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NFL QB Bias

2011 August 5
by Brian Goff

Over the years, questions have surfaced regarding an anti-black QB bias in the NFL.  A young black QB enters the league fresh from college success and finds a world of questions as to whether he can succeed in the pros.  Or, in another version, a successful player, such as Donovan McNabb, seemingly suffers real or imagined questions about his ability to gain yards with his feet as well as his arm.

Racial biases can be real, but charges of bias can also reflect a superficial understanding that neglects true, underlying influences.  Thomas Sowell highlights this problem in studies of societies.  In terms of the NFL, Tim Tebow is the latest example that the bias, rightly or wrongly, is actually directed against QBs with strong running abilities, not against skin color.  An NFL QB must be pass-oriented — that’s the prevailing wisdom, even on the part of a gifted runner like ex-49er Steve Young.  QBs abandon the pass only when absolutely necessary.  While such outlooks have impacted many young black QBs who were strong runners, there are several white QBs who have also suffered going back to Roger Staubach’s early days in the league.

As to the legitimacy of the running QB bias, the evidence is hard to assess because its self-perpetuating nature  –  a league with biases against runners takes away chances, short-circuits chances, and doesn’t make adjustments very well to incorporate them.  The success over the past decades of great passing attacks (NE, Indy, Saints, …) follows from rules that encourage passing.    However, there are exploitable tradeoffs between a QB gaining yards through the air and on the ground such as a decent passer and great runner versus a good passer and poor runner.  The league usually opts for the latter because, “you can’t win with a running QB.”  Of course, at one time, it was thought that you had two have two running backs in the backfield to win, run the ball most of the time to win, utilize your tight end only for blocking, keep the same 11 guys out on defense all the time, and so on.  With so much specialization of defensive personnel and schemes these days based on down/distance, a double-threat QB provides a strategic edge that a uni-dimensional QB does not.

The details of the running QB bias are interesting.  Players who run well, but only do so on an improvised basis — a young John Elway or Randall Cunningham — do not generate the negative reviews of QBs whose runs are designed or who quickly bail out to run.  Elway’s inaccuracy in the first half or two-thirds of his career is often forgotten.  It easily seen in his completion percentage, 47% in his first season and mostly under 55% through much of his career, but also in the number of times he threw swing passes at his RBs shoelaces (followed by a 45-yard, between-the-numbers bullet after a 5-second scramble).  Cunningham’s numbers for the first half of his career were similar.  And, while both gained considerable yards on the ground, the offenses were not tailored to their running very much.

One aspect that differs between the improvised running and the planned running by a QB is the support (or lack of it) by teammates.  Running takes catches away from wide receivers, whose salaries depend on receiving yardage.  Comments by Bronco teammate Brandon Lloyd hint at this kind of self-serving resistance:

“Running routes is easy, especially with a pure drop-back passer like Orton. But with Tim the ball is going to be coming from different spots and different angles. That takes getting used to,” Lloyd told Trotter.

Finally, part of the bias may stem from the difficulty of comparing observable “costs” to implicit (hidden or forgone) gains from running QBs — a common managerial pathology.   The “no-brainer” comparison between Kyle Orton (who, by the way, I like) and Tebow made by SI.com writer Jim Trotter reeks of this kind of obvious to not-so-obvious comparison problem.    For example, when Tebow throws the ball over a player’s head or doesn’t see a wide-open receiver, coaches, teammates, and media analysts see the downside.   However, when Kyle Orton is sacked on a blitz, nobody says, that’s a bad play by Orton, even though Tebow might have avoided the loss and gained yards due to his greater mobility.  Such forgone gains are much more difficult to attribute on a case-by-case basis.  They show up better on overall offensive production over the long run.   Nashville media would often parrot complaints of Titan coaches or teammates about Vince Young missing pre-snap calls or inaccuracies.  Presumably, Kerry Collins did these things much better.  However, their respective Win-Loss records strongly suggest that Young added net benefits to the team’s performance in spite of his obvious flaws.

One Response
  1. Duane permalink
    August 8, 2011

    My thought is this always had more to do with the ability to read defenses and make good decisions, rather than skin color or run versus pass. A case in point is Michael Vick. Early in his career he was a run-first QB that passed occasionally with limited success with Atlanta. Running around a lot does not allow a QB to read defenses and make good decisions. With the Eagles, Vick does not run nearly as much although he will when the pass is not there and the situation calls for running. Last year he was an MVP candidate, no? Vick understands how to make reads much better and how to be patient. Tebow needs to learn this. He tends to call his own number too often and make poor decisions. Montana, Young, Elway and others understood when to pull the ball down and go.

    I don’t think VY’s troubles were due to his running or being black, rather his emotional problems and NFL clubs don’t have time for that.

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