Friday night, wrapping up the Rush Limbaugh/NFL brouhaha on Fox News's Special Report with Bret Baier, the panel unanimously decided that Rush had been unfairly smeared as a racist, but that he was way off base in calling Donovan McNabb overrated.
That's the consensus, but the consensus is wrong. Donovan McNabb is consistently a merely above average quarterback with flashes of brilliance who has never justified the hype surrounding him.
Here is the infamous quote (note that usually the first and last sentences are left off of this quote, which makes is sound slightly harsher out of context):
"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."
Mara Eliason, who is clearly not a football fan, said she had done some reading and found out that the quarterback Rush had criticized was actually good. Charles Krauthammer merely said that this showed Rush wasn't much of a football analyst. Only Juan Williams has stepped forward on the channel to say that his football point was valid.
Most conservative commentary has focused on the fraud of the fake comments attributed to Limbaugh, which were endlessly repeated on mainstream media outlets, repeated by sports writers, and fed to some outspoken NFL players—but conceded that Rush was wrong or even "dumb" about McNabb (including our own Michael Rulle).
The consensus is wrong on two counts.
- Rush never said McNabb was a bad quarterback, his point was that McNabb was an average quarterback being hyped as an elite quarterback.
- Rush was right. In 2002, Donovan McNabb had been a poor playoff quarterback with flashes of brilliance, but displayed questionable decision making, and whose numbers were above average at best.
Coming into the 2003 season, McNabb had only appeared in a positive top 10 stat twice, for passer rating—a disputable stat no one can explain—and was 7th in touchdowns in both 2000, and 2001. But this mobile quarterback was also appearing in the top 10 for being sacked and lost yardage from sacks. As of 2003, McNabb was 4-3 in the playoffs, having only beaten the teams that the Eagles were favored to beat—and having lost to some they were not.
At the time of Limbaugh's comments, McNabb was not completing 60 percent of his passes for the year, or averaging over 7 yards per completion, the generally accepted standards for being a top-flight NFL quarterback—sort of like hitting .300 in Major League Baseball.
And expectations were certainly higher than that for Donovan McNabb. He had been the number 2 overall draft pick in 1999. Anything less than stardom at that level is considered a disappointment.
Rush was reacting to the fact that McNabb had superstar status, but not superstar stats.
Donovan McNabb was getting Peyton Manning press with Brad Johnson numbers. He was a superstar in the same way that Barack Obama is a Nobel Laureate.
McNabb had been to 3 Pro-Bowls by 2003, while Payton Manning, who was averaging about 1000 yards per season more than McNabb did not go to one until 2003, despite being in the Top 3 in passing yards each of his first 5 years in the league and top 5 in touchdowns. McNabb had never done either.
For the first half dozen years of his career, McNabb had a team defense that ranked with that of Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Tennessee and New England, and was probably the best in the NFC over that period. Imagine Peyton Manning with that defense…
In the 2000 season, his first full year as a starter, McNabb finished second in the Associated Press NFL MVP voting. Only Marshall Faulk's mind boggling offensive output that year kept McNabb from getting the award. McNabb finished in the voting ahead of Peyton Manning who had 1200 more yards than McNabb, Daunte Culpepper with 11 more touchdowns (50% more than McNabb), and Brett Favre, who beat him in both stats, not to mention Edgerrin James's nearly 1800 yard season and receiver Tori Holt who had one of the 10 best seasons for receiving yards in the history of the NFL with over 1600.
All Rush was doing was his job—attempting to explain why all the excessive love for Donovan McNabb.
With all the retired quarterbacks and coaches on the market, ESPN did not hire Rush because he was the best X and O guy in the nation. This kind of commentary was the only thing any rational person could have had in mind when hiring Rush Limbaugh to do football commentary.
Also, in 2003, there had been plenty of commentary in the sports press moaning about the lack of black quarterbacks, hinting that NFL owners were reluctant to hire blacks to the game's "thinking position." Rush did not introduce race to the topic, it was ubiquitous already.
So when the topic of Donovan McNabb's early struggles in the 2003 season came up on the ESPN panel that included Rush, it was perfectly natural, perfectly reasonable and absolutely RIGHT for Rush to respond as he did.
I can only think of one other factor in the media over-hype for McNabb. The NFC East, which includes the Eagles, the Washington Redskins, the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys, is a glamour division which takes in the media elites rather neatly. Quarterbacks in the NFC East get more attention than in other places.
The league's most successful black quarterbacks were laboring in the hinterlands– Daunte Culpepper was putting up monster numbers at Minnesota, while ultra-effective leadership guy Steve McNair was winning games Tennessee.
Friday night on Hardball, Chris Matthews lambasted conservatives for not being "excited" by the mere fact that America had elected a black President. Are we to suppose that the sportswriters who were bemoaning that there were not "enough" black quarterbacks did not want to see one succeed? That's absurd. Rush merely stated the obvious—the obvious no one else was willing to say.
So Rush was right in 2003, you might say, but the consensus is that time has proved Rush Limbaugh wrong.
Sorry. Donovan McNabb was probably about the 10th best quarterback in the league back then, and he's probably about the 10th best quarterback in the league now. That's good, and WAY better than anyone has been for my local team, the toothless Lions; but in a league of 30 teams, that's just above average.
McNabb's playoff record hasn't improved, either. In his sole Super Bowl appearance against the New England Patriots in 2005, McNabb racked up some stats, 357 yards and 3 touchdowns. But he took 51 pass attempts to do it, which got him just to the 7 yard benchmark, but he threw 3 interceptions (plus one that was called back due to a penalty) and was sacked 4 times. In a 24-21 loss, it's pretty easy to argue that Philadelphia would have won had McNabb taken care of the football and made better decisions—and, McNabb had as his weapons, the best running back in the game, Brian Westbrook, and the best receiver, Terrell Owens.
Across the field from McNabb was a quarterback who was his exact opposite in expectations, hype and accomplishment. Tom Brady was nearly the two hundredth player taken (199th) the year following McNabb. He won his 3rd Super Bowl that day, had never lost a playoff game, and the year of their first Super Bowl run, his team was not favored in any playoff game. Brady accomplished this with no star skilled players—though he made some like David Patten and Dion Branch look good enough that they signed big contracts with other teams and went on to disappoint them.
But while Brady was winning Super Bowls, Donovan McNabb was appearing in Pro Bowls.
It's not that McNabb shouldn't be in the conversation among the league's top quarterbacks, but no one can seriously say he's nearly as good as Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger; and any GM that would trade Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Carson Palmer, Aaron Rogers, or Joe Flacco for him would be crazy. McNabb belongs in the conversation with the next tier of QBs like Jay Cutler, Matt Shaub, Philip Rivers, and perhaps even Kyle Orton. Then you have the venerable old guys, Brett "Cry for Me" Favre, and Kurt "Model Citizen" Warner, who right now are playing better than McNabb, too.
And if Rush Limbaugh is too controversial and divisive for the NFL, why are they comfortable with the fact that their only network primetime football show (since Monday Night Football went to ESPN) features a prominent role for TV's biggest hater, Keith Olbermann. Why can hip hop star Jennifer Lopez, whose lyrics include the word "nigga" be part owner of a team? And we won't even get into Michael Vick's welcome back…
It's clear that the NFL cares whose ox is being gored. They can protest that they are avoiding controversy. The fact is, they are avoiding a particular controversy, and their approach was not exactly Barry Sanders-slick about it.