PHILADELPHIA – “You don’t realize now what I’m doing, but you’ll understand later.” John 13:7.
Jalen Hurts wasn’t supposed to be heroic on Sunday. It just had to be solid. He passed efficiently: 25 attempts, 15 completions, 121 yards, no interceptions. He ran when needed: 11 attempts, 39 yards, one touchdown.
For all the talk of Hurts’ dynamism and his threat to run, all Hurts had to do in Sunday’s NFC Championship game against San Francisco was a solid performance. He did, and Philadelphia headed to the Super Bowl with a 31-7 win against the 49ers.
The criticism of the “double threat,” “rushing,” “shuffling” quarterbacks is that they lacked the balance, the discipline, the skill, to be solid — to play from the so-called pocket, to play the unspectacular.
Hurts responded to those criticisms on Sunday as he has responded to them all season. Maybe she answered them forever.
With Philadelphia’s victory over San Francisco and Kansas City’s victory over Cincinnati, next month’s championship game will mark the first time two African-American quarterbacks have met in the Super Bowl. This is a significant timestamp in the evolution of black quarterbacks in the NFL.
What’s equally significant — and tied to the milestone of two black quarterbacks going head-to-head — is that Hurts will be the first run-pass option (RPO)-style quarterback since Cam Newton to reach the Super Bowl. In a follower league like the NFL, the rise of Hurts could intensify the flow of super-athletic black quarterbacks into the NFL.
In the past, these athletes—the Lamar Jacksons, the Jalen Hurts—were routinely switched to wide receiver and defensive back. Those days may be over. In fact, the great athlete will be sought after to play quarterback role.
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As Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph told me recently: “If you’re a super athletic athlete and a good quarterback, nobody wants to change you. Because if you have one of those guys as a quarterback, it makes your team dangerous.
Newton led the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl 50 after the 2015 season. The first RPO quarterback to lead his team to the Super Bowl was Colin Kaepernick, who took the league by storm with his open style of play during the 2012 season. Kaepernick and Newton did not win their respective Super Bowls, but their style of play heralded the dawn of a new quarterback era. The run, long resisted and derided, would become an integral part of the NFL offense.
However, until now there would not be another Super Bowl appearance for an RPO-style quarterback. As long as it doesn’t hurt.
After Sunday’s game, I asked Hurts how he felt, given everything he’d done in college, leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl.
“I really don’t know how to feel, to be honest,” she said. “You work really hard to put yourself in this position and I will be forever grateful.”
Hurts then made a comment that would become a repeating theme during his brief postgame press conference.
“I know I’ve been through a lot personally,” she said. “…but I don’t want to stray from the direction of how good this team has been at playing together, sticking together and challenging each other.”
In another statement, Hurts referenced what he had been through in college, and in another, how he was a surprise, perhaps disappointing, pick from Philadelphia.
“My first year here people probably didn’t even want me here,” she said. “It was probably one of those things. But it always manages itself.
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Like the Eagles, who won just four games during Hurts’ rookie season and have been questioned for selecting him, the 24-year-old quarterback is led by offense. They are kindred souls. “When we go through painful times and difficult times, we’ve always found a way through,” said Hurts.
There are thousands of notable moments in the rich history of African Americans in sports. There are the big moments that we all know, and there are thousands of smaller stories with the consistent theme of beating the odds. Hurts is part of that tradition: overcoming obstacles, persevering, being pushed aside only to rise again stronger and more fortified than ever.
His presence in the upcoming Super Bowl will illuminate a journey that began at halftime of his sophomore year at the University of Alabama. The story is familiar but cannot be told enough. He tells you who Hurts is and places him perfectly in the rich tradition of black quarterbacks whose existence has been one of hurdles to overcome.
As a highly decorated freshman, Hurts led Alabama to the national championship game. As a sophomore, Hurts led Alabama to the national championship game against Georgia. At halftime with Alabama trailing 13-0, head coach Nick Saban made a change that would change the trajectory of Hurts’ career. Rather than allow his star quarterback to fight his way out of a hole, Saban benched Hurts and replaced him with Tua Tagovailoa. Alabama came back and won.
Hurts has never spoken negatively about the bench or Saban. He was asked again on Sunday, perhaps to contrast what may have been his lower-him moment with this, his higher-him moment. Hurts said: “We have new moments. New moments and new times. I was raised to be who I am. As times change, character doesn’t. I always try to never go too high, never too low and always give my all.
Saban didn’t bench Hurts to make him a better human being. He benched him to win a soccer game. Hurts decided to make the best of the situation. He cheered for Tagovailoa in that title match, and then as a junior he backed Tagovailoa. Hurts moved to Oklahoma for his senior season and developed into a better passer and eventually a Heisman Trophy finalist.
There were more doubts about Hurts’ NFL potential. At the 2020 NFL combine, a reporter asked Hurts if he would consider switching positions. Hurts, always the diplomat, said: “I’ve always been a team guy first, but I think I’m a quarterback. I think that’s it.
That was the same question that followed Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson as he walked out of Louisville, the same question that haunted scores of would-be black quarterbacks who never got the opportunity to play.
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Hurts was drafted by the Eagles in the second round. It’s possible that if Jackson hadn’t had his phenomenal MVP season in 2019, Hurts would have been drafted lower. But Jackson illuminated the possibilities of how having an amazing athlete as a quarterback could be transformative. The Eagles took their chances and it paid off with a trip to the Super Bowl.
After Sunday’s game, reporters tried to get Hurts to talk about leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl, or wax poetic about what it feels like to fulfill a childhood dream.
Hurts has made it clear that he doesn’t dabble in dreams and memories. She is in the here and now.
“I said earlier in the week that this is not a time for reflection. It’s really hard for me to do that,” Hurts said. “I try to enjoy the moment, but my joy is in winning. I know the job isn’t done.
Before the interview session ended, someone asked Hurts to clarify an earlier comment when he said some Philadelphians didn’t want him drafted.
“It came as a big surprise to many,” he said of being drafted. “My favorite [Bible] verse – I went through a lot in college and it stuck with me – John 13:7: “You may not know it now, but you will understand later.” I hope people understand.”
Now we understand a little better.
In Hurts’ book, getting the job done isn’t just about winning the Super Bowl or being voted MVP. The job is to have a career that silences all doubts and skeptics.
The historic Super Bowl showdown with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is just the beginning.
William C. Rhoden, the former New York Times award-winning sportscaster and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer for Andscape.