Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cam Newton, the QB Position, and the Racialization of Expectations


Black Quarterback Judas
KC Joyner has an article up at ESPN.com (it's Insider only, so you'll have to pay or find someone who has paid if you want to see it) that compares the passing stats of rookie quarterbacks Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. Using an array of unconventional passing metrics, Joyner makes a convincing, objective case that Dalton has been a better passer than Newton this season. Joyner shows that on all passing routes 11 yards or deeper, Dalton has bested Newton in yards per attempt. He also shows that Dalton has made fewer bad decisions with the ball that have led to turnovers or near turnovers.

Again, the conclusion a reasonable reader can draw from the data Joyner has provided is that Dalton has been a better passer than Newton this year. It's not a particularly controversial conclusion given what we knew about each of these rookies coming out of college. Here's what Newton's NFL.com draft card noted under "weaknesses":
Not proficient at going through his progressions or making NFL reads. Doesn't anticipate receivers getting open, must see them in a window. Inconsistent accuracy due to poor footwork and falling away to avoid a big hit. Despite athleticism, needs to improve his drop mechanics and the finer points of pocket mobility.
And likewise, here's what Dalton's NFL.com draft card noted under "strengths":
Dalton is a well prepared player that scans the whole field and makes solid decisions. Has a quick release, a strong arm and is an accurate passer, especially on the run.
Knowing this, it's hardly surprising that Dalton would have better early results as a pure passer.

Except the conclusion that Joyner reaches is quite different than the one supported by his evidence and thus, is significantly more controversial. The article is called "Andy Dalton is NFL's top rookie," and Joyner fancies himself to be cutting against "the hype" in making this claim:
[Newton] is on pace to throw for more yards than any other rookie quarterback in NFL history and has a good shot at breaking the season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback.

Those numbers are certainly prolific, but if one desires quality over quantity, Newton should not be considered the front-runner for this award.

That honor would go to Andy Dalton, as a detailed tape review and metric analysis indicate Dalton's numbers are better than Newton's in a variety of ways.
He then goes on to make his case that Dalton has been a better passer than Newton.


What sense does it make, though, to attempt to determine which quarterback has been better without taking full inventory of each quarterback's results in all of the areas in which he can produce on-field value? For instance, a running back is not only evaluated based on his production in the running game, but also based on his contributions as a receiver. Which is to say: Joyner considers only in passing the strength of Newton's game--his mobility--and how productive he has been with his legs this season. Newton has averaged 42.2 rushing yards per game (on pace for almost 700 yards on the season) and nearly one rushing touchdown per game. Dalton, by contrast, has rushed for just 81 yards total. If Dalton has been a bit better than Newton as a passer, certainly after we account for how much of a weapon Newton has been in the running game, we must conclude that Newton has on the whole been a better player and is thus more deserving of the Rookie of the Year Award than Dalton.

White Quarterback Jesus
Joyner goes on to cite the fact that Dalton's team has a better record than Newton's as further proof for Dalton being the Rookie of the Year; Dalton's Bengals are 7-4, while Newton's Panthers are 3-8. Just a quick glance at some basic stats reveals how silly this is. On offense, the Bengals have averaged 23.5 points per game and 334.6 yards per game; the Panthers have averaged 22.9 points and 398.7 yards. Meanwhile, the Bengals' defense has held opponents to 19.5 points per game and 307.7 yards per game; the Panthers have held their opponents to 27.7 points and 370.1 yards. Unless Cam Newton's teammates hate him so much that they have determined themselves to be the league's second worst scoring defense in protest, this reasoning is pathetically flimsy. "Quarterback wins" in football are roughly as useful as pitcher wins in baseball for determining a player's value, but unfortunately they are both favorites of hack sportswriters.

It's a convenient definition of "quarterback," the one that only considers relevant what the player is able to do through the air, and it's informed by the archaic fetishization of the "pocket passer." The quarterback who does all of his damage through the air--and most of it from within the pocket (e.g. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees)--remains the archetype against which other quarterbacks are measured.  Although not every quarterback conforms with the archetype, owing to the racialization of expectations, the quarterbacks who do fit the mold tend to be disproportionately white. The process of imposing this racial divide begins when players are very young. At the lower levels of the game, the white quarterback is selected for his perceived "football I.Q.," his "poise," his vision, and his accuracy, and as he ascends to the higher levels of the game he is groomed into the archetypal pocket passer. On the other hand, the black quarterback is selected for his "athleticism,"and is groomed into a style of play in which mobility is central. There are exceptions, certainly, but in the vast majority of cases this pattern holds. There is no real reason for the continued reification of racially dichotomous "styles" of playing the quarterback position aside from the fact that it was the way things were done in the past, hence it is "just the way things are" and how they should be for all of eternity. In other words, it is ideology.

Which brings us back to Joyner's sleight of hand. At best he is guilty of cherry picking stats to support a preconceived conclusion. At worst, he is guilty of uncritically accepting the arbitrary and absurd racialism that undergirds our understanding of how the quarterback position is meant to be played. This leads him to apply an evaluative rubric that favors the quarterback who does his work behind the line of scrimmage while entirely ignoring what a quarterback accomplishes after he has crossed the line of scrimmage. Under this rubric, a relatively small gap between between Dalton and Newton in passing efficiency becomes the basis for Dalton's definitive superiority, while a massive gap between Newton and Dalton in rushing production is treated as inconsequential.

What is needed is a consistent metric for determining a quarterback's value that can be applied regardless of the quarterback's style of play. What is also needed is an end to the system under which expectations for football players are set based on which continent their ancestors came from as opposed to what they have the most talent for.

3 comments:

  1. Here's a consistent metric; who would you rather have quarterbacking your team? Newton or Dalton?

    I think Joyner's argument sort of collapses upon itself using that metric.

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