The 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame class isn’t going to be known as an all-time great class. It did not elect a first ballot player, though two players who were overlooked with last year’s class will be receiving their Hall Calls rather shortly. Which is nice.
What follows is a quick, dirty analysis of the job the Hall voters did this year. It’s not really meant to pass judgement on the careers of some players I have little memory of. But the Hall of Fame should have standards, and it’s those standards that will be in the crosshairs of this article.
Doleman has been eligible since 2005, and really should have been a first ballot hall of famer. It did not help that he was a bit of a mercinary, playing for three different teams in the last five years of his career. Of Doleman’s 150 career sacks, he didn’t quite get 100 with the Minnesota Vikings, and split 44 sacks between the 49ers and Falcons.
What often gets lost is Doleman was a long time centerpiece on some really excellent defensive units, whether those be San Francisco’s, or Atlanta’s, or Minnesota’s. Wherever he went, great defense followed. And that’s a better framing of his career than his 150 career sacks which by no means should be an automatic number. Doleman was almost certainly a better player than contemporary Mark Gastineau, who may have played home games in New York.
Doleman’s career was longer, though as is the nature of pass rushing, the sack totals weren’t always consistent. There are probably too many pass rushing ends in the hall of fame already, but that doesn’t mean that Doleman having to wait seven years to get into Canton wasn’t a huge oversight.
Willie Roaf is somewhat fortunate his credentials in a relatively short Hall of Fame career met minimum standards for a left tackle because if he had played a little longer at a declining rate, Roaf could have easily gotten backlogged with guys like Walter Jones and Orlando Pace who have changed the standards for induction as we know it for OTs. Roaf’s career was closer to Gary Zimmerman’s than it was to Jones or Pace. Remember that when trying to figure out why exactly Jason Whitlock accused Peter King of
irritating Jason Whitlock racism or whatever that was.
Roaf had a hall of fame level career, at least by the established standards, but we should remember his election in eight years when we’re complaining about how there were too many pedestrian offensive tackles in the Hall of Fame. Roaf’s career was anything but pedestrian, but by becoming the 26th offensive tackle in the Hall — a number that can reach 30 within four years — he is a nice reminder that the easiest way to be remembered as an all time great football player between 1952 and 2002 was to have played the selfless position of offensive tackle.
I guess what I don’t understand is who could have possibly bumped Curtis Martin from last year’s ballot. Martin retired with 14,101 rushing yards, and it’s not like he did something like hanging on too long in order to get there. He pretty much lit it up into his mid thirties, then left the game with his best days not all that far in the rear view mirror. He retired with more rushing yards than all but three players in NFL history. He played part of his career in Boston, the rest of his career in New York. This was an easy election.
The electorate has always had high standards for running backs, or at least they did until they elected Floyd Little — who was the Terrell Davis of his day, except was not nearly as good as TD. What’s interesting now is whether or not Tiki Barber, who had pretty much the same career as Martin, will get enough support to get in. He played in New York, which always helps, but a lot of his career value is more hidden in terms of receiving yards than Martin, who was the more obvious pick of the two. Tiki was eligible this season, but I have no doubt that because he unofficially un-retired before the vote, he probably hurt his hall of fame chances significantly by doing so.
The Hall of Fame now has two…Seahawks?! Yes!
Cortez Kennedy was going to need a year on the ballot like this in order to get in. John Randle getting in really helped Kennedy because Randle was a much better player. Furthermore, Kennedy needed to get in this time around because a year from now, Warren Sapp becomes eligible and if there was any doubt about Warren Sapp’s hall of fame credentials, this election should end that.
The far more interesting case is how much this benefits Bryant Young. Young will also be eligible next year and while he’s certainly not going to go in front of Sapp, he’s arguably has the best career of all non-Sapp eligible defensive tackles, and pretty in-arguably has the best remaining case among DTs who aren’t eligible to be elected by the veteran’s committee, this side of Warren Sapp. Also eligible in 2013: Ted Washington. I don’t know if anyone thinks of Ted Washington as a Hall of Famer, but his case looks a lot better with Cortez Kennedy in.
