February 07, 2024
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This Sunday’s Super Bowl between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs includes a fun cast of characters, such as Christian McCaffrey, Patrick Mahomes, Nick Bosa, Travis Kelce, and Taylor Swift, straight out of countless posts I’ve done over the years about stereotypes, exceptions to the rules, and trendsetters. Granted, I’m probably about the 50 millionth biggest National Football League fan in the country (the NFL is popular), but even I’ve noticed a few things (with the help of my friend Charles Norman).
For example, I’m always interested in exceptions to the rule because they point out tendencies that we might otherwise overlook. Literal-minded readers are constantly reminding me that, logically, an exception to the rule can’t possibly exist because if there is an exception, then it’s not a rule. But I’m interested in the human world where there are mostly only likelihoods rather than absolutes.
This season, San Francisco 49ers Christian McCaffrey became the first white running back to lead the NFL in rushing yards since Jim Taylor more than six decades ago in 1962 with Vince Lombardi’s legendary Green Bay Packers. (Dickie Post led the American Football League in rushing in 1969, its final season before merging with the NFL.)
Since then, there have been several star white running backs like Larry Czonka in the 1970s and John Riggins in the 1980s. But McCaffrey, who has rushed for over 1,000 yards four times and in 2019 became the first player to have over 1,000 yards both running and receiving, is the first white superstar RB in over a generation.
As I may have mentioned before, McCaffrey, the only non-quarterback among the five nominees for NFL Most Valuable Player, was born and bred to run with the football. His father Ed McCaffrey was a Stanford wide receiver whose speed relegated the more highly touted recruit Cory Booker to the bench (and, eventually, to the U.S. Senate). Ed played 13 seasons in the NFL, winning three Super Bowls and earning one Pro Bowl honor.
Ed McCaffrey’s career blossomed into three straight 1,000-yard seasons under coach Mike Shanahan. Christian McCaffrey has always been a standout, but he’s been even more valuable under Mike’s son, San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan.
There are countless dynastic connections like the McCaffreys and Shanahans in the NFL. Does nepotism run amok or does talent run in families? Or perhaps it takes both the advantages of nature and nurture to claw your way to the top in America’s most competitive sport? Or does Christian succeed at a stereotypically black position because he assumes that prejudices about whites being slow don’t apply to McCaffreys with their multigenerational history of speed?
I mean, they definitely don’t. McCaffreys are fast.
Ed McCaffrey met his wife Lisa at Stanford, where she played on the women’s soccer team. I haven’t quantified this, but my impression is that a sizable fraction of this generation’s star athletes are the children of male and female college athletes. (The fine 2022 movie Hustle riffs on this trend, with Adam Sandler and Queen Latifah as a middle-aged married couple who met as jocks at Rutgers in the 20th century.)
Christian’s mom came by her speed the old-fashioned way: She inherited it. Her father, Dr. Dave Sime, won the silver medal in the 100-meter dash in the 1960 Olympics, losing by inches to West German Armin Hary, who had gotten off to a (still controversial) much faster start.
Ed and Lisa have four sons, all of whom played college football. Sports Illustrated quoted her quipping in 1998: “That’s why Ed and I got together, so we could breed fast white guys.”
Unlike such national crises as the supposed shortage of blacks as NFL head coaches and quarterbacks, the lack of white tailbacks (as opposed to blocking fullbacks) isn’t much discussed in the press. When it is mentioned, the wokest suggestion is that whites are so privileged that they don’t want the job.
There’s probably something to that thought: Running backs don’t last too long in today’s brutal game. And the contemporary NFL tends to view ball-carriers as fairly fungible, so their pay has dropped over the years relative to quarterbacks. The New York Times reported last September:
N.F.L. running backs, once the face of many teams, have fallen so far in relative value over the last few decades that it has amounted to a public demotion….
This year the highest-paid running back by reported average annual pay is Christian McCaffrey of the San Francisco 49ers at $16 million. This is only about 30 percent as much as the highest-paid quarterback, Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers ($52 million average).
And over the past decade, as concerns over concussions have mounted, the number of whites playing high school football has dropped, especially in parts of the country that aren’t traditionally quite as fanatical about football as the South and the industrial Midwest. But then, so has the number of blacks, although not quite as quickly. (High school tackle football is becoming increasingly Hispanic.) Some schools are switching to flag football.
This trend toward fewer kids playing tackle football might be tied into the curious recent phenomenon seen in the NFL of offensive productivity being down notably. NFL coaching staffs and league offices are full of smart guys who spend 70 hours per week year-round thinking about how to play football better, so the general trend over my lifetime has been toward offensive statistics to increase as teams become ever more skillful (and thus more entertaining).
I argue that is because in youth football, games can be high-scoring if one team has a superior athlete to whom they snap the ball at shotgun quarterback and just let him run around as if he were Michael Vick. But at a level where the talent evens out, it’s hard to score when kids’ teams need to run complex plays, especially involving passing, because they aren’t very adept.
The high-scoring NFL of the past three decades is due to offenses getting much more intelligently adroit at passing than in the days of Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, when the reigning offensive strategic philosophy tended toward, “Let’s heave it deep and see what happens.”
It could well be that the last few years was just an anomalous blip caused by developments in defensive formations temporarily getting the upper hand on offensive evolution. Or, it could be that less talent is flowing into football.
We shall see.
