No franchise has succeeded more under the direction of Black quarterbacks than the Philadelphia Eagles. Randall Cunningham, Rodney Peete, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick – each led teams to the playoffs. This week, Jalen Hurts is scheduled to take a step that could potentially help him join the exclusive club someday.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson plans to start the rookie passer for the first time Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. Struggling franchise quarterback Carson Wentz has been demoted to second string. After playing little this season, Hurts, with four games remaining, is auditioning to prove he’s ready to assume the Eagles’ leading role and possibly join the impressive list of Black signal-callers running the NFL.
Quarterback guru Quincy Avery, who has worked with Hurts for several years, said the 22-year-old is well prepared for his big break.
“With any young guy [in his first start] … it takes a bit of time,” Avery said on the phone this week. “But in terms of the mental space, where he’s at and being ready to go out there, he has the ability to lead and do all the little things right. He’s as good as anybody else in that, and he’s only going to continue to improve.
“He has the talent. And anyone [who has played with him] will tell you his leadership is unquestioned. Now, the way that he continues to understand the game at the NFL level is what’s going to continue to improve. That’s what comes with being in there [as a starter] and getting the opportunity to get the experience.”
A 2019 Heisman Trophy finalist while starting at quarterback for the University of Oklahoma, Hurts replaced Wentz during the Eagles’ 30-16 Week 13 loss to the Green Bay Packers. The second-round pick outperformed Wentz (granted, that’s not hard to do these days), passing for 109 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Working with the Eagles’ starters for an entire week will only help Hurts, Avery said.
“One of the key elements that people miss, that they don’t understand, is that when you’re not the starter, you don’t [regularly] throw passes with the first-team guys,” Avery said. “He essentially went out there on Sunday in his first opportunity to really play with those guys.
“He did well and he handled the situation really well, especially not knowing what he was going into the game to do. You could see his teammates responded to him once he got in the game. It shows the faith they have in him to be the leader of the team. I know he can do a great job. Especially in that Philadelphia organization.”
Way back when, Cunningham was an Eagles second-round draft pick trying to prove he belonged. Cunningham would go on to become “The Ultimate Weapon,” the nickname he earned by displaying athleticism the NFL had never before seen at the game’s most important position. Four times, Cunningham led the Eagles to at least 10 victories. Three consecutive seasons while atop their depth chart, Cunningham was selected to the Pro Bowl. He started five playoff games for Philadelphia.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, Cunningham’s style of play wasn’t the only thing that made him unique.
“When I got to the NFL it was, ‘How do you feel being a Black quarterback in the NFL?’ ” Cunningham told The Undefeated last year. “And I kind of wanted to push that question off the side, because I really didn’t want to deal with it.
“I wasn’t the breakthrough person for African Americans. I was just another person trying to get the job done. So I basically told them [reporters], I said, ‘Well, being in South Philadelphia, I thought I was Italian.’ And they laughed, but that was kind of the end of that, you know? And then everything else basically was based on my play and how I did things.”
Cunningham was replaced by Peete, who signed with the team as a free agent during the 1995 season. Peete guided the Eagles to a postseason win.
McNabb arrived in 1999. The second overall pick in the draft, McNabb became a six-time Pro Bowler and partnered with then-head coach Andy Reid to help the Eagles reach five NFC championship games and Super Bowl XXXIX.
McNabb also pushed for the Eagles to sign Vick as his backup after Vick served 18 months in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting ring.
“I looked at it in the sense of helping a brother out,” McNabb told The Undefeated last year. “Because everybody deserves a second chance. And I didn’t look at it as a threatening deal for me in my position. I thought it would help our football team, but not only that, it would help him get back on his feet and prove that he’s a better person than people kind of looked at him as.”
On and off the field, Vick put his life back together. He emerged as a vocal animal rights advocate. In 2010, Vick won the Associated Press NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award.
The Black quarterbacks who came before Hurts in Philadelphia accomplished a lot. The Eagles are gambling that by benching Wentz and elevating Hurts, perhaps they’re at the doorstep of a new, prosperous era.
And when making a high-stakes wager on a quarterback in Philly, it’s often wise to bet on Black.