Was a defensive back for the horrid Steeler teams of the fifties. At the end of his career, he performed a minor miracle and helped the Steelers achieve winning records in back to back seasons. As far as typically questionable veteran committee picks go, Butler is actually a departure from the norm. He was by all accounts a really good defensive player on an awful team. His career ended prematurely because of a knee injury, or he probably would have been elected a lot sooner.
The discussion about Butler really can’t be separated at this point from the final member of the class, so I’ll end it here and move on to…
Do you remember when electing lineman for the pro bowl became an exercise in taking the starter from last year, and electing him again the following year? That trend was started by Dermontti Dawson.
That may sound harsh, but it is not intended to be. When you speak of great interior offensive lineman of the 1990’s you can’t forget Dermontti Dawson. But this is not as small of a group as maybe it sounds like. Dawson is the third interior offensive lineman elected to Canton from this group. Dawson did not get the call as quickly as either Bruce Matthews or Randall McDaniel. The reason for this? Matthews and McDaniel were much better players.
But the thing that really makes Al Davis turn in his grave is that one of his own players — who no one really ever made a public hall of fame case for — likely had a better career than Dermontti Dawson. I’m talking about Steve Wisnewski. You could make the argument either way as to who had the greater career, but as much as Davis’ rants about how ridiculous it is that Cliff Branch and Ray Guy are continually overlooked by the voters, but at least he’s not going to have to wake up tomorrow in a world where Dermontti Dawson is a Hall of Famer.
The bigger issue here is that Dawson’s election does nothing to dispel the notion that the simplest way to get elected to Canton and Hall of Fame immortality is to at some point have played football for the Pittsburgh Steelers. This is why the discussion of Jack Butler, Hall of Famer, is unavoidable considering that 1/3 of this class played every snap in their career for the Steelers. Furthermore, if you selected an all-NFL team from only the 1990’s, I’m pretty sure Dawson would have been at best second team. I mean, at the risk of being crass on an analysis blog, you might want to start fitting Maurkice Pouncey for that gold jacket right now. After all, it’s tough to find stuff in his size.
The only proposed solution I have to the inherent biases in the voting process would be to turn over the entire electorate every four to six years or so. It’s not to slight the current electorate or to say they don’t generally take their job seriously enough (they do), but there’s no valor in having a single member of the committee vote for 18 straight years.
The other issue is clearly, we have to figure out what the standards of a hall of fame receiver are. Since the 1980’s, passing stats have exploded. And since 2004, the voters have inducted just three receivers, somehow: Michael Irvin, Art Monk, and Jerry Rice. Cris Carter, Andre Reed, and Tim Brown apparently do not make the cut, but thankfully we have decided that Dermontti Dawson, Floyd Little, and Charlie Sanders are all worthy of induction. Turning over the electorate is a very simple solution and would justify a decision to be made on a guy like Cris Carter one year, and then have the complete opposite decision made the next year and put in a worthy Hall of Famer.
Overall, this was a class without a slam dunk inductee, and the electorate and veterans committee put in some of the better players in pro football history. There’s not too much to complain about, and I’ve said my peace. Hopefully we’ll get Sapp, Carter, Brown, and Reed in next year so we can finally move past this silly standard with wide receivers that no one can understand.
This Super Bowl 46 edition of Friday Night Quarterback focuses on the Hall of Fame standard for quarterbacks. There are 25 quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame. I made an off-handed remark the other day that Eli Manning is certainly going to end his career as one of the 25 greatest quarterbacks of all time if only because there are fewer all-time great quarterbacks than it seems like. When I have done some deeper digging, that may not be entirely accurate.
Eli Manning is certainly a better quarterback than some who are in the Hall of Fame already, but to be one of the 25 best ever to play the game, Eli might need to rank better than some of his peers in the modern game. Ben Roethlisberger is not going to retire as one of the 25 best ever to play. There’s an argument to be made for Eli over Big Ben, but not such a convincing one that Eli Manning can easily be placed among the top 25 QBs of all time, while Roethlisberger is given no chance to someday make that list.