Still, a whole lot of guys, white, black, or miscellaneous, love football. So the fact that over the last 40 years, Christian McCaffrey, even with all his advantages of nature and nurture, is the only white man to make it to the top as a running back, remains curious.
In contrast, the fact that blacks play quarterback (for non-Americans, the position that throws the football) in the NFL less often than they play running back is much denounced in the press.
For example, two decades ago, Rush Limbaugh was fired from a color man gig at ESPN for suggesting that the press promoted black quarterbacks more than their talents would justify.
The next 15 or more years would prove Rush right as a cohort of veteran white quarterbacks led by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning put up absolutely colossal numbers. In 2024, only four of the top 50 quarterbacks in career yardage have been black.
Still, that era may be drawing to a close. Strikingly, though, the “quarterback of the future” may not turn out to be a black running quarterback, as was so often predicted (see Oliver Stone’s 1999 football film Any Given Sunday for an insightful, if jittery, look at expectations a quarter of a century ago).
Lamar Jackson of Baltimore, who might win his second MVP award on Thursday, is the finest example of the black quarterback who is a major threat to run while still being a terrific passer.
But it’s been hard to win a Super Bowl as a running quarterback. The toll of injuries is too high and, at the highest level, the game tends to most reward the cold-blooded quarterback who stays in the pocket until the last millisecond. Only four of the last 57 Super Bowls have been won by quarterbacks who are at least part black.
Hence, the trend, ever since the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, who has a black father (arrested this week for drunk driving: “Daaaaad, I’m trying to concentrate!”) and a white mother, emerged as the best quarterback since Brady, might instead be toward more mixed-race quarterbacks.
Amusingly, my pointing out that Mahomes appears to have inherited the best genes for quarterbacking of his two races drove poor liberal midwit’s midwit Will Stancil insane with rage, calling me a “Nazi” for saying such an unspeakable thing. Charles Norman notes:
The controversy is not that you said black people have enviable or superior genetics in some field, but that you alluded to white people possibly having superiority in anything genetically. That’s essentially a call for another holocaust according to Stancil, who is trying to rebrand from being a Biden simp whom Leftists make fun of into being an intellectual who unites the Left against the REAL bad guy—white guy noticers such as Steve!
Stancil would be making loads of money if it were 2004 and he was rallying smart young white guys to vote for John Kerry, but, alas, he was born too late and he’s found himself in the Democratic Party’s own version of the Great Replacement—replacing white guys like Will Stancil from their ranks of pundits and leaders.
The 49ers’ white quarterback Brock Purdy is a good example of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2009 contention in The New Yorker that NFL quarterback is one of those jobs where “almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired.” Purdy was the 262nd and last selection in the 2022 NFL draft: “Mr. Irrelevant.” But ever since being promoted to the starting job, he’s been highly successful, briefly becoming the 2023 MVP candidate before a disastrous four-interception game against Jackson’s Colts on Christmas.
So it’s hard to tell if Purdy is as great as his brief record suggests, or if his success is more the product of good coaching and all the talent around him, such as McCaffrey and defensive end Nick Bosa.
In case you are looking for long-shot human biodiversity edges for placing a bet, Purdy has light brown eyes (while Mahomes, a two-time Super Bowl winner, has dark brown eyes). But blue-eyed quarterbacks have historically done better in the Super Bowl, according to a fun 2020 thread by @crimkadid with many pictures of just how blue-eyed famous quarterbacks tend to be. His theory is that:
Blue eyed men excel at making delayed, deliberate decisions. Blue eyes are advantageous for tasks that mentally resemble a game of chicken: turning the steering wheel not too soon and not too late. The tendency not to do the first, obvious thing is likely linked to the marked shyness displayed by blue eyed children.
NFL quarterbacks have to not fire until they see the browns of the defensive ends’ eyes.
Speaking of defensive ends, 49er star Nick Bosa, who led the NFL in sacking the quarterback in 2022, has brown eyes. (In case you are not familiar with American football, the defense is on the attack, trying to disrupt the offense’s planned play.)
Most NFL defensive players are black, but seven of the last dozen Defensive Players of the Year have been white. Oddly, star white defensive players now tend to come in brother pairs, such as Nick and Joey Bosa (who led the NFL in sacks in 2017) and J.J. and T.J. Watt (two brothers who have won five of the last twelve DPOY awards).
Speaking of families, the Bosas’ father and a grandfather played in the NFL. And their great-grandfather Tony Accardo was the Mob boss of the Chicago Outfit (which probably isn’t particularly relevant to their football careers, but it is, you have to admit, interesting).
With football participation falling, I wouldn’t be surprised if star players become even more comprised of dynasties like this.
Speaking of families in the NFL, the Chief’s star tight end Travis Kelce is the brother of the Philadelphia Eagles’ center Jason Kelce. It’s hard to get famous playing center in the middle of the line, but Jason, a six-time first-team All Pro, is about as well-known as a center can get.
Travis, of course, is even more prominent, and has big plans for getting more in-your-face. He has long employed as his managers two black twins, Aaron and André Eanes, who have skillfully charted out his career strategy. They deny that that includes Kelce dating pop singer Taylor Swift, the most famous woman in the world.
As for Kelce’s inamorata, I must be the only person in the world without an opinion on Taylor Swift, other than that female singers used to tend to be vulnerable, tragic screw-ups, such as Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, and Amy Winehouse.
But now they tend to be formidable CEOs of their own personal brand, like Ms. Swift.