In his notorious ESPN comments last Sunday night, Rush Limbaugh said he never thought the Philadelphia Eagles’ Donovan McNabb was “that good of a quarterback.”
If Limbaugh were a more astute analyst, he would have been even harsher and said, “Donovan McNabb is barely a mediocre quarterback.” But other than that, Limbaugh pretty much spoke the truth. Limbaugh lost his job for saying in public what many football fans and analysts have been saying privately for the past couple of seasons.
Let’s review: McNabb, he said, is “overrated … what we have here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback can do well—black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well.”
“There’s a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”
Let’s take the football stuff first. For the past four seasons, the Philadelphia Eagles have had one of the best defenses in the National Football League and have failed to make it to the Super Bowl primarily because of an ineffective offense—an offense run by Donovan McNabb. McNabb was a great college quarterback, in my estimation one of the best of the ‘90s while at Syracuse. (For the record, I helped persuade ESPN Magazine, then called ESPN Total Sports, to put him on the cover of the 1998 college-football preview issue.) He is one of the most talented athletes in the NFL, but that talent has not translated into greatness as a pro quarterback.
McNabb has started for the Eagles since the 2000 season. In that time, the Eagles offense has never ranked higher than 10th in the league in yards gained. In fact, their 10th-place rank in 2002 was easily their best; in their two previous seasons, they were 17th in a 32-team league. They rank 31st so far in 2003.
In contrast, the Eagles defense in those four seasons has never ranked lower than 10th in yards allowed. In 2001, they were seventh; in 2002 they were fourth; this year they’re fifth. It shouldn’t take a football Einstein to see that the Eagles’ strength over the past few seasons has been on defense, and Limbaugh is no football Einstein, which is probably why he spotted it.
The news that the Eagles defense has “carried” them over this period should be neither surprising nor controversial to anyone with access to simple NFL statistics—or for that matter, with access to a television. Yet, McNabb has received an overwhelming share of media attention and thus the credit. Now why is this?
Let’s look at a quarterback with similar numbers who also plays for a team with a great defense. I don’t know anyone who would call Brad Johnson one of the best quarterbacks in pro football—which is how McNabb is often referred to. In fact, I don’t know anyone who would call Brad Johnson, on the evidence of his 10-year NFL career, much more than mediocre. Yet, Johnson’s NFL career passer rating, as of last Sunday, is 7.3 points higher than McNabb’s (84.8 to 77.5), he has completed his passes at a higher rate (61.8 percent to 56.4 percent), and has averaged significantly more yards per pass (6.84 to 5.91). McNabb excels in just one area, running, where he has gained 2,040 yards and scored 14 touchdowns to Johnson’s 467 and seven. But McNabb has also been sacked more frequently than Johnson—more than once, on average, per game, which negates much of the rushing advantage.
In other words, in just about every way, Brad Johnson has been a more effective quarterback than McNabb and over a longer period.
And even if you say the stats don’t matter and that a quarterback’s job is to win games, Johnson comes out ahead. Johnson has something McNabb doesn’t, a Super Bowl ring, which he went on to win after his Bucs trounced McNabb’s Eagles in last year’s NFC championship game by a score of 27-10. The Bucs and Eagles were regarded by everyone as having the two best defenses in the NFL last year. When they played in the championship game, the difference was that the Bucs defense completely bottled up McNabb while the Eagles defense couldn’t stop Johnson.
In terms of performance, many NFL quarterbacks should be ranked ahead of McNabb. But McNabb has represented something special to all of us since he started his first game in the NFL, and we all know what that is.
Limbaugh is being excoriated for making race an issue in the NFL. This is hypocrisy. I don’t know of a football writer who didn’t regard the dearth of black NFL quarterbacks as one of the most important issues in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. (The topic really caught fire after 1988, when Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.)
So far, no black quarterback has been able to dominate a league in which the majority of the players are black. To pretend that many of us didn’t want McNabb to be the best quarterback in the NFL because he’s black is absurd. To say that we shouldn’t root for a quarterback to win because he’s black is every bit as nonsensical as to say that we shouldn’t have rooted for Jackie Robinson to succeed because he was black. (Please, I don’t need to be reminded that McNabb’s situation is not so difficult or important as Robinson’s—I’m talking about a principle.)
Consequently, it is equally absurd to say that the sports media haven’t overrated Donovan McNabb because he’s black. I’m sorry to have to say it; he is the quarterback for a team I root for. Instead of calling him overrated, I wish I could be admiring his Super Bowl rings. But the truth is that I and a great many other sportswriters have chosen for the past few years to see McNabb as a better player than he has been because we want him to be.
Rush Limbaugh didn’t say Donovan McNabb was a bad quarterback because he is black. He said that the media have overrated McNabb because he is black, and Limbaugh is right. He didn’t say anything that he shouldn’t have said, and in fact he said things that other commentators should have been saying for some time now. I should have said them myself. I mean, if they didn’t hire Rush Limbaugh to say things like this, what did they hire him for? To talk about the prevent defense?