Quickly now, I want to sort out the already Hall-of-Famers to determine the quickest path into the brotherhood of hall of fame passers:
The Group of Peyton Manning/Tom Brady comparables is as follows: Otto Graham, Sammy Baugh, Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana. It seems for certain that at the end of their careers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will make this a list of seven (maybe eight, when Drew Brees is done) of the greatest passers of all time.
The top half Hall-of-Famers is a group that really isn’t realistically in the conversation of “greatest to ever play”, but clearly is a step above the rest. Dan Fouts and Steve Young are right at the top: they could go in the next group up if they had any case — beyond the outdated passer rating statistic — of being the G.O.A.T. Then after that, Norm Van Brocklin and John Elway come up, along with Sonny Jurgensen, Sid Luckman, Roger Staubach, and Fran Tarkenton. Finally, I’ll put Len Dawson here because he doesn’t fit neatly into any classification with other Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Brett Favre, when he is finally eligible, belongs in this group. Philip Rivers will likely someday belong with this group as well. To make a case for a non-active player in the Hall of Fame, they really have to be able to neatly fit in this group to be considered a true “oversight.” Kenny Anderson is close to this group, but hasn’t been able to get in.
The legacy picks might be the easiest way for a guy like Big Ben Roethlisberger or Eli Manning to get into the Hall of Fame: win multiple super bowls. It worked for Terry Bradshaw and for Troy Aikman, who headline this group, though Jim Plunkett is still waiting on his hall-call. Joe Namath belongs in this group. Bart Starr belongs here. Y.A. Tittle was good at football for a very long time, and should get the nod here. And Bob Griese definitely belongs with this group, though he might have been the best quarterback of the four. Bob Waterfield belongs here because of the era he played in: he was no better a quarterback than Daryle Lamonica was 20 years later, but helped revolutionize the position. The fifth and final member of the legacy picks class is Warren Moon, the most recent inductee of the group. Warren’s statistical totals at the end of his career were largely unmatched, as is Warren Moon, nine-time pro bowler. Moon’s rate stats though say “consistently above average for the better part of 20 years.” I don’t see how that is any different from Namath though. This is the group where Donovan McNabb or Kurt Warner has their best case for the Hall of Fame.
Timing picks: Bobby Layne and Jim Kelly strike me as two guys who made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of fortunate timing. Both were excellent players in their time, and multiple time pro bowlers, but I think if they had come eligible in other years, they easily could have been subjected to more of a debate, and then who knows what would have happened to their cases. Kelly went in on the first ballot. Len Dawson was on the ballot for seven years before he got in. Then there is the case of George Blanda, who is by far the least qualified quarterback in the Hall of Fame. If he had come eligible this year, he’s not even a finalist.
So the breakdown of 25 HoF quartebacks is as such, according to me: 5 in the discussion for greatest ever, 9 in the “top-half”, 8 in perhaps more on their historical legacies than their statistical accomplishments or performance levels, and 3 who might not have been famous or accomplished enough to make it in in a present day vote. Not a perfectly normal distribution, but it is close.
And while Brady ranks first or second on anyone’s active QB list (for career value), Eli Manning doesn’t rank higher than fifth or sixth on most people’s lists of active players with Hall of Fame cases. In fact, there are people who — if he fails to win on Sunday — would put him behind guys with no legitimate case such as Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck, and Tony Romo. To make the Hall of Fame, Eli is going to have to separate from guys like Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Schaub, and maybe Aaron Rodgers, and spend the next three years along with Philip Rivers and Drew Brees and Brady as the game’s elite quarterbacks. If Eli can retire a top ten quarterback in some meaningful statistical categories, then two (or even one) super bowl titles is enough to give him a solid Hall of Fame case.
This post is more concerned with him as one of the 20 to 25 greatest quarterbacks ever. There are 18 quarterbacks, either active or recently retired, who would qualify as all-time greats, a distinction that separates quarterbacks from merely being Hall of Famers or many-time super bowl winners. John Elway and Brett Favre are considered by the authorities of this blog to be all-time greats. Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman are hall-of-fame greats, at least in part to the seasons they had that resulted in titles. There is a distinction to be made.
Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers are clearly not yet all-time greats of the game the way Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady already are. But can the be considered among the greatest 25 quarterbacks in the history of the NFL? That is a little bit hazier. Let’s continue this activity with a couple of blind resumes. In all cases, the comparison is between one of the group of four quarterbacks above, and someone from the list of Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
Parenthesis represent a figure relative to league average
Player A 7 twenty TD seasons, 58.4% career completion percentage, 5.9 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 4.7% career sack rate, 2 years QB rating > 90, 4 years QB rating > 80
Player B 6 twenty TD seasons, 56.9% career completion percentage, 5.6 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 6.6% career sack rate, 2 years QB Rating> 90, 7 years QB rating > 80
Player C 7 twenty TD seasons, 60.1% career completion percentage, 5.9 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 6.3% career sack rate, 2 years QB rating > 90, 8 years QB rating > 80
Player D 3 twenty TD seasons, 63.1% career completion percentage, 6.4 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 8.7% career sack rate, 6 years QB rating > 90, 7 years QB rating > 80
Player F 4 twenty TD seasons, 65.4% career completion percentage, 7.6 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 7.0% career sack rate, 4 years QB rating > 90
Player G 3 twenty TD seasons, 57.0% career completion percentage, 5.7 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 9.6% career sack rate, 3 years QB rating > 90, 5 years QB rating > 80
Player H 6 twenty TD seasons, 63.5% career completion percentage, 7.2 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 5.3% career sack rate, 4 seasons QB rating > 90, 6 seasons QB rating > 80
Player J 1 twenty TD season, 61.5% career completion percentage, 5.7 career adjusted net yards per attempt, 5.2% career sack rate, 2 seasons QB rating > 90, 8 seasons QB rating > 80
***answers below the jump*** Read more…
When the NFL Network did it’s immensely popular Top 100 series, where they tried to determine the greatest players ever to play professional football, as well as build a viewing base for the Thursday Night Football TV slot. Oh, those crazy executives.
Today I wanted to look at the top ten quarterbacks on that list and compare them to an objectively examined, subjectively picked top ten quarterbacks of all time list. To do this first, you need the NFL list and their place on the Top 100.
- 4. Joe Montana
- 6. John Unitas
- 8. Peyton Manning
- 14. Sammy Baugh
- 16. Otto Graham
- 20. Brett Favre
- 21. Tom Brady
- 23. John Elway
- 25. Dan Marino
- 33. Sid Luckman
That’s your all-time top ten, according to the NFL Network’s panel of experts. The first thing I did and went back and looked at the old-timey quarterbacks to see who deserves and who doesn’t. The first thing that sticks out in my analysis is that Unitas had a few voter biases in his favor. Clearly, when talking about pre-merger quarterbacks, it’s Baugh and Graham, and it’s everyone else. Unitas falls in that everyone-else category.
Pre-Modern Quarterback Analysis
I would imagine that unless you have a list based on the premise that it’s exponentially more difficult for a modern QB to be successful than it was for an early QB, Baugh and Graham are both easy inclusions in a top five list. I don’t think you can say that about Unitas. Here’s the bias: many of the NFL network voters grew up watching Unitas dominate the NFL. Few are old enough to clearly remember Baugh and Graham at their best.
Here’s the argument for guys like Luckman and Unitas over Graham and Baugh: the stats showed that both Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham had a fumbling problem. However, Baugh was the first player who had a low enough INT rate to justify a passing offense over a rushing offense, and then Graham was the first quarterback to actually push that rate to around 1 INT every 20 passes. Now, in today’s game a rate like that would be rather high, but for Graham and Baugh, those guys won a number of championships on the strength of those passing games by keeping picks to a minimum for their era.
