Thursday, October 02, 2003

Rush to offense 

He should have known better: Rush Limbaugh's statement about Donovan McNabb might be correct (and more of that in a moment, because I'm sure I'll have to explain it) but it stood to reason that this was not what ESPN hired him to do. Limbaugh had to know that any statement of that sort would be used to embarass him and force ESPN to seek his ouster. PowerLine's Deacon is correct:
Limbaugh is being critical of sportswriters, not African-Americans. It would not be McNabb's fault if he were overrated; it would be the fault of the (mostly white) writers who overrate him. Limbaugh is being "insensitve" to African-Americans only to the extent that he is casting an African-American as the benefiicary of bias, not the victim. In today's America, this position may be insenstive, but only because our sensivities have become warped.
But there's more to this, because I think there may in fact be an overrating of quarterbacks that have the same skills as McNabb. Mr. McNabb is considered good not because of his passing ability -- his passing rating of 86.0 last year was below that of Matt Hasselbeck, for example -- but because he is a good rusher. Watching someone throw the football is not as exciting as Michael Vick's scamper against the Vikings that is in every "greatest hits" video NFL Films produces. Now let's suppose two things:A very casual empricism leads me to think the second is true. Just this season, the top four QBs in rushes per game are Kordell Stewart, McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Quincy Carter. The one QB of color down the list for this season is Steve McNair, who is a very different kind of QB than the others.

There can be any number of reasons why QBs run -- often, it's for their lives -- but in some cases like Stewart, McNabb and Vick it's part of the designed offense. And these guys will show up on a lot of highlight films. Since effort is often a good story for sportswriters to report, the effort of these players will show up in many game stories and mid-week buildups. Thus the impression Rush has -- which I think is correct -- that players like McNabb, rushing QBs, draw a lot of press.

Now the question is, do rushing quarterbacks (of any race or ethnicity) do better in winning championships or do passing quarterbacks? To take a germane case, consider Doug Williams, an early black quarterback who did win a Super Bowl in 1987. He averaged under 3 rushes per game -- McNabb over 7. He was much higher than this in 1980 with Tampa Bay, but they went 5-10-1 that year after having made the NFC Championship game the previous season. Think to yourself -- where are the successful rushing QB Super Bowl winners? Do we really think of Joe Montana as a rushing QB? Elway? The closest is Steve Young, and frankly McNabb is no Steve Young. (Limbaugh could have asked Young this, as both were on the set when Limbaugh made his statement.)

I have no idea if this is what Limbaugh meant. If it is, I can say with some certainty that NFL Countdown is not the place to make that argument, because it's hard to document with any sensitivity to the nuances that argument makes. Can we separate rushing QBs from bad offensive lines? Does the rushing QB lead to wide receivers not running routes as well (since they might have to block downfield?) And does perhaps the presence of a Vick or McNabb cause teams to skimp on hiring good offensive linemen that can pass-protect in key games where you can't use the rushing QB as often? (Quick: In his five post-season games, how many times did Fran Tarkenton run? Answer: 6.) Good luck getting that over Chris Berman's swami skit. But I believe the media thinks rather simplistically about cause and effect in sports, and this may be another example.

(For those who wonder my interest in sportswriters' perceptions of athletes and race, see my paper in this book or this paper by Findlay and Reid which drew from an unpublished work I did, or some later research by economists at U. North Texas.)