For The Record: Rush Was Right About McNabb

Filed in PoliticsTags: Media Bias, NFL, Racism

Note to readers: my purpose for writing this post is two-fold. First, I simply want to set the record straight once and for all. Second, I want to have this information available for future reference.

Much has been said of late regarding the supposedly racially motivated comments Rush Limbaugh directed toward Donovan McNabb on ESPN in 2003. (The other quotes attributed to Limbaugh will be the subject of a later post.) Used to support opposition to Limbaugh's participation in a group bidding to purchase the St. Louis Rams, his comments have been accused of being either racially motivated at worst, or simply wrong at best.

Both accusations are demonstrably false.

Here is what Limbaugh said in 2002:

I’ve listened to all you guys, actually, and I think the sum total of what you’re all saying is, Donovan McNabb is regressing, he’s going backwards. And my, I’m sorry to say this, I don’t think he’s been that good from the get-go. I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well … for instance, black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. I think there is a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he really didn’t deserve … [crosstalk] the defense carried this team, I think, and he got credit for it.

Full transcript here and here. Note also, at the very end of the transcript, this exchange:

Jackson: So Rush, once you make that investment, though, once you make that investment in him, that’s a done deal.

Limbaugh: I’m saying it’s a good investment, don’t misunderstand, I just don’t think he’s as good as everyone said he has been …

We'll come back to that point later. First, I want to address the latter accusation, that Limbaugh was wrong about McNabb's performance up to that point.

Was McNabb Over-Rated?

To begin, let's compare how McNabb's performance compared to all quarterbacks in the 2002 season - the season for which he was being hyped at the time that Limbaugh made his statement:

  • Passer Rating: T7th
  • Yards: 26th
  • YPG: 10th
  • YPA: T23rd
  • TD: T17th
  • INT: T1st (fewest)
  • Sacks: T18th (fewest)

(Note: unless otherwise noted, all stats are taken from

But Rush's comment was directed at McNabb's career up to that point. So let's look at his career performance. McNabb's aggregate stats prior to the 2003 season:

932/1639 (56.9%), 9835yds, 6.0ypa, 71 TD, 38 INT, 79.3 rat

Which, over 54 games, (roughly) averages out to:

17/30 (56.9%), 182yds, 6.0ypa, 1.3 TD, 0.7 INT, 79.3 rat

For a comparison (eerily similar), look at the 2009 per-game numbers (through 5 games) for Jets rookie QB Mark Sanchez:

15/27 (56%), 183yds, 6.8ypa, 1 TD, 1 INT, 74.1 rat

Let's take a look at the most comparable QB performances in each of the past few years, dating back to McNabb's rookie season.

  • 2008: Ravens QB Joe Flacco (16 games):

    16/27 (60%), 185.7yds, 6.9ypa, 0.9 TD, 0.8 INT, 71.4 rat

  • 2008: Rams QB Mark Bulger (15 games):

    17/30 (57%), 181.3yds, 6.2ypa, 0.7 TD, 0.9 INT, 77.2 rat

  • 2007: Falcons QB Joey Harrington (12 games):

    18/29 (61.8%), 184.6yds, 6.4ypa, 0.6 TD, 0.7 INT, 77.2 rat

  • 2006: Vikings QB Brad Johnson (15 games):

    18/29 (61.5%), 183.3yds, 6.3ypa, 0.6 TD, 1.0 INT, 72.0 rat

  • 2005: Bucs QB Chris Sims (11 games):

    17/29 (61%), 185.0ypg, 6.5ypa, 0.9 TD, 0.6 INT, 81.4 rat

  • 2004: Bills QB Drew Bledsoe (16 games):

    16/28 (56.9%), 183.3ypg, 6.5ypa, 1.3 TD, 1.0 INT, 76.6 rat

  • 2003: Raiders QB Rich Gannon (7 games):

    18/32 (55.6%), 182.0ypg, 5.7ypa, 0.9 TD, 0.6 INT, 73.5 rat

  • 2002: Dolphins QB Jay Fiedler (11 games):

    16/27 (61.3%), 184.0ypg, 6.9ypa, 1.3 TD, 0.8 INT, 85.2 rat

  • 2001: Denver QB Brian Griese (15 games):

    18/30 (61.0%), 188.5ypg, 6.3ypa, 1.5 TD, 1.3 INT, 78.5 rat

  • 2000: Saints QB Jeff Blake (11 games):

    17/28 (60.9%), 184.1ypg, 6.7yap, 1.2 TD, 0.8 INT, 82.7 rat

  • 1999: Jets QB Ray Lucas (9 games):

    18/30 (59.2%), 186.4ypg, 6.2ypa, 1.6 TD, 0.7 INT, 85.1 rat

So what does all of that mean?

Well, for the period of McNabb's performance for which Limbaugh's quote is germane, McNabb's aggregate performance is roughly equivalent to Ray Lucas, Jeff Blake, Brian Griese, and Jay Fiedler. For my younger readers, for the period of 2003 through present, McNabb's aggregate performance for his first four seasons is roughly equivalent to Rich Gannon, Drew Bledsoe, Chris Simms, Brad Johnson, Joey Harrington, Marc Bulger, Joe Flacco, and Mark Sanchez (R). Perhaps this comparison puts into perspective the relative performance of McNabb, in the context of the media hype that prompted Limbaugh's statement.