When I really analyze Luckman, you see a guy who was one of the greatest touchdown throwers of all time, but also a guy who would have needed to hand the ball off 30+ times per game. He only averaged about fifteen throws per game, usually one of which would go for six points. Baugh, Graham, and Unitas all had a little bit of a fumbling problem, which Luckman didn’t show if only because he never threw as much as the other three. Graham and Unitas could both run a little bit, where Baugh and Luckman more or less played the role of statues. To rank these four, in order: 1) Graham, 2) Baugh, 3) Unitas, 4) Luckman. At the end of the day, the Bears threw about 35% of the time with Luckman, while the Redskins threw a more balanced 50% of the time with Baugh. It was a different era by the time Graham retired, but that 50’s Browns team was the first team to win by throwing in NFL history (exception, perhaps, to Baugh’s Redskins).
There are perhaps four other quarterbacks who deserve to be in the pre-merger greatest ever discussion: Los Angeles’ Norm Van Brocklin, Green Bay’s Bart Starr, Washington’s Sonny Jurgensen, and Oakland’s Daryle Lamonica. Lamonica had the “mad-bomber reputation”, but between being one of the best ball handlers, one of the least sacked players, and positing a 5.1% INT rate as a Raider in the pre-merger era, he was actually one of the least turnover prone QBs of the pre-modern era. I think Van Brocklin may have been the best quarterback of this group. Starr was sacked-fumbled a lot over the course of his career, and the Packers were a pretty good team, so he’s probably not a top ten QB of all time. Jurgensen and Lamonica were two equally great players who played in two very different offenses. Sonny probably did a slight amount more than Daryle with regard to using the help he had; Lamonica was great, and a lot of that was the great vertical ability of the Raiders receivers. Both were great, so I’m giving it to Sonny by a hair.
Van Brocklin and Unitas were similar offensive players, throwing it about 50% of the time in their formative years and about 55% of their time at peak development. Unitas offered the element of running to assist his passing, where Van Brocklin almost did everything with his passing abilities. Was Van Brocklin a better passer than Unitas? Unitas was a little better in his formative years, and if nothing else, I suspect Baltimore played against more elite competition than Los Angeles did back in the day. When you add to that Van Brocklin’s three really terrible seasons to end his LA career before enjoying a rebound with the Eagles, it’s easy to give a slight advantage to Unitas.
My list of the top eight pre-merger QBs is as follows:
- Otto Graham
- Sammy Baugh
- John Unitas
- Norm Van Brocklin
- Sonny Jurgensen
- Daryle Lamonica
- Sid Luckman
- Bart Starr
The only other thing to do before looking at the modern quarterbacks is trying to figure out what to do with Fran Tarkenton, who played long enough to have an entire career before the merger, and an entire career after it. He’s a lot like Brett Favre in that way: Favre could have retired after the 2002 season and made the hall of fame. You could argue that a QB who played eight seasons like Favre between 2003-2010 would be a nice hall of fame candidate, with two near MVP seasons in 2007 and 2009. Likewise, Tarkenton could have made the hall just on his contributions after returning to the Vikings in 1972. He was much less of a scrambler at that point, and when he didn’t scramble, Tarkenton was actually pretty good. Formative-era Tarkenton was a pretty mediocre quarterback. Too many mid-efficiency seasons where his gross totals look nice because it was a true pass-to-win offense. I think I’d probably rate pre-merger Tarkenton below Bart Starr, but his career as a whole, I think he accomplished more. He played in three super bowls, which is more than Starr was able to despite playing in the same era.
Modern Quarterback Analysis
Back to the NFLN top ten list. You have the top six modern QBs on the NFL list according to NFL Network: Montana, Manning, Favre, Brady, Elway, Marino. In addition to those guys, the next four post-merger QBs on the NFL’s list were:
To determine the best post-merger quarterbacks of all-time, we have sufficient statistical measures to make conclusions and separate the most productive winners from the other winners who are lumped together of a group of winners. For example: Steve Young was the best quarterback in football for eight consecutive seasons between 1991 and 1998. Young had flaws, in that he took sacks for most of his career and had issues with negative plays throughout even those great seasons. They were big play seasons with big play receivers with Jerry Rice and later Terrell Owens. And outside of those 8 seasons, Young wasn’t particularly effective. But when you consider the voters named Joe Montana the greatest quarterback ever, it’s hard to dock Steve Young points because he stepped into a proven system and took it to levels Montana hadn’t taken it to before.
