Donovan McNabb hasn’t played in the NFL since 2011, but this morning, he officially retired from football as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, the team that drafted him in 1999 and that he led to 10 playoff wins, four consecutive NFC title games, and a Super Bowl appearance in 2004.
There was always debate about McNabb’s status as a quarterback, whether he was elite or mediocre or somewhere in between. McNabb’s numbers at least put him closer to the elite category, but the McNabb debate was never about numbers. Instead, it was rooted in a conflict that has existed since at least 1984, when the Houston Oilers gave Warren Moon a chance to play QB. The question then was whether a black quarterback could succeed in the NFL, and it hadn’t gone away by the time the Eagles made McNabb the second pick of the 1999 NFL Draft.
Race was always intertwined into the discussion about McNabb, and it peaked in 2003 when Rush Limbaugh said he was overrated because the media wanted a black quarterback to succeed. In 2010, McNabb diagnosed the problem from the other side, saying that the media and fans were unquestionably harder on black quarterbacks than they were on whites.
The racial bias that exists today no longer prevents black quarterbacks from getting a chance. Four of the league’s most impressive signal-callers – Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, and Cam Newton – are black. RGIII was the second quarterback taken in the 2012 NFL Draft; the first quarterback taken in 2013, E.J. Manuel, was also black. The proliferation of the spread-option attack and the NFL’s current trend toward more athletic quarterbacks has helped open the game to more black quarterbacks, and Kaepernick, Wilson, and Griffin, who all took their teams to the playoffs last year, have demolished whatever remained of the absurd notion that black quarterbacks can’t win.
The question now is whether black quarterbacks are getting the same chances to succeed, and whether they’re still subject to scrutiny that doesn’t face white quarterbacks. Consider, as ESPN’s Jemele Hill did in 2010, Vince Young, who fell out of favor with the Tennessee Titans in 2010 and hasn’t received a similar chance since. Sure, Young brought many of his problems on himself. But couldn’t the same be said for Jay Cutler, who blew up in Denver but received a second chance in Chicago and, despite his problems, has been considered a franchise quarterback through it all? Or what about Jason Campbell, a serviceable-if-mediocre quarterback for the Washington Redskins who was traded to Oakland in 2010 and was barely given a chance before the team benched him repeatedly and traded for Carson Palmer when Campbell went down with an injury in his second season there.
Over two seasons, Campbell went 11-7 as Oakland’s starter to bring his career record to 31-40. Palmer was 8-16 as Oakland’s starter and 54-67 in his career. But Palmer will begin the season with his third starting quarterback job, this time for the Arizona Cardinals, while Campbell spent last season as a backup in Chicago and is competing for a starting spot in Cleveland this year. Campbell was never a franchise quarterback, but he’s dealt with injuries and also played for five offensive coordinators in the first five years of his career. Those are excuses that sometimes work for white quarterbacks; for Campbell they didn’t.
“Any franchise Caucasian quarterback will get unlimited opportunities to realize their potential,” Shaun King, a black quarterback who took Tampa Bay to the NFC title game in 1999, said in 2010. “If Jay Cutler left Chicago, and even if he played badly, he’s always going to be viewed as a franchise QB. For African-Americans, their value is strictly tied to their current performance.”
In that way, black quarterbacks are now much like black head coaches, who no longer face questions about whether they can win but still may not get the same chances as their white counterparts. The Rooney Rule has helped give black coaches more chances, but they aren’t recycled the way white coaches like Norv Turner have been. That problem is even worse in major college football, where just one black coach who was fired from a head coaching job has ever gotten a second chance – a problem that doesn’t face white coaches like Charlie Weis, Mike Price, or dozens of others.
Black quarterbacks are certainly getting more chances than they once did, and thanks in part to McNabb and the era of black quarterbacks that came immediately before and after him, the debate over whether they can even win football games at the NFL level is dead. But even if the NFL has made definite progress since the peak of McNabb’s career, the league he’s leaving behind still has more to make.