CHFF classic: Rush was right

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 13, 2009



(Ed. note: this piece originally ran on Sept. 12, 2006)
 
By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Allen Barra
 
A couple of years ago, some of you may recall, Rush Limbaugh caused a huge flap on ESPN when he commented that:
 
    A) The media had been looking for a great black quarterback;
    B) Because of A, they were agreeing to overrate Donovan McNabb; and
    C) Philadelphia had been winning largely on the strength of their defense. 
 
Leaving aside the obvious question of why Rush Limbaugh was asked to be a football commentator and the companion question of why you hire Limbaugh to say such things and then fire him when he says them, not enough attention (which is to say, practically no attention at all) went into considering whether or not Limbaugh's remarks had some merit.
 
The truth is that he was right on all three points, and since we'll be writing about McNabb at length later in the season, we won't go into too much detail here right now. For the time being, suffice it to say that Limbaugh was absolutely correct when he implied the media would like to recognize some guy as the Great Black Quarterback of Pro Football.
 
So what's wrong with that?
Why such a label should be controversial is a bit curious. Any of us should be so lucky to be called great. It's much better than the other adjectives used to describe the average Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor – let alone the ones used to describe you people.
 
In the case of the CHFF crew, none of us are great, black nor a quarterback. But if no one else wants the tag, we'll take it. We're sure most black fans wouldn't object to a black quarterback winning a Super Bowl and being recognized as the best player at the pro game's most important position. Most white fans wouldn't object, either.
 
Sure, we're not supposed to notice the color of the players. But most people notice the color of coaches and complain that there aren't enough black coaches – perhaps rightfully so. The reasons why blacks are underrepresented in the coaching ranks can be debated. But it doesn't change the Cold, Hard Football Fact that blacks are underrepresented in the coaching ranks by any objective measure.
 
With all that said, why shouldn't we want to have a great black quarterback? 
 
Whether you agree or not, at least acknowledge that the term "athleticism" is often applied as a vague euphemism for "black." Most sportswriters wouldn't be caught dead saying black athletes have some innate physical gifts. But they have no trouble praising the same athlete for his "natural athleticism." You know it happens. You've seen it or heard it hundreds of times over the years, and since athleticism and potential are so often taken to mean the same thing, a great many athletes regarded as having natural athleticism are overrated, often vastly so.
 
Enter Michael Vick
One such athlete is Michael Vick, who, if there were an Olympics for professional football players, would undoubtedly place at or near the top in most events. He's one of the most exciting football players of our lifetime. He has more natural athleticism than any quarterback in the league right now.
 
Unfortunately for Vick and the Falcons, football is a game of applied athleticism, where pure talent can mean little.
 
This is a very roundabout way of saying that Vick is a terrific athlete but a lousy quarterback, a fact that most pigskin "pundits" have been slow to realize.
 
Vick is now in his sixth NFL season and "pundits" still praise his potential. Without doing a systematic study of the question, it's clear that all great quarterbacks in NFL history have had at least one thing in common: After playing five years, people were no longer talking about their potential; they were talking about what they had done.
 
In terms of pro football success, Vick hasn't yet accomplished anything – though his Falcons have won 62.5 percent of their games with him at the helm. Last year, however, Atlanta finished 8-8, which was an accurate reflection of Vick's effectiveness as a quarterback.
 
In fact, a good case could be made that he didn't play up to the level of the rest of the team. His 2005 NFL passer rating was just 73.1, good for 25th-best in the league. It might be argued that Eli Manning's passer rating was just 75.9 (23rd), but that's the point: Everyone recognized that Manning was a disappointment.
 
But the fault with the Falcons always seems to lie somewhere else:
  • The problem with the timing patterns was due to offensive coordinator Greg Knapp;
  • The offensive line wasn't holding up its end; or 
  • The defense was always forcing Vick to play come-from-behind.

There might have been a score of quarterbacks in the league last year whose passing was better than Vick's, yet most of them got little credit for it. The Cold, Hard Football Facts have shown that passing yards per attempt is a fairly reliable indicator of a quarterback's capabilities. Yet Vick has never averaged more than 7.2 YPA, his 2004 mark. Last year, he slipped back to 6.2 YPA.

In his second season, 2002, he had a pretty good TD pass-to-interception ratio (16-8); for the rest of his career, he has thrown only 6 more scoring passes than pickoffs. His career TD-to-INT ratio (53-39) is far below the standards of most high-profile and effective modern passers.
 