Staubach was essentially the Steve Young of the 70s, in that he took over a great team seven years after coming into the league, and running with it late into his thirties. By the 90’s, QBs were throwing up to 100 times more per season than in the 70’s, but the efficiencies and situational considerations for Young and Stabach were similar: they were the best of their eras, and they didn’t play much in their formative years. I feel they both need to be ranked higher.
It’s different with Bradshaw and Aikman, who are both difficult choices to be on a top 100 players of all time list. Both quarterbacked great NFL dynasties, and Aikman’s QB rating would be higher if Emmitt Smith didn’t score a disproportional amount of the team’s touchdowns on the ground. In other words, they have similar era-adjusted QB ratings, but Aikman was much better because his offenses scored as consistently as the Steelers of the 70’s did, they just did it with more Emmitt Smith than the Steelers did with Franco Harris.
Obviously, I don’t feel Bradshaw belongs anywhere near the greatest 100 players of all time. Greatest 100 quarterbacks? He probably belongs somewhere on that list. Bradshaw reached elite player status in 1977, the year prior to the Steelers’ third title. He remained at that level through the 1982 season. If not for the first two titles credited to Bradshaw, that career looks pretty much identical to Trent Green’s or Drew Bledsoe’s. Troy Aikman seemed to play well more consistently with the strength of his team, but his overall greatness vs. simple effectiveness appeared to be a product of how good his team was. I wouldn’t move either Aikman or Bradshaw ahead of any of the ten best modern QBs, and there are probably a few others who deserve to be ahead of them.
I think sometimes when people, specifically the voters in this exercise, talk about Brett Favre as an all time great, we lose sight of how many other high efficiency players like Favre were able to accomplish their feats without being a turnover machine. Favre, I believe, deserves to be ranked above John Elway because in similar situations (not a great team around them, inconsistent coaching quality), Favre performed just a little bit better than Elway. Neither, however, was as good over any five year period as Tom Brady has been these last five years. Brady could keep playing at this level for many years into the future, which makes it easy to suggest he needs to be above Favre and Elway both. I think both Favre and Elway are a little high on the list, and given that, I don’t think you can justify Aikman above them. Favre and Elway should be in the 60-80 range, with Aikman closer to Joe Namath up around the 90th-100th players on the list.
Marino is too low. If there really is a gulf of 17 players in between Peyton Manning and Dan Marino, it’s a testament to how great Manning is, no knock on Marino. Marino needs to be in the top fifteen, if not higher in the top ten greatest players of all time. Along with Manning, Baugh, and Graham, Marino is a top five or six quarterback of all time. Beyond the top five, we can’t let Young, Staubach, or Unitas slip too far away to where they fall out of the top ten. Joe Montana is fine rated where he is, but I think we’ll entertain the argument that he’s not the greatest to ever play in a second.
I then decided to consider some other players who could arguably be in the top ten QBs of all time, but were either in the bottom 20 of the NFL network list or missed the list altogether. I looked at: Dan Fouts, Kurt Warner, Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason, Chad Pennington, and Jim Kelly. I immediately eliminated the lower efficiency passers from that list, and looked deeper at Fouts, Warner, and Kelly. Fouts is the one who could be considered among the best of all time. He compares favorably to Tom Brady, though a Brady that improves just a little bit while playing at a higher level in the next decade would bump him over Fouts.
The other group of players that need to be considered is active players who are neither Manning nor Brady. I looked over the numbers for the following players: Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, and Philip Rivers. I was looking for a minimum of 4 and a half high efficiency seasons, which eliminates guys like Matt Schaub, Chad Pennington, Matt Hasselbeck, Eli Manning, and Aaron Rodgers from the ‘greatest ever’ discussion. Roethlisberger doesn’t quite match-up in a lot of statistical categories, but what’s interesting about this is that Drew Brees compares favorably to Tom Brady, and probably isn’t going to finish his career as strongly as either Tony Romo or Philip Rivers will. The five best active players (including Manning) might someday be considered five of the best ten quarterbacks ever.
