Donovan McNabb Was Right — But Only Indirectly

Since nothing important happens until I offer my opinions on it, I guess I should weigh in on Donovan McNabb’s comments about black quarterbacks getting more scrutiny than their white counterparts. I’ve pondered this for a good three seconds or more, so I feel confident when I say …

He’s probably right. And they get more free pub, too. But not entirely because they’re black.

This type of criticism also comes with the “good QB failing to win the Super Bowl” territory. And they get more scrutiny, and free pub, too.

Actually, it applies to any sport, where a very good player who compiles good individual numbers fails to win a team championship, for whatever reason. But we’ll stick to quarterbacks here.

Apologies for length, and I really hesitate to even opine on such things, because of the ridiculous conclusions people draw from any discussion involving skin color, but it seems to me there are too many platitudes and assumptions being bandied about whenever race enters a discussion. I know this whole topic is like kryptonite, and makes a lot of folks itchy and nervous and even angry. All the more reason to analyze it rationally and without emotion; it’s just a series of observations made in the spirit of inquiry. So take a chill pill.

Also, I did zero research on this, it is completely from memory. So if I’m wrong on something, my apologies.

So … let me throw something out there: the excessive scrutiny for McNabb is probably less because he’s black, than because he is a very good and athletic quarterback. And, he’s far from the only one who falls into that category.

Let’s make a quick list (off the top of my head) of the really athletic NFL quarterbacks in the last 30-40 years.

  • Vince Young
  • Donovan McNabb
  • Daunte Culpepper
  • Michael Vick
  • Kordell Stewart
  • Randall Cunningham
  • John Elway *
  • Vince Evans

Now let’s make a list of the black quarterbacks of the last 30-40 years:

  • Vince Young
  • Donovan McNabb
  • Daunte Culpepper
  • Michael Vick
  • Kordell Stewart
  • Steve McNair
  • Randall Cunningham
  • Warren Moon
  • Doug Williams *
  • Vince Evans

* = won Super Bowl

Notice any similarities? What is interesting about these two lists? Seems that most of the black quarterbacks have been extremely athletic (except McNair and Williams). And, only one guy on each list was on a Super Bowl winner. And finally, all of the really athletic quarterbacks, save for John Elway, have been black. I might be missing somebody, but the point remains, and I think we all know it as true, whether we like to admit it or not: black NFL quarterbacks tend to bring a slightly different set of skills, generally speaking, because of somewhat better athleticism. Generally.

Note that this does not imply that every black quarterback is more athletic than every white quarterback, which is obviously not true. It also does not deny that there may be discrimination or other factors at work that result in only these particular black quarterbacks making it to the NFL. I have no data or opinion on that.

Now let’s dig a little deeper here. Let me throw something else out there. I believe that the media likes to pump up certain quarterbacks more than they should, i.e., they are literally “over-rated”, for a few different reasons. Here are the main two:

  1. black quarterbacks, since the media at large loves a good story about blacks in formerly “whites only” positions in the public eye, and
  2. athletic quarterbacks, since the media at large is fascinated by athletic quarterbacks, because it makes for great video and offers something to write about.

It is very important to understand here what “over-rated” really means: that the amount of attention a player receives is out of proportion with the value that player brings to the team. It does not mean that player is no good at all; in fact, in common usage, it means a very good player just gets way too much recognition, all out of proportion with their value. Admittedly, this is a subjective judgment for most of us, but I’m sure somebody with too much time on their hands and a love of statistics and metrics could conjure up something useful and informative, which would then get buried and ignored because nobody really cares that much.

And to put an even finer point on it, to be over-rated usually means the media shows too much love to a certain player, probably due to access or quotability, or both. Think Charles Barkley. Great player, but no greater than a lot of other guys who didn’t get nearly the media love. So the whole discussion about being over-rated, or under-rated, is a discussion primarily about media attention, basically, and not so much about how good a certain player is, or is not. By definition.

So if it’s generally true that athletic quarterbacks attract more media attention than they deserve, i.e., that they are over-rated, and we know it’s true that most athletic quarterbacks are also black, then the stage is set for being confused about the true motivation behind that scrutiny.

And the flip side of being overrated, i.e., of getting too much media attention, is that it brings the contrarian analytical types out of the woodwork. Like me.The criticism directed at athletic quarterbacks not being winners is nothing new. The Bears had a QB in the early 70s named Bobby Douglass. This guy was strong, and fast, and hard to tackle (he led the team in rushing and YPC in 1972, gaining almost 1000 yards in a 14 game season), and could throw the ball 70 yards in the air (and did, in a game, to George Farmer in 1972 – I remember it well). But he was a crappy quarterback. And he was white. With blonde hair. You couldn’t really be any whiter. And while he got lots of media attention for his strength, and his running, he also got lots of criticism for being a horrible passer, and a generally inferior quarterback. Of course, the team sucked too, so it’s not like they were on the verge of winning the Super Bowl, held back only by Douglass. But he was the first such quarterback in the NFL, to my knowledge, and the image of the big “dumb” athlete playing a position meant for a smart finesse player has been hard to shake, ever since.

So since athletic quarterbacks AND black quarterbacks are outside the norm for quarterbacks, and since they rarely win Super Bowls, they get even more attention directed at them when they do get to one. And part of getting more attention is getting more criticism, too, since attention always brings criticism with it. I believe John Elway, who was the first really athletic white quarterback with any serious QB skills at all, would tell you he heard an awful lot of criticism until he won those two Super Bowls.

