Open mouth, insert foot
Limbaugh's comments on McNabb aren't racist, but they are boneheaded
Posted: Tuesday September 30, 2003 8:02PM; Updated: Wednesday October 1, 2003 11:18AM
I had to shake my head this morning when I heard about Rush Limbaugh's comments on Donovan McNabb. You may have heard them by now, but if you haven't, Limbaugh said on ESPN's Sunday pre-game show that he didn't think the Eagles quarterback was as good as the media made him out to be.
"I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL,'' Limbaugh said. "The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. They're interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well ... McNabb got a lot of the credit for the performance of the team that he really didn't deserve.''
Limbaugh was not making a racist statement about black quarterbacks. He was making a racist statement about me. Actually, about me and my colleagues. But I feel like he was talking to me. I am not going to make this about any political view Limbaugh might hold about affirmative action--or about anything, really, except his exact words. And I can tell you that they are incredibly absurd.
Last week, the editors at Sports Illustrated sent me to Philadelphia to look into why McNabb was playing so poorly early in the season. The Eagles were 0-2, and McNabb had been brutal in those eight quarters, completing 45 percent of his passes with no touchdowns and three interceptions. Last Thursday, in search of answers, I interviewed McNabb, coach Andy Reid, tight end Chad Lewis and center Hank Fraley. I interviewed the Bucs' Warren Sapp, who had opposed the Eagles in Week 1.
I went to NFL Films and watched some tape of two games -- Game 2 in 2002 andáGame 2áin 2003. What a dichotomy: McNabb was 26-of-38 passing and scrambled for a touchdown in a masterful 37-7 Monday night rout of the Redskins in 2002, then was a pitiful 18-of-46 in a 31-7 New England rout of the Eagles one year later. Anyone who watched those two tapes would say that McNabb looked confident, strong-armed, bold and accurate in the 2002 game. They would also say that the 2003 McNabb, at least based on the tape I watched, was totally discombobulated.
So, before flying to Buffalo for this past Sunday's game, I developed my theories. I thought McNabb was rushing his throws and was mechanically unsound, throwing off his back foot and from other faulty angles. I thought he had happy feet, maybe nervous happy feet because his protection was breaking down so quickly. I thought he was missing open receivers on at least a third of his incompletions and not taking time to see the whole field. I thought he wasn't running nearly enough for such a talented runner; he didn't leave the pocket against the carnivorous Bucs in week one through the first 31 minutes of the game. I thought his weapons were lacking, and that Reid was trying to make studs out of second- and third-receiver types.
I also thought McNabb was getting no help from his running game. And I thought, as I have thought (and said, and written) in the past, that McNabb was simply not accurate enough to be a truly great player; his career completion rate of 56.6 percent over four-plus years demonstrated that.
I was all set to put down my theories in writing at the Bills-Eagles Sunday in Buffalo. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the rip job. McNabb played well. Not other-worldly, but well. He led the Eagles to two scores in a hostile house on their first two drives, and he had them up 16-0 three-quarters of the way into the game. His first and third plays were not the plays of an overrated, media-propped-up bum. The first was a beautifully thrown and timed 27-yard sideline fade to Todd Pinkston. The third was a logical scramble for 25 yards.
And so, after winning a huge game on the road by 10 points and very likely salvaging the Eagles' season, McNabb was hardly due for an SI story questioning his skills and the ability of those around him. He was owed some kudos for rising to the occasion and playing the best game he'd played in probably 10 months. We've got a saying among those who cover the sport about waiting till Sunday night to write your game stories. Something like, That's why they play the games. I believe Chris Berman, just to Limbaugh's right on ESPN's set, says that quite a lot.
Maybe McNabb's fundamental difficulties are still there. If the Eagles' season eventually goes down in flames and they go 6-10 and McNabb stinks, we'll write about it. But to suggest, as Limbaugh did on ESPN, that we in the media have even deep-background or off-the-record discussions in press boxes or magazine offices about propping up black coaches and quarterbacks is incredible.
Maybe, I thought, I'm being na´ve here. Maybe someone here has an agenda I haven't heard of. I called Reuben Frank of the Burlington County (N.J.) Times. He has covered the Eagles' beat since 1987. He's covered quarterbacks white (Bubby Brister, Bobby Hoying, Ty Detmer, Koy Detmer) and black (Randall Cunningham, Rodney Peete, McNabb), and coaches white (Rich Kotite, Reid) and black (Ray Rhodes).
I wondered in the past 17 seasons whether Frank had ever heard in the press room or on the practice field, or while having a few beers the night before games, a colleague talking about how great it was to see a black quarterback or coach succeeding. I wondered whether Frank had ever heard a fellow journalist say that he and his peers should write nice things about the black people and not such nice things about the white people. "In all the years I've covered this team,'' Frank said, "nobody I've heard has ever said anything remotely along those lines. I don't think of Donovan McNabb as a black quarterback and I didn't think of Rhodes as a black coach. They're a quarterback and a coach. Maybe someone in our business thinks the way Limbaugh said, but I haven't met him.''
Now, there is something that Limbaugh said that I do agree with. He stated that McNabb had gotten credit for the defense playing so well and winning games. Welcome to the real world. When you win in football, the quarterback gets too much credit, unless he's Spergon Wynn or Trent Dilfer. That's just the way life is. Quarterbacks get too much credit if the team wins and too much blame if the team loses. That's why they make the big dough.
The bottom line is that yes, I agree McNabb is overrated. He would have been on my top 10 list of quarterbacks in 2001 -- when he played two terrific playoff games and had a good regular season -- but he's been too inconsistent since then to be called a premier quarterback.
Last week, I pitched a story idea to my editor, Mark Godich, about how rookie quarterbacks should be developed. I told him how well I thought Titans coach Jeff Fisher had done in developing a raw but potentially great quarterback, Steve McNair, who happens to be black. My point was that Fisher thought it best to spoonfeed McNair slowly -- not because he was black, but because he thought a quarterback coming from relatively small Alcorn State to the NFL needed a couple of years to get adjusted to playing big-league football. In Limbaughworld, Godich would have said, "Let's do it, and let's blow it up big. McNair's the top-rated quarterback in football, and he's black!'' But in the real world, Godich took a pass, and I'll write about something else this week.
I'm white, as you probably know. This is 2003. Who cares?
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.