the NFL, and Hurts leads all QBs in the regular season and playoffs with a completion percentage of 72 on his passes from the pocket.

Apparently, his ball placement is just fine. Which is part of the reason Hurts is 16-1 this year as a starter. Joe Montana is the only QB to go 17-1 and win a Super Bowl.

Commentators are quick to laud Hurts’ athleticism, but what sets him apart are the granular duties that come along with being an elite QB. Neither he nor Mahomes should be labelled “just athletes.” They rank first and second in QBR from the pocket this season.

The beauty of the current crop of Black QBs is their differences in style as signal callers dispels the stereotype of Black QB as a synonym for an athletic, running quarterback. Jameis Winston, Jacoby Brissett and Teddy Bridgewater are some of the most unathletic QBs I’ve seen in my life. Jalen Hurts improvises to run. Patrick Mahomes utilizes his athleticism to throw. But they both can do it all, so you can’t put them in a box.

Black quarterbacks are not an anomaly anymore. But, for perspective, the NFL’s workforce is 71 per cent Black, but less than a third of its QBs are Black.

Seeing a Black man at the game’s most important position is no longer the exception, but in order to be given a chance those QBs still have to be exceptional.

Four of the last eight MVP awards went to Black quarterbacks. (In the first 58 seasons of the award, only one went to a Black QB: Steve McNair in 2003.) Progress has been made but progress does not equal equality.

The true sign of change would have been Josh Johnson suiting up this weekend if San Francisco had won the NFC championship. Johnson is an anomaly as a Black veteran backup QB. Black QBs have generally only been backups when they were being groomed to start. The privilege of just being the NFL’s version of average hasn’t been afforded to Black QBs; they were either out of this world or out of the league.

The guys taking the field on Sunday are so brilliant they’re undeniable. But even so, they’re subjected to critcism full of coded language dripping in racism. This offseason an unnamed defensive play-caller, spoke to The Athletic’s Mike Sando as part of Sando’s annual quarterback rankings and said, “We love Mahomes because of his unorthodox throws, not because of his natural pocket presence. And when that disappears, that is when they lose games. Nothing against the guy. I love the kid. But take his first read away and what does he do? He runs, he scrambles, and he plays streetball.”

Mahomes hasn’t lost many games, so drawing any conclusion from that small sample is fool’s gold. As for his overall numbers, Mahomes from the pocket is first in QBR, first in 20-plus-yard passes and first in expected points added (EPA) per dropback. He’s the only QB that ranks top three in QBR against both man and zone.

On Thursday night, Mahomes won MVP for the second time after leading the NFL in passing yards (5,250), touchdown passes (41) and Total QBR (77.5) this season. Even after losing his No. 1 receiver, Tyreek Hill, in the offseason, he threw for a career-high in yards along with four more rushing scores.

He threw for 240-plus yards in each of his first 25 games, tying the longest such streak in NFL history for a quarterback at any point in his career. If he isn’t getting through his read progression now, imagine what’ll happen if he does.

But the stats that truly tells the story are the final scores. In the 92 NFL games Mahomes has played in, he has lost just three by more than one TD. Since he became the starter in 2018, only one AFC team, the 2019 Baltimore Ravens, has had more victories than the Chiefs in any given season.

He is the youngest QB with 10 playoff wins, at 27 years and 134 days, and his 10 career playoff wins are tied with Tom Brady for the most in a QB’s first six seasons.

Mahomes is also vying to become just the 13th QB to earn multiple Super Bowl championships.

The numbers speak for themselves, but some people see only what they expect to when he steps to the line. Mahomes has called it out himself. “Obviously, the Black quarterback has had to battle to be in this position to have this many guys in the league playing. Every day, we’re proving that we should have been playing the whole time,” he said earlier this season. “We’ve got guys that can think just as well as they can use their athleticism. It’s always weird when you see guys like me, Lamar, Kyler [Murray] kind of get that on them when other guys don’t. But at the same time, we’re going out there to prove ourselves every day to show we can be some of the best quarterbacks in the league.”

This Super Bowl will be Black History. And the representation is particularly important because of the audience.

The Super Bowl attracts more casual fans than any other football game. This Sunday, they’ll see a pair of smart, articulate leaders that happen to be Black QBs. Whether conscious or unconscious, that image is a powerful ltool to help combat the biases we’ve been socialized with in terms of what a leader looks like and what roles in society Black men are fit to fill.

The significance of the moment isn’t lost on either man.

“To be on the world stage, to have two Black quarterbacks starting in the Super Bowl, I think it’s special,” Mahomes said earlier this month. “I’ve learned more and more about the Black quarterback since I’ve been in this league and the guys that came before me, and Jalen set the stage for this and now I’m just glad that we can set the stage for kids that are coming up now.”

Hurts feels the same: “I think it’s history. I think it’s something that is worthy of being noted and it is history. I think there have only been seven African American quarterbacks to play in the Super Bowl”.

Worthy of being noting but not a panacea for the game’s racial issues.

There were two Black head coaches in the Super Bowl over a decade ago, when Tony Dungy led the Colts against Lovie Smith’s Bears in 2007. How much progress have we seen in that area since? Not much. I’d argue things have gotten worse to the extent qualified coaches like Brian Flores and Steve Wilks have been forced to litigate.

The Roger Goodell hostage video pledging that “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t mean things have improved.

The NFL painting “End Racism” in the end zone is a hollow gesture. They do have the power to end it on the field and sidelines.

Blackness is not a one-size-fits-all equation. Black excellence looks different in all its guises. You’ll see it under centre on Sunday, but that’s a credit to those men and the men that came before them, for forcing the change by forcing their way onto the field.

Only one QB will emerge victorious, but the fact they’re in the game itself is a win.

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