Did Donovan McNabb Leave Philadelphia Because of Race?

| by David Berri

When the Philadelphia Eagles take the field this Sunday, a familiar face will not be seen. After eleven seasons, Donovan McNabb will no longer be the quarterback for the Eagles.

As an Eagle, McNabb posted some impressive numbers. To see this, let’s just look at the records McNabb set for the Eagles (courtesy of McNabb’s own biography): 4,746 pass attempts, 2,801 completions, 32,873 passing yards, and 216 TD passes are all franchise records for the Eagles. In addition, he has more wins (92), postseason games (16) and postseason victories (9) than any other QB in team history.

Despite these numbers, though, McNabb was traded to the Washington Redskins. Trades in the NFL are certainly not unusual. But consider the following list of quarterbacks: Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Troy Aikman. What do these quarterbacks have in common?

• Each quarterback started their career after 1969.
• Each is in the Hall-of-Fame.
• Each played their entire career with one team.
• And each is white.

Since 1969, ten quarterbacks have entered the league and eventually were selected to the Hall-of-Fame. Nine of these quarterbacks were white. And of these nine, only Joe Montana and Steve Young – who both played for the San Francisco 49ers — played for more than one team in their career.

In contrast, consider the story of Warren Moon, the one black Hall-of-Fame quarterback. Moon was undrafted in 1978 (despite leading the Washington Huskies to a victory in the Rose Bowl in 1978). He then spent five years in the Canadian Football League (where he won five consecutive league championships) before finally landing a job with the Houston Oilers in 1984. With the Oilers in 1984, Moon became just the sixth black quarterback to attempt 100 passes in a single NFL season. Yes, prior to the 1990s it was very clear that black quarterbacks were treated differently than white signal callers.

Moon’s Hall-of-Fame career was also different from his white colleagues. Across fifteen seasons, Moon worked for four different teams. Once again, no other Hall-of-Fame quarterback in the aforementioned sample toiled for so many different franchises.

If we look at NFL history, it is clear that race matters. And if we look at just the Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, it also appears that race impacts a player’s career. But history and a sample of ten observations is hardly enough to tell us much about how quarterbacks are viewed today.

For a larger and more recent sample, consider the factors that get a quarterback paid in the NFL. Rob Simmons and I – in a paper published in 2009 — looked at a sample with 435 observations. Across this sample we examined the factors that determine a quarterback’s salary. Once we controlled for performance (in a variety of ways), where a quarterback was selected in the draft, years of experience, the quality of skill players around the quarterback, pro bowl appearances, and the size of the market where a quarterback played; we uncovered evidence that a quarterback’s race impacts the size of his paycheck.

This appears to be especially true for the elite signal callers. Rob and I segmented our sample so we could see how race impacted pay across the salary distribution. At lower levels of pay, race didn’t seem to matter much. But as we moved into higher and higher salaries, race mattered more and more. And for the richest quarterbacks, the results indicated that a black quarterback posting the same numbers as a white quarterback would get less pay.

Such results are what we see when we look at a large sample of quarterbacks. But let’s return the specific story of Donovan McNabb. One can take the statistics (i.e. yards from passing, rushing, and sacks; total plays; and interceptions) tabulated for an NFL quarterback and use these to measure how many wins a quarterback produced (some details can be found HERE and more is offered in Stumbling on Wins – where the story of race and the NFL quarterback is also explored). Across McNabb’s career, he has produced 27.7 wins; and per 100 plays, his Wins Produced stands at 0.487. To put those numbers in perspective, McNabb’s career production of wins (and his career is not over yet) already top the career numbers of Staubach, Bradshaw, Kelly, and Aikman (even after these Hall-of-Famer’s numbers were adjusted for the time period when each quarterback played). And his per play performance tops what we saw from both the aforementioned quartet and John Elway.

If we look at performance in each season, McNabb has not posted below average numbers since his second NFL season. In contrast, Aikman was below average in three different years. And Bradshaw and Elway posted below average numbers four and five times respectively. But unlike Moon and McNabb, none of these players ever departed the team that employed the quarterback his rookie season.

So did race play a role in McNabb’s departure from Philadelphia? There is no way to answer that question with certainty. What we can say is the there is evidence that in general, elite black quarterbacks are treated differently than elite white quarterbacks. This is clearly seen when we look at the salary data.

And one suspects it can also be seen with respect to the image many people have of McNabb. All quarterbacks have bad games. And almost all quarterbacks have bad seasons. But for the elite white quarterbacks, the down times are often overlooked. Furthermore, these quarterbacks are often praised for their leadership and apparently magical abilities to win games.

McNabb – despite posting very similar numbers and playing for teams that won many, many games – doesn’t seem to be spoken about in the same way. One suspects, given what we have seen with respect to the history of the black quarterback and the impact race has on a signal caller’s pay, that one reason McNabb is now a Redskin (and yes, given this story, that is an odd name for McNabb’s new team) is the color of his skin.

This story was originally posted at the Huffington Post.

- DJ