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The "Overrated" Donovan McNabb

How Rush Limbaugh, Allen Barra, and the High Church of Statistical Determinism misjudged a winner.

11:00 PM, Dec 9, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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LONGTIME READERS will remember Allen Barra, formerly of the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Barra is the sportswriter who relies solely on math for his evaluation of athletics and worships at the high church of statistics. He is the bright light who, days before Super Bowl XXXVI, wrote:

Sifting through statistics carefully, there's usually some reason for hope for the underdog--some reason to believe that if Scenario A, however unlikely, were to occur, it might aid Scenario B, which might increase the possibility that a tipped football or a blocked punt could turn a game around.

But I've sifted through every conceivable statistic, and even if the New England Patriots could get every possible break their way, the St. Louis Rams are still going to kick the stuffing out of them on Sunday.

You'll recall that the New England Patriots won that Super Bowl, beating the St. Louis Rams, 20-17.

SINCE LEAVING HIS JOURNAL COLUMN, Barra has been more sensible, mostly because he writes less frequently. But every so often he comes out with a whopper so gargantuan it can't be ignored.

For instance, back in October, Barra weighed in on the Rush Limbaugh / Donovan McNabb controversy. He declared that, hoopla and political correctness be damned, the numbers said that Limbaugh was right: Donovan McNabb was overrated.

And then some. "If Limbaugh were a more astute analyst," Barra astutely observed, "he would have been even harsher and said, Donovan McNabb is barely a mediocre quarterback."

In support of his position, Barra went to the numbers. Under McNabb, the Eagles' offense has never ranked higher than 10th in the league in yards gained, he lamented, while the team's defense has never ranked lower than 10th in yards allowed. Whatever recent success Philadelphia has had, Barra explained, is because the "Eagles' defense has carried them."

He then suggested that journeyman quarterback Brad Johnson, most recently of Tampa Bay was . . . well, let's let Barra tell it: "In just about every way, Brad Johnson has been a more effective quarterback than McNabb." Why? Because Johnson's career passer rating is better than McNabb's (84.8 to 77.5) and his "yards per throw" metric is better, too (6.84 to 5.91).

AS LIMBAUGH'S DRUG ADDICTION took center stage, the football controversy receded, but now, with the NFL season drawing to a close, it's worth peeking back in on McNabb. With McNabb at the helm, the Eagles are 10-3 and tied for the best record in the NFC. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, behind the rocket arm of Brad Johnson, are 6-7 and all but eliminated from the playoffs. How this happened is not quite clear.

Tampa Bay still has a dominant defense--they are 7th best in the NFL in yards allowed. The Eagles defense clocks in at a mediocre 18th (just ahead of the 4-9 Detroit Lions). Tampa Bay also has the better offense--they are 12th in the league in yards per game. The pitiful Eagles are 20th best in this department (just behind the 5-8 New York Jets).

In the quarterback category, Tampa Bay also carries the day by Barra's standards. The mighty Brad Johnson has a QB rating of 84.3 for the season and has averaged 6.64 yards per throw, while McNabb's rating is a paltry 77.2, with 6.38 yards per throw.

And Brad Johnson isn't the only quarterback who beats out the "overrated" McNabb: Aaron Brooks (New Orleans) and Jake Delhomme (Carolina) both have better ratings and numbers. Except for the number of wins, of course. McNabb and the Eagles handily beat both New Orleans and Carolina in recent weeks.

If you must know, of the 71 quarterbacks who have played in the NFL this season, McNabb ranks 33rd (among starters with more than 100 pass attempts, he's 22nd) by QB rating.

SINCE THE BEGINNING of the 2000 season the Eagles have gone 48-20, with McNabb starting in all but 8 games. The Eagles' defense has been excellent, yet McNabb must be doing something right. If he really was overrated, the shrewd coaching staff in Philadelphia would trade him to take advantage of the value bubble. During his tenure, coach Andy Reid has been unsentimental about getting rid of star players (such as Jeremiah Trotter) whom he thought overrated. But does anyone believe Philadelphia would trade McNabb for Brad Johnson? Or more to the point, does anyone believe that Tampa Bay's coach, John Gruden, would hesitate for a moment if offered that deal?

AS THE BCS has recently proven, in sports, numbers sometimes lie. Baseball tends to translate well into statistics, but other games--particularly football and basketball--do not. There are bigger things happening on a football field than yards-per-throw calculations and actuarial table readings. There's leadership, temperament, and the ability to make big plays.

Donovan McNabb excels in each of these categories. When the Eagles again got off to a rocky start this year (they've started out 2-2 in three of the last four seasons, yet made the playoffs each time), McNabb played through the doldrums. No problems in the locker room, no dissension in the ranks. Even with grand personages such as Limbaugh and Barra sniping at him in public, McNabb kept his cool. None of this shows up in the box score. All of it matters.

OR AT LEAST it matters to some people. Barra, with his gospel of mathematical determinism, is not one of them. To Barra, heroism and character never count and there's no room for the mythopoetic in sports. A couple of seasons back, Barra called Brian Griese, then of the Denver Broncos, "the AFC's best quarterback." He then astutely noted that, according to "our Pass-Efficiency Rating, he has better efficiency numbers than John Elway ever had."

Of course to anyone watching the game, and not the Pass-Efficiency Rating, it was obvious that Elway was a quarterback for the ages and Griese was a mediocrity, his numbers the product of a particular offensive system. Now in Miami, Griese has been benched in favor of the pride of Dartmouth, Jay Fiedler.

McNabb remains in Philadelphia, where all he does is win--and suffer critics graciously.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.