Monday, October 19, 2009

Rush Limbaugh and the Rams and Donovan McNabb

Six years ago, Rush Limbaugh went on national TV and said, regarding Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb:
Sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team.
Much has been said about Limbaugh's now ended effort to be part of an ownership group for the St. Louis Rams. Outcries over things he supposedly said, or in some cases about things he never said.
But to me, whatever may be in discussion (including another remark comparing NFL football games to gang fights), that one remark about Donovan McNabb was the key. More than his "conservative" politics, more than his positions on race (and, let's be clear: Rush is too smart to say explicitly many of the things recently attributed to him), more than his talk show, or even the reaction to him among his many detractors. It's that statement about McNabb. Its meaning, its aftermath, and its lingering impact. In his one big test of how he would handle the NFL and its players, he flunked.

Let's break it down:
Limbaugh's statement was made during the pre-game show for "ESPN Sunday Night Football" on September 28, 2003. Here are the relevant statistics for Donovan McNabb, at the time of the statement:

Career record: 31-19 (the record of the Eagles in the 50 games prior to McNabb taking over: 15-34-1)
Playoff record: 4-3 (the Eagles had gone 2-7 in the playoffs over the prior 19 seasons)
Pro Bowls: 3 (2000, 2001, 2002)
Full seasons played: 3
NFL Passer Ranking, 2001: 7
NFL Passer Ranking, 2002: 7

Rank of the Eagles offense the year before McNabb took over: 30th
Rank of the Eagles offense in McNabb's first 3 seasons: 17th, 17th, 10th

The list of quarterbacks with similar accomplishments during that time period is rather small; Rich Gannon of the Oakland Raiders was the only other one who both won playoff games and was selected for the Pro Bowl in each of the 3 seasons prior to Limbaugh's comments. For those who may have forgotten, Gannon was also the NFL MVP in 2002... but Gannon was 37 and nearing the end of a long career. McNabb was 26.

Back to Limbaugh. Let's take it sentence by sentence:
I don't think he's been that good from the get-go.

I wonder what Rush must have been thinking to have said that. How much better did McNabb need to be? Well... I'll come back to that one.

I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL.

"Social Concern"??? As if that's a bad thing? Of course, in this context, it's merely a set-up, and here it comes:

The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.

Spoken as if a black quarterback had never done well before. Remarkably, many people actually agreed with Limbaugh on this point, including "Slate" columnist Allen Barra.

So, for the record, here is a partial list of the Pro Bowl quarterbacks for the years 2000, 2001 and 2002: Daunte Culpepper, Steve McNair, Kordell Stewart, Michael Vick. The Pro Bowl roster is not chosen by the media. Presumably, those other black quarterbacks did reasonably well, to be selected by players, coaches and fans for the Pro Bowl.

Prior to McNabb, the last Eagles quarterback to take the team to 3 consecutive playoff appearances was Randall Cunningham. Cunningham also appeared in the Pro Bowl in each of those 3 seasons, more than a decade prior to Limbaugh's statement. The next quarterback who led the Eagles to the playoffs after Cunningham? That was Rodney Peete. Somehow, I have the feeling that Philadelphia, at least, had seen black quarterbacks do well before.

There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve.

"A little hope"? Why? Was Rush's view really so clouded by skin color? Was that what he thought every season when Warren Moon went to Pro Bowl after Pro Bowl? Or when Cunningham took 6 different teams to the playoffs? Or when McNair came within a yard of sending a Super Bowl in to overtime? Or perhaps, did he see Doug Williams as the "exception to the rule"? I can't say. But I'm pretty sure I've never seen a quarterback who made the Pro Bowl and win playoff games in each of his first 3 seasons get slammed like that just 2 games in to his 4th season. Certainly I've never seen it happen to a white quarterback.

The defense carried this team.

Here, at last, Limbaugh strayed within some proximity of truth. As good as McNabb was those first 3 seasons, the Eagles defense under coach Andy Reid was better. Of course, I can also point to many teams with great defenses that went nowhere... because they didn't have an offense with a quarterback the caliber of Donovan McNabb.