Run for nothing
Vick's running is certainly sensational – 2,868 career yards (including 48 against Carolina this past Sunday) with an average of 6.9 yards per try.
 
They're nice numbers. But they don't mean a whole lot in the modern NFL, and the Cold, Hard Football Facts have a strong prejudice against running quarterbacks. Quick. Name the great running quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl?
 
Roger Staubach? Sure. He was a great running QB who won two Super Bowls. But he was also one of the best passers in modern NFL history, as evidenced by his lofty passer rating back in the midst of the Dead Ball Era.
 
That's the entire list.
 
The reverend in Philadelphia who criticized Donovan McNabb for not acting more like a "black" quarterback might not like to hear the following truth, but the Cold, Hard Football Facts are peculiar about pro football: They like to win games on the field, not in a computerized fantasy game.
 
And the truth is that running quarterbacks do not win. Bobby Douglass didn't win. Randall Cunningham didn't win. Michael Vick hasn't won anything, either.
 
Running quarterbacks – at least in the pro game – seem to disrupt their offense and prevent real rhythm from developing. They also seem to draw more holding calls and negate more long gains than passing quarterbacks.
 
They spend so much time scrambling that, according to the opinions of many offensive linemen, they drain the energy out of their blockers before the fourth quarter. We're not talking about the quarterback who can slip out of the pocket and get you a big first down, which Vick certainly can do. We're talking about a team where the quarterback uses up 222 of the rushing plays for himself, as Vick has done in the previous two seasons.
 
Running QBs don't develop
Quarterbacks who spend that much time running do so to the detriment of more important skills, such as learning to stay in the pocket and read defenses, or, as Ben Roethlisberger does, using his mobility to slide away from tacklers and let his receivers get an extra step. 
 
 
"Mobility is about moving within the pocket to deliver the football. It's not about running out of the pocket."
 
Vick can certainly run outside the pocket as well as anyone we've seen. It's his all-important in-pocket skills that are limited.
 
Vick, for example, cannot execute a play fake; when he tries it, he looks like an actor in one of those phony-looking football sequences in a movie, kind of like Jamie Foxx in On Any Given Sunday, or, even worse, Keanu Reeves in The Replacements.
 
What those who tout Vick as a near-great quarterback don't seem to understand is that quarterbacks have short shelf lives and running backs have even shorter ones. Vick has never played a full 16-game season and was even starting to lose a little spring in those legs last season, when he had his lowest yards-per-rush average, 5.9, with not a single run longer than 32 yards. The hits take too much out of you, and defensive players do not like being shown up. They'll rack you twice as hard in the open field or on the sidelines than they will in the pocket, just to make you think twice about trying it again. And when you turn 26, as Vick did this past June, you really ought to start thinking twice before taking off. 
 
When Vick's 96.8 passer rating for the victory over Carolina was flashed on screen, it looked pretty impressive. If he continues at that rate, he will be more than 15 points ahead of his previous seasonal best. But Vick's performance actually proved how hollow the rating system can be. He completed just 10 of 22 passes for 45.5 percent and gained just 140 yards in the air. He did have two TD passes, but one was an absolute gift. Atlanta took over at midfield and, aided by three defensive penalties, marched to the 1-yard line before Vick hit Alge Crumpler for a short TD.
 
Given Atlanta's soft schedule through the first few weeks, it's possible that once again Falcons fans are going to build up a lot of false hope. The only 2005 quality opponent they face before the Giants on October 15 is Tampa this weekend. But the Bucs hardly looked like a quality team last week when they were shellacked by Baltimore, 27-0.
 
Who knows? It's possible that Michael Vick will have learned from the error of his ways and start to turn himself into a genuine quarterback instead of the game's best athlete who lines up at the quarterback position. Donovan McNabb looks to have turned the corner at age 29. All those hits seemed to have gotten his attention, and he may finally be on the verge of being a truly great quarterback. He was certainly great in the Week 1 win over Houston (314 yards, 113.3 rating) and had a phenomenal 2004 campaign before being injured last year.
 
But for Vick to turn the corner, too, he must first understand that the way he is currently playing is an error. But that acknowledgment isn't likely to happen as long as everyone keeps talking about what Vick could do instead of pointing out what he hasn't done.

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