I haven’t heard others discuss it quite this way, and it’s just a half-baked theory, but it just seems pretty apparent to me that there is more going on here than just black vs. white. If black quarterbacks didn’t also happen to be super-athletic, at least in the NFL, then my case would disappear. And maybe you could make the case that there are plenty of good black quarterbacks who don’t get the chance in the NFL due to prejudice, or idiotic scouting and attitudes about the value of athleticism at the QB position, or any number of other reasons. I have no doubt that is true at least some of the time. There are also non-black players at small schools who don’t get enough of a chance to play in the NFL. Unfairness abounds. But black vs. white gets all the attention, and I suppose this is because most people love to deal in platitudes rather than analysis.

So McNabb is probably right about black quarterbacks receiving a bit more scrutiny than white quarterbacks. But a more accurate way to phrase it, at least according to this analysis, is that athletic quarterbacks receive more media attention in general. And they get more criticism when they fail to win Super Bowls, which they do with stunning regularity.

While we’re on this topic, I have to mention something that annoys me whenever a discussion of McNabb and the media comes up, and that is the Rush Limbaugh incident from a few years ago. Rush Limbaugh said that the media was “desirous” of a successful black quarterback, and that McNabb was overrated.

“I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”

Limbaugh was derided as a racist, and fired from ESPN for this incident.

This was seen as criticism of McNabb. It is not. It is actually a criticism of the media, for being “politically correct” and therefore being a little too anxious to anoint Donovan McNabb. He did NOT say that McNabb was no good, or that he is only in the NFL because he is black, or that he has no qualifications at all. Just that he “got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve”, and this was, in Limbaugh’s view, mostly because the media wanted a black quarterback to do well. Period. Think about what that means, analytically.

  1. McNabb was viewed by the media as the main reason the Eagles were good that season, whereas in Limbaugh’s mind, it was the defense that deserved this credit. A perfectly valid football point, that might be true, and is worth discussing and analyzing. And note that race is not part of that discussion.
  2. McNabb received this credit because the media wants black quarterbacks to do well. Again, a point that deserves discussion — a media-related point, and a race-related point, but not a football-related point — and might well be true.

So maybe he’s right. Or wrong. Or partly right and partly wrong. I don’t know. But we aren’t even allowed to have that discussion. ESPN decided for us that we are too sensitive and tender-hearted, and that we must not even discuss it.

Wow. I find that much more disturbing than anything Limbaugh said. We don’t do ourselves any favors when we declare discussion topics as innocuous as “who deserves credit for a team’s success, and why” off limits. Even if a double standard about skin color is a factor.

I’m guessing we’re not as fragile as the media thinks we are. And in any event, controversial matters need a forum for airing them out, but the media doesn’t want to be a party to that, so I guess the issues and attitudes will just resolve themselves. Right.

And let’s not forget, McNabb plays in a league where every vacant head coaching position requires two minority interviews, under threat of big fines from the commissioner’s office.

So race is a legally mandated piece of the head coaching interview process, under threat of large fines by the commissioner, but it is not allowed when discussing which QB is over-rated and which is not. Got it.

But back to the original issue. Since McNabb plays in Philadelphia, right away you have to factor that in. Philly fans are known to be clinically insane, across the board. The media is probably not much better. Quite possibly, worse. If I was a player, there is no way I would ever play for any East Coast team, specifically, in Philly, NY, Boston, or anywhere in between.

And so the bottom line is this: who cares? Sometimes people don’t like you. Get over yourself. Especially as a quarterback on an NFL team, you just can’t worry about what everybody thinks about you all the time. And even worse, we live in a 24×7 media world, where opinions about every stupid little topic get covered to death. None of it matters.

The proof is on the field. Shut your critics up by getting it done. Yes, the criticism is unfair, because teams win championships, not individuals. Unfortunately, fair or unfair doesn’t matter, because that’s just the way it is. If you’re a very good QB, and the media pays lots of attention to you, and especially if you get to the Super Bowl, or close to it, multiple times, and even more especially, if you’re very athletic, then you had better win a Super Bowl or two, or you’ll never hear the end of it.

This also provides useful insight into how truly useless and invalid much criticism truly is: ankle-biting, for the most part, by those who can’t, or won’t try, directed at those who do. Few things are more annoying, from where I sit. It’s like these music critics who find something to hate about everything: yes, maybe you do know something about music, but what purpose is served by digging deep for negativity all the time? Who has time for that?

So until then, people will snipe, and it doesn’t matter if you’re black or brown or green or purple. Ask John Elway, who is white and who heard lots of criticism about not winning The Big One, if he thought he got too much scrutiny before he won a Super Bowl.

And to the extent that McNabb gets more criticism than Elway did — if, in fact, he does — maybe it’s because he isn’t as good. Or because he plays on the East Coast, in a town as crazy as Philly, close to the Eastern Seaboard Programming Network, which obsesses over all athletes within 250 miles of their headquarters. Those bright lights can be kind of harsh sometimes.

Oh, and Donovan … try not to throw up at the line of scrimmage in the Super Bowl. Doesn’t leave a good impression. And the guys on your O-Line might slip in it.

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