What happened in 2003? What happened was that McNabb opened the season with two perfectly awful games. The first one, on a Monday night no less (when Monday night was still the big deal), ended with the Eagles being shut out for the first time with McNabb as a starter. His second game was another decisive defeat. The Eagles then had a by week. For the new season, McNabb had no touchdown passes, 3 interceptions, and a QB rating under 50. The Eagles offense was ranked 31st in the league, and the team was winless, having scored just 10 points in its first two games. The obvious question seemed to be, "what's wrong with Donovan"? And, stunningly, rather than acknowledge McNabb's importance to the Eagles' success (as evidence by what happened when McNabb played poorly in those first two games), Limbaugh went the other way. Even more surprising, his ESPN colleagues mostly rolled over and let him get away with it. Panelist Tom Jackson attempted to disagree by changing the subject back to McNabb's performance on the field the prior 3 seasons, but it took McNabb himself to object in public to the remarks about race (and, to be fair, a few columnists, such as "USA Today's" Rudy Martzke, also chimed in).

What happened next? In McNabb's next 28 regular season starts, he went 25-3. 25-3!! How many quarterbacks have gone 25-3 or better in any stretch? Joe Montana, Tom Brady, and who else? Not very many. McNabb made the Pro Bowl again in 2003, and in 2004. In the 2003 playoffs, he engineered one of the most famous playoff comebacks in league history, popularly referred to simply as "4th and 26." The next season, he led the Eagles to the Super Bowl. And "led" is the operative word; in 2003 and 2004, the offense carried the Eagles.

So, I asked above, how much better did McNabb need to be to make it obvious how ignorant Limbaugh's opening salvo against McNabb really was? Was 25-3 good enough? How about 13 games, out of those 28, with a rating above 100? How about 46 touchdown passes as compared to just 14 interceptions during that span? How about his 2004 season, for which his 104.7 rating still ranks among the top 20 seasons for any quarterback in league history?

Did Limbaugh ever retract any portion of his statement regarding McNabb? We know he would never retract anything about the media, but what about, "I don't think he's been that good from the get-go"? But after that 25-3 stretch, when McNabb's career record stood at 56-22, might he have at least admitted that quarterbacks who win nearly all of their starts, who go to 5 straight Pro Bowls, and who take their teams to 4 straight conference championship games, might really be "that good"?

No, he did not. 4 years after his original statement, he added this: "They just can't let go of this. Do you know this is five years ago now? I think it was 2002. I mean, it's been a long, long time and they just can't let go of it, and I'm going to tell you something, folks. The one thing about this incident that I really have noted and I'm not happy about -- and it's a very sad thing: This incident has made Donovan McNabb a perfect victim, and that is just very sad."

And that is why Rush Limbaugh will not become an NFL owner. So long as that original statement lingers, unretracted.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Loma Prieta

20 years ago today. Has it really been so long?

As I start this note, the clock reads 7:43pm EDT. In about 20 minutes it'll be the exact time.

Me? I was in Section 9, Row 10. The ticket stub says so.

Overlooking the Marina, Tuesday afternoon, October 17, 1989
During the summer of 1989, I began to realize that the best two teams in major league baseball were the two in the Bay Area, and that there was a good chance of a Bay Area World Series. When the Giants offered up guaranteed post-season tickets to anyone who committed to buy a 20-game season ticket plan for the following year, I took it. Sure enough, the Giants won the division, and then the National League playoffs -- though I had to miss the final two games as they were both played on Yom Kippur. The Oakland A's won the American League playoffs, so the Bay Area series was set. 