Note that I'm not the only one to make the Brad Johnson comparison. Philadelphia columnist Allen Barra made exactly the same comparison in an article in which he said that not only was Rush right, but that many sports commenters thought - and should have said - the same thing. Allen Barra agreed that McNabb was over-rated. Erik Kuselias agreed. Tony Kornheiser agreed.

Now, the only relevant question is: was McNabb over-rated; that is, was he being hyped to an extent that was out of proportion to his performance as compared to his peers? Clearly, the answer is yes - but was McNabb's performance responsible for the Eagles' playoff runs? Did he lead the team, or - as Limbaugh stated - did the defense lead the team's performance?

In 2002, the Eagles were 4th in the league in Scoring Offense, scoring 25.9 points per game with 27 passing TDs and 15 rushing TDs. (Note: of those, McNabb threw 17 TDs and rushed for 6 TDs.) The offense was 10th in yards per game, 18th in irst downs per game, 20th in third down percentage, and 15th in sacks.

That same season, the Eagles were 2nd in the league in Scoring Defense, yielding 15.1 points per game. The defense was 4th in yards per game, 4th in first downs per game, 1st in third down percentage, and first in sacks.

The 2002 Eagles were a team whose offense scored a lot of points and protected the football, but couldn't sustain long drives. McNabb that season played as a very conservative and very average quarterback. It would appear that Limbaugh's statement that "the defense carried this team" is correct.

Was Limbaugh's Statement Racially Motivated?

So, moving on to the second point: was Limbaugh's statement racially motivated? That is: was Limbaugh motivated by his own racist beliefs in making that statement?

According to Limbaugh, the answer is no:

There's no racism here. There's no racist intent, comment whatsoever.

Limbaugh's statement belied no inherent racism. Limbaugh was commenting on perceived media bias due to race - that is, his statement was motivated by the perceived racial bias of the media. As Limbaugh explains (ibid):

And basically what I said was, as a fan, that the Eagles are here in trouble, that they're 0-2 to start the season and they had not done well, had not shown much potential in either of the two losses - and we were discussing McNabb, and I was as a fan offered the opinion that I, as a fan, don't think he's as good as others have made him out to be. Not that he's a bad quarterback, not that he shouldn't be there, but that he's just not as good as everybody says. And I think his reputation - really I was comparing his reputation on the field to his reputation in the media. The media has portrayed Donovan McNabb as a great quarterback, and they have given him, have credited him almost exclusively with the Eagles' success, and I've always thought that there were more components to the Eagles' success than just the quarterback.

I've always thought that teams that have a quarterback that accumulates more rushing yards than the running backs are actually not going to win championships; this is the NFL, not the NCAA. The Eagles had a previous quarterback like this. Randall Cunningham was a great quarterback, but he was a rushing quarterback as well, and he oftentimes didn't lead the team in rushing, but he was close. And Cunningham got the same kind of treatment that Donovan McNabb gets by the Philadelphia media and actually the national sports media. So as a fan I simply made the statement that I think his reputation on the field does not match his reputation in the media.

And then I went further and said that I think that the sports media has a desire that black quarterbacks - remember, now, we're going through phases in the NFL just like we go through in our society. We go through society, "We need affirmative action because there aren't enough blacks in leadership jobs, or in jobs, period." Well, it's reached the NFL. There aren't enough black head coaches, which I also spoke about in an essay three weeks ago. At one point we didn't have enough black quarterbacks. Well, now, there are quite a number of black quarterbacks and it's my opinion that the sports media, being liberals, just like liberal media is elsewhere, they have a desire that black quarterbacks excel and do very well so that their claims that blacks are being denied opportunity can be validated.

They've got a vested (interest), they've pushed the idea all these years, they have accelerated the notion that it's unfair that blacks haven't been quarterbacks - and I agree with that - and so they've got a vested interest when the quarterback position opens up to blacks that they do well. And I have simply said that their desire for McNabb to do well has caused them to rate him a little higher than perhaps he actually is.

So the real question is, were the media biased - or, in Limbaugh's words, "very desirous that a black quarterback do well… for instance, black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well"?

Were The Media "Very Desirous That A Black Quarterback Do Well"?

Well, we can certainly say that the league itself was "very desirous that black coaches [do] well"; after all, this incident took place not long after the NFL instituted the Rooney Rule - the league's requirement that teams hiring a head coach must interview at least one minority candidate (something to which, coincidentally, Limbaugh had been very vocally opposed, because it exploited rather than helped minority coaches).

As for black quarterbacks, John Lott found that, at the time of Limbaugh's statement, the media did, in fact, demonstrate a favorable bias toward black quarterbacks. (And lest we forget: McNabb himself has played the race card more than just about anyone else on this issue.)

