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Quarterbacks and Whether Race Matters

Last week, Jemele Hill wrote a commentary piece for ESPN titled “Is race still an issue for NFL QBs?” I realize that, in this 24-hour news cycle, twitter reaction in five minutes, off-the-front-page-in-five-posts world, I’m in danger of violating some tenet of not being fresh by bringing up something written 216 hours ago, but I have been struggling with exactly what I think on the topic. I opted for reflection over instant reaction.

The instant reaction, I think, judging by comments I read and blog posts I perused, was mostly – I might dare say – entirely negative. How dare she ask such a thing, because race is not an issue and the NFL is color blind. Here’s what I think after pondering it: I think black quarterbacks do have it a little worse from the general public after a bad game or a bad season. All quarterbacks get criticism from someone – there are enough voices out there to insure that – but the sense I get is there are a few more voices when a black quarterback plays poorly.

On the other hand, I think the decision makers within the NFL are generally pretty good about being mostly focused on performance. You probably don’t work in the NFL, with a diverse workforce and in a high pressure, publicly visible performance business, if you are racist or overly biased. The NFL, just like other sports that were a reflection of the culture at large, has a spotted past when it comes to equal opportunity. Quarterback was also perceived as a different position – a white position – even after the advent of the AFL and expansion of job opportunities in the sixties kicked open the door for black athletes from a trickle to a flood in this sport. Warren Moon had to play in the CFL to get his opportunity, something that just wouldn’t happen today.

I decided to check whether coaches bench black quarterbacks during a bad performance more frequently than white quarterbacks. I looked at all cases since 1990 where a QB threw at least 15 passes, and had 3 or more interceptions while posting an adjusted net yards per attempt of less than zero. In laymen’s terms, these were stinker games. Eight of the 15 (53%) black quarterbacks were benched (i.e., had another QB on the roster throw a pass), while 59 of 128 (46%) other quarterbacks were benched. That is a statistically insignificant result and is very much in line with the overall averages. I slogged through some ugly, ugly games as a service for you, the reader, and in fact the only bias I saw was that coaches are reluctant to bench a young highly drafted quarterback having a bad game.

Still, one of the things I have observed is that black quarterbacks, as a group, have tended to be better at avoiding interceptions than their white counterparts. There were only 15 such bad games that showed up on the above list, three of them by Kordell Stewart. A majority of the black quarterbacks who have played for any extensive period of time have been above the league average at avoiding interceptions. Only Warren Moon and Daunte Culpepper have led the league in interceptions, and they both have circumstances that justify that. Moon certainly didn’t do things the traditional way, and by the time he played in the NFL was already an accomplished and sought after passer, and he also played in a system where he threw it a lot.  ulpepper was drafted by Dennis Green and also played in a system that threw it downfield.

That was just an observation from looking at career numbers.  Here are the performance numbers of black quarterbacks versus others in just the last four years:

Since 2007:

comp att yards td int
Black Quarterbacks 5848 9809 66911 345 259
Other Quarterbacks 31770 51792 336027 2223 1585

And to put those into rate stats:

comp% YPA TD% INT%
Black Quarterbacks 0.596 6.821 0.035 0.026
Other Quarterbacks 0.613 6.488 0.043 0.031

If you go by Passer Rating, those numbers are a flat-footed draw (81.55 versus 81.55). The black QBs were better at yards per attempt and avoiding interceptions, while others were better at completion percentage and touchdown percentage. Now, I happen to think that passer rating over-counts completion percentage (since it counts for one-fourth already, plus completion percentage and yards per completion are components of yards per attempt). As a result, I think the black quarterbacks have been a tad better (6.34 ANYA versus 5.97) on average.

When it comes to the interceptions, you may say, big deal, it’s just a difference of 0.005. Yeah, and over thousands of throws, that becomes about 30 more interceptions over the last four years. That’s 30 more post game press conferences with increased questions about interceptions thrown, 30 more chances for blogs and articles to be written.

Interceptions are highly random, subject to game situation, dependent on deflections, tips, the receiver running the correct route, the defender making a good play and not dropping the ball. They can also be somewhat controlled by the quarterback’s behavior. If you try to fit the ball into tight windows, your chances for both a good play and a bad one increase. There is also no other quarterback action that gets criticized as “stupid” or “dumb” like an interception thrown. I can see how black quarterbacks feel they need to be more cautious when it comes to interceptions, to avoid that criticism.  I suspect that the difference in interception numbers is a real effect driven by this external pressure.

So, I think that race matters, because the numbers – as well as direct statements from McNabb and Doug Williams as quoted in Hill’s piece – tell me it matters in affecting how the black quarterbacks play the game as far as avoiding interceptions.  Most of this is external pressure. I think that race is an issue within the game only on the edge. Performance trumps all. If you are good, you will ultimately get your opportunity. The only place I think that race could (and I will emphasize the “could” here) still play an issue is at the lower fringes of performance – the third quarterback who gets to sit on the bench and collect a paycheck, the aging veteran who gets to hang on longer than they should, the highly drafted failure that continues to bounce around.

You know when I know it will no longer be an issue and I can clearly shout down Jemele Hill when she raises this question? When we have a black Rick Mirer or Joey Harrington, plus a successful black quarterback who “just has fun playing the game” by throwing dumb interceptions.

[photo via Getty]

 

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