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.