Black QBs are underrated and underpaid

November, 4, 2010
Getty ImagesMichael Vick is undervalued in the NFL in part because of the way stats are measured out.

Is the NFL's quarterback rating system racist?

That's a trick question. The league doesn't have a quarterback rating system; it has a passer rating system, which takes completions, passing yards, touchdown passes and interceptions, weighs them roughly equally by attempt and smooshes them into one number. Problem is, for many fans, GMs and sportswriters, this distinction is lost, and passer rating simply represents overall QB value. But notice what's left out of the formula: rushing yards and rushing TDs, two key stats that happen to be disproportionately amassed by black QBs.

Since 2005, just five starting signal-callers have had seasons of 100 or more snaps in which they ran the ball on more than 15 percent of their plays: Vince Young (four times), Michael Vick (three), David Garrard (two), Jason Campbell and Tarvaris Jackson. All are African-American. Of the top 10 seasons in yards per carry by starting QBs over that span, seven are by black QBs, topped by Vick's amazing 8.4 YPC in 2006. To be clear, these numbers don't mean that all black QBs rush for more yards than all white QBs or that black players have more speed than white players. But they do indicate that running tends to be a far more important part of overall play for QBs who are African-American than for those who aren't.

Why? Nobody knows for sure, but I have a theory. Suppose that, whether because of old stereotypes, old habits or some unarticulated mix of the two, it's hard for many coaches and recruiters to envision a black quarterback leading their team. Now suppose those men will yield if their job or a potential title is at stake. Under those circumstances, if you're a black athlete, you can win a high school or college QB job if -- but likely only if -- you demonstrate such overwhelming superiority that the head coach has no choice but to put you in charge of the huddle. If you're Vick at Virginia Tech, and you have a passer rating of 180.4 (a national freshman record), you'll get to throw. If you're not, say hello to playing wideout, safety or the Wildcat. To develop at QB, African-Americans have always had to be dominant athletes, not just skilled passers, which means the best ones then carry an extra dimension of speed to the NFL.

Again, that's just a theory, but it's supported by plenty of evidence. No pro team started an African-American under center until 1968, when Marlin Briscoe led the Broncos. Just eight black QBs got significant playing time in the NFL before the mid-1990s. And from 2000 to 2006, while 65 percent of the league's players were black, just 27 percent of the QBs were, according to research released last year by economists David Berri and Rob Simmons. Yet when black QBs have gotten the chance to play, they have performed nearly identically to white ones in most stat categories from 1994 to 2006. The one gap: Black QBs rushed for an average of 20.1 yards per game over that span, while white QBs ran for just 7.0.

This is where the widespread reliance on passer rating really rears its ugly head. Because in comparing QB pay to performance, and factoring in a slew of variables such as player experience and market size, Berri and Simmons found that quarterbacks don't earn any extra money by running for more yards. And guess who this disproportionately shortchanges? On average, black QBs gain 4.6 percent more total yards per game than white QBs (196.6 versus 188), but white QBs earn 3.1 percent more than black QBs.

The solution here is obvious: Replace passer rating with something better. So, consider this a call to the analytics community to get on the case. And we'd better make some progress soon. Because after this season, Vick will be a free agent.



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