And I had tickets to the first home game.
Before the shaking.
October 17. The most perfect Bay Area day... ever. My college friend Andy flew in from San Diego to go to the game with me; I opted to take the day off from work and we bounced around San Francisco during the day. Went to the Marina district, drove through the Embarcadero, and finally on to Candlestick Park. We decided to get there very early, so as to catch warm-ups and pre-game activities. I wore my Giants cap, the one I had gotten when I had a similar 20-game plan 2 years earler; on my cap was my one "Croix de Candlestick" button -- the prize awarded to any attendee of an extra inning night game ("Veni Vidi Vixi," it read. to commemorate Candlestick's notoriously icy conditions). Andy and I wandered about a bit, I bought a commemorative post card that marked the date. I had my camera with me, and when we reached our seats I took a couple pictures, just to show the scoreboard flashing, "Welcome to Game 3 of the 1989 World Series." It was 3:25pm.

After the shaking. Note the hot dog vendor, lower right. The stadium was full: PLAY BALL!!
The sound started in right field. By now, just after 5pm, the stadium was beginning to fill in. On the field, they were setting up for pre-game festivities, the national broadcast was just beginning. It sounded like many people stomping their feet, as when there is a rally and the crowd is packed. I looked over to right field, and... nothing. No people stamping their feet. There weren't enough people there yet to make that loud a stomping noise, anyway. And then... then we were stomping too. I watched the press box windows down the left field line; as one window would bend in, the next would bend out. Other people said there were waves rolling along the outfield grass, and that the light standards bent down to an angle that didn't seem quite possible. After a few seconds, the lights went out.

Now, it would be easy to say I was scared for my life... but I wasn't. The thought did occur to me, however, that I was glad to be in the upper deck; after all, if the stadium collapsed, better to be on top. After a little while, maybe 20 seconds, the shaking stopped getting worse, and from that point it seemed the quake gained fans. As the shaking started to subside, a loud ovation began in the stands, and finally, after -- if my memory serves -- 51 seconds, the earthquake ended to a standing ovation. Someone near me said it couldn't be more than a 4... but I had been through a 6 when I lived in Orange County, and this was bigger. Someone else said that surely this was an omen for the home team, and pretty much everyone agreed. People with radios turned on to find out what was going on, but for a little while we couldn't pull in anything at all.

Players and officials gathered on the field.
After a few minutes, generators put back on some of the stadium lights, but the scoreboard showed only gibberish. Food vendors continued making their rounds. I got out my camera and snapped a few photos; in one of them a hot dog vendor is plainly visible. Players and officials from both teams stood around on the field, to be joined by emergency vehicles.
Emergency vehicles on the field, and an aftershock: Time to leave.
By game time, the stadium was full. The out-of-town press, one section over from me, was still in a panic, but not the home town fans. A chant rang out: "PLAY BALL!!!" But when the stadium lights went out again, it started to become apparent that that would not happen. Reports started coming in from the local radio news station, reports of fires and destruction outside the safe walls of the stadium. Then came the first big aftershock, and that, finally, started chasing people from the stadium.

Leaving the Candlestick parking lot as the sky darkened over unlit houses.
Next day at the office.
We waited in the parking lot as the sun descended over the unlit homes near Candlestick. Finally, we drove off toward my apartment in Palo Alto. 3 hours, driving about 10 miles per hour the entire way down route 101. Amazingly, not a thing in my apartment was damaged, nothing at all. We walked in, and the phone was ringing, my mother had gotten through.

Next morning, a trip to take Andy to the airport (it was open, with Red Cross stations all around), and a trip to the office to try clean it up (it was a disaster area; the picture only hints at the damage, and those that had been in the building at 5:04pm the previous afternoon wanted no part of it while the aftershocks were still coming). I learned that our glass elevators weren't so great in earth quakes, and that two of my co-workers had been trapped in one as it partially came off its tracks during the shaking. I also learned and that TI Explorers (the computers of some of my co-workers used at the time) had an unfortunate tendency to to become projectiles when bounced.

Damage to a stadium support. It was fixed prior to the game being played 10 days later.
Candlestick Park suffered some damage during the earthquake; how much became a bit of a political question, as the mayor tried to take credit for "fixing" Candlestick the prior year to make it safer in a quake. The game was not allowed to resume until the park was deemed safe; in the meantime the 49'ers played their next home game at Stanford Stadium. On October 27, Game 3 was finally played. Andy couldn't make it up for a 2nd trip. The Giants lost. By a lot.