Some sportswriters (such as Mike Lupica) made the argument that the media didn't need to over-rate McNabb in order to promote black quarterbacks, because of other successful black quarterbacks such as Steve McNair, Michael Vick, and Vince Young (along with a counter-argument that the evidence of no such media bias is the media treatment of Kordell Stewart. Let's compare: McNabb's first four seasons, versus the first four seasons of Michael Vick, the third through sixth seasons of Kordell Stewart (note: these were the first four full seasons that Stewart played as starting quarterback), the second through fifth seasons of Steve McNair (note: McNair played only four games in his first seasons), and the first two seasons of Vince Young (note: Young was benched after one game in 2008). Looking at each player's per-game performance:

  • Donovan McNabb (1999-2002) 54 games:

    17/30 (56.9%), 182yds, 6.0ypa, 1.3 TD, 0.7 INT, 79.3 rat

  • Steve McNair (1996-1999), 52 games:

    15/27 (56.5%), 178.3ypg, 6.7ypa, 0.9 TD, 0.7 INT, 77.9 rat

  • Kordell Stewart (1997 - 2000), 64 games:

    12/23 (54.7%), 139.1ypg, 6.1ypa, 0.8 TD, 0.8 INT, 69.1 rat

  • Michael Vick (2001-2004), 43 games:

    12/22 (53.6%), 153.9ypg, 6.9ypa, 0.8 TD, 0.6 INT, 73.9 rat

  • Vince Young (2006-2007):

    14/25 (57.1%), 158.2ypg, 6.4ypa, 0.7 INT, 1.0 INT, 69.0 rat

Roughly speaking, McNabb was statistically better than the other four quarterbacks, but not by much:

  • Steve McNair: McNair is the closest comparison. He threw for essentially the same yards and less than 1/2 fewer TDs per game, while throwing for almost 1 yard more per attempt, and completing essentially the same percentage of passes per attempt.
  • Kordell Stewart: Kordell Stewart is clearly the worst quarter back of the bunch. He threw for 40 fewer yards and 1/2 fewer TDs per game, while throwing for essentially the same yards per attempt, and completing 2% fewer passes per attempt.
  • Michael Vick: Vick threw for 20 fewer yards and 1/2 fewer TDs per game, while throwing for about one yard more per attempt, and completing 3% fewer passes per attempt.
  • Vince Young: Vince Young is a tough comparison. Rather than experiencing the improvement in years 3 and 4 from which most young quarterbacks benefit, Young regressed and was benched. That said, he only threw for 25 fewer yards and 1/2 fewer TDs than McNabb, while throwing for about 1/2 a yard more per attempt, and completing essentially the same percentage of passes.

So, taken all together, these five quarterbacks essentially performed the same. None is markedly better than another. Thus, we could arguably compare any of these five equally with McNabb's comparison above. In other words: all five quarterbacks were essentially average, compared to the rest of the league.

Saving McNair and Stewart (who both merit special consideration in this discussion) for last: it is safe - and fair - to say that McNabb, Young, and Vick were all over-rated at the start of their careers. All performed essentially equally - and equally mediocre. Yet all were significantly hyped by the media.

Now, Steve McNair was hyped at the start of his career, also - but his early performance actually merited some of that hype. However, McNair also serves as one of the single greatest examples of media over-hype in existence. In 2003, McNair was awarded the NFL co-MVP with quarterback Peyton Manning, in a season in which Manning's Colts both won their division over rival Tennessee, but also swept the home-away series against the Titans. McNair also threw for 1,000 fewer yards, 5 fewer TDs, and only 3 fewer INTs than Manning. For the season, McNair was 15th in total yards, 7th in TDs, 9th in completion percentage, 2nd in INTs (fewest), and 1st in passer rating. McNair was awarded co-MVP for no other reason than for being a feel-good story - as one MVP-voting sportswriter admitted after the fact, in an article in which she admits that she was wrong to vote for McNair.

And finally, Kordell Stewart. Stewart may have been panned later in his career as Mike Lupica indicated, but he also was hyped early in his career, for his versatility. Perhaps the only reason the media abandoned him is that he was the worst of these five quarterbacks, and because his team had done nothing to support the hype.

So, we have not one, but five black quarterbacks who were disproportionately hyped at the beginning of their respective careers. There is clear evidence that many in the media were "very desirous that a black quarterback do well… for instance, black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well".


And as a final point: let's go back to the original transcript, and take another look at how it ended compared to Limbaugh's much-maligned statement:

Limbaugh: I think there is a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he really didn’t deserve … [crosstalk] the defense carried this team, I think, and he got credit for it.


Jackson: So Rush, once you make that investment, though, once you make that investment in him, that’s a done deal.

Limbaugh: I’m saying it’s a good investment, don’t misunderstand, I just don’t think he’s as good as everyone said he has been …

Note carefully what Limbaugh said: "a little hope is invested in McNabb... I'm saying it's a good investment". Limbaugh said that he thought it was a good thing to invest in McNabb - to invest hope, to invest responsibility to run the offense. Rush simply acknowledged that such a desire exists - and then stated that he thought that desire was a good thing. That is not the statement - or belief - of a racist.


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