PHOENIX — The Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts have competed against each other from afar all season, going back and forth as the favorite for the N.F.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award.
On Sunday, they will play in the Super Bowl, the first time in league history that Black quarterbacks will face each other in the championship game.
Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the N.F.L., said in a news conference on Wednesday that it was “probably for all the wrong reasons” that this moment took more than half a century to arrive. Among them is the long-held belief among some coaches and executives that most Black quarterbacks operate with an unsustainable run-first style.
“You still see the stereotypes whenever guys come out to the draft,” Mahomes said in a news conference on Tuesday. “I think it just takes us to keep talking about it honestly, to be on a platform like this and for guys like me and Jalen to be in this game and show that we can have consistent success every single year.”
Mahomes and Hurts were the league’s two best quarterbacks this season, dominating opposing defenses in vastly disparate ways. That they approach playing the game’s most important position so differently is further proof that Black quarterbacks can succeed with whichever style they choose.
“That 4-year-old, 5-year-old kid back in Houston, back in Philly, back in Texas, Louisiana, wherever across the world, regardless of what someone may say or have an opinion about you: ‘You can do it. You can do it, too,’” Hurts said in a news conference on Monday. He added: “We just want to inspire the next people.”
Numerically, Mahomes and Hurts are nearly identical physically. At 6 feet 1 inch and 223 pounds, Hurts is an inch shorter and two pounds lighter than Mahomes.
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But a glance at the two players on game days shows a contrasting view. Hurts is noticeably bulkier than Mahomes, which helps him absorb more punishment on the running plays that fuel the Eagles’ offense. Hurts is built like a powerlifter — which he was in high school — and a video shows Hurts squatting over 600 pounds during his final year of college at Oklahoma.
Hurts’s lower-body strength shined this season when the Eagles ran their popular quarterback sneak, which almost always converted short-yardage distances for first downs or scored a touchdown in goal-line situations. Flimsy tackle attempts rarely stop Hurts when he breaks from the pocket on scrambles and long runs.
Kansas City safety Bryan Cook said that each time he watches Hurts play, his size and strength stand out, and it often makes Cook think back to Hurts’s massive squat total.
“Come on, bro, that’s a ridiculous amount of weight,” Cook said while laughing. “So he’s naturally going to do things that Patrick Mahomes not going to do.”
Equipped with one of the best offensive lines in the N.F.L. and helped by the off-season acquisition of receiver A.J. Brown through a trade, the Eagles had one of the most balanced offenses in the league. Philadelphia ranked fifth in rushing yards per game (147.6) and ninth in passing yards (241.5) in the regular season. The Eagles’ offense forced defenses to honor those threats by allowing Hurts to make decisions with run-pass-option plays. R.P.O.s give quarterbacks the latitude to hand the ball off to running backs, keep the ball and run it themselves, or throw to a receiver, depending on the defensive look. The Eagles used the R.P.O. on a league-leading 185 plays in the regular season, according to Pro Football Reference.
Philadelphia led the league in passing yards on R.P.O.s (1,281), as Hurts often found Brown or receiver DeVonta Smith on crossing patterns or flat routes. The Eagles’ offense thrived on designed runs for Hurts; he amassed 409 yards and 11 touchdowns on 97 carries on those plays in the regular season, according to N.F.L.’s Next Gen Stats. The quarterback draw was the most effective of those designed runs, with Hurts gashing defenses for massive gains, often barely being touched.
Hurts’s dual-threat nature allows him to thrive in whichever task the Eagles need from him on game days. Hurts rushed for 157 yards in a Week 12 win over Green Bay and threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Titans the next week.
“He’s always been a very durable player, so he’s been able to run enough to be effective,” Lincoln Riley, who was Hurts’s coach at Oklahoma and who is now the coach at Southern California, said in an interview. “But you can see he’s throwing the ball well. He’s being very decisive, and because their running game is so good, it opens up other opportunities. It’s tough to stop.”
Kansas City, by contrast, is not as balanced as the Eagles. It ranked first in the league in passing yards per game (297.8), but just 20th out of the 32 teams in rushing yards (115.9). Mahomes threw for more yards in the A.F.C. championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals (326) on an injured ankle than Hurts passed for in the Eagles’ two playoff games (275). Kansas City called just six designed runs for Mahomes that totaled 20 yards during the regular season, according to Next Gen Stats.
Kansas City Coach Andy Reid has rarely called for quarterback sneaks after Mahomes dislocated a kneecap in 2019, forcing him to miss two games. Mahomes rushed for 358 yards and four touchdowns this season on 61 carries. When he runs, he is often escaping pressure or trying to extend a play.
“It’s just his instincts,” Matt Nagy, the team’s quarterbacks coach, said. “He knows, he just plays the game. He knows when to do it.”
The son of a former major league pitcher, Mahomes grew up playing baseball, and the Detroit Tigers selected him in the 37th round of the 2014 M.L.B. first-year player draft. But he declined signing with Detroit out of high school so he could play football at Texas Tech. Elements of his baseball background still show as he often throws the ball at exotic arm angles.
After one year backing up the veteran Alex Smith as a rookie in 2017, Mahomes has emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the league: He won the league M.V.P. Award in 2018, the Super Bowl in the 2019 season and has appeared in five consecutive A.F.C. championship games. He credits his rookie year as a key point in his growth and said that he did not fully grasp his playing style and the intricacies of Reid’s offense until his third or fourth season.
“To be able to understand the offense and know where to go and to have those little freebie plays, that took me a while,” Mahomes said. “I got to sit behind a great quarterback in Alex Smith, had a lot of great players around me and then by the time that I needed to learn and master the offense, I was ready to go.”
Mahomes’s arm strength paired perfectly with the speedy receiver Tyreek Hill. Together, they picked apart defenses with downfield pass plays. But Kansas City traded Hill to Miami last March and added the receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the off-season. Neither has Hill’s quickness, and though Mahomes still had his favorite target, tight end Travis Kelce, he needed to adapt to a new supporting cast.
Without Hill, gone was the barrage of deep passes that Kansas City was known for. Only 8 percent of Mahomes’s pass attempts this season traveled more than 20 yards through the air, the fewest of his career, according to Next Gen Stats. But he still led the league in passing touchdowns (41) and yards (5,250), and the team’s offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, praised Mahomes for his efficiency.
On Monday, Bieniemy praised the job Mahomes has done “with his developmental process at just finding guys.” He told reporters, “It’s made him a better quarterback because he has become more diverse and more efficient with the football.”
Whether it’s Mahomes’s arm and ability to adjust while being efficient or Hurts’s dual-threat marvels, both are bypassing decades-long stereotypes about what a Black quarterback in the N.F.L. is supposed to be. As much as Sunday’s game will be about winning a championship, it will also be a statement to the football world about what Black players can do at quarterback.
“To be a part of this history, it’s a blessing,” Hurts said. “I think to be of influence and give the next generation of quarterbacks something to believe in, something to look forward to, that’s nice, too.”