Brees has the best hall of fame resume to date, and would probably grade out right about where Brady does. Watch for the career progressions of Romo and of Rivers: those are the guys who could bust the top ten ever list.
I would re-order the modern QBs ranking list as such:
- Peyton Manning
- Joe Montana
- Dan Marino
- Dan Fouts
- Roger Staubach
- Steve Young
- Tom Brady
- Drew Brees
- Fran Tarkenton
- Brett Favre
- John Elway
- Troy Aikman
With Philip Rivers and Tony Romo likely climbing the list every year from here on out.
It’s hard to say with great confidence how many pre-merger quarterbacks we should put in the all-time top ten. A perfect non-discriminatory proportionality would put 5 and 5 in. But the merger is becoming an ancient event in NFL history. There were 50 years between the start of professional football and now 40 years since the mergers. For the first 15 years of pro football, forward passing was hardly ever used. The “wildcat” of it’s time. Of course, the single wing formation that the wildcat is based on was a fairly common formation then.
So I don’t think it should be completely proportional. I think that Baugh, Graham, and Unitas all deserve to be in the top ten, and I don’t think you can leave any of the top six modern players off the list: Manning, Montana, Marino, Fouts, Staubach, and Young. That’s nine out of 10. How in the world can we tell of Tom Brady was a better quarterback than Norm Van Brocklin? They are nearly identical players historically. Brady won a little bit more, doing it on a better team. Van Brocklin played for multiple teams, and had some lulls in his career. Brady’s not unfamiliar to periods of struggle.
I think Van Brocklin should have a small edge over Brady. If for no other reason than he was one of the best ball-protectors in professional football history. And plus, Brady might do something over the second half of his career to just make this debate seem silly. Maybe he ends up as a top five quarterback of all time. Right now, I’m putting Van Brocklin on my list of the ten best quarterbacks of all time:
LiveBall Sports’ Greatest of All Time Quarterbacks
- Peyton Manning
- Joe Montana
- Otto Graham
- Sammy Baugh
- Johnny Unitas
- Dan Marino
- Dan Fouts
- Norm Van Brocklin
- Roger Staubach
- Steve Young
[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=gary+zimmerman&iid=2057611″ src=”http://view.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/2057611/class-2008-enshrinement/class-2008-enshrinement.jpg?size=500&imageId=2057611″ width=”500″ height=”350″ /]
Current as of this Sunday, there will be 166 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who: 1) played a majority or all of their careers after 1950, 2) are in the hall of fame, at least primarily, due to an outstanding non-kicking playing career (eliminating Chuck Noll, Don Shula, and the like, but NOT Dick Lebeau or Lou Groza), and 3) retired after 1955 (so no Charlie Trippi or Bob Waterfield, but allowing for Otto Graham). This can be called the “AV era”, based on the approximate value metric at pro-football-reference.
That might seem like an arbitrary cutoff, and it is. But doing it this way allows me to eliminate all hall of famers with less than 50 career AV on one of the above grounds, and not muck up this analysis. Yes, George Halas, Don Hutson, and Sammy Baugh deserve to be in the hall of fame. Ignoring them in this analysis isn’t arguing to the contrary. Doing it this way makes it easy to sort by career value and see some of the fringe hall of famers of all-time, the median hall of famer (James Lofton), the average (Howie Long), and so on.
I also produced very nice positional splits by doing it this way. Of the 22 inducted hall of fame quarterbacks who fit the above definition — the four excused produced a nice cross-section of greats (Baugh and Luckman), median HOFers (Waterfield), and baffling picks (Jim Finks) — Dan Marino and John Unitas lead the pack. We can see that the lowest rated QBs to make it include George Blanda, Joe Namath, and Troy Aikman. We can infer through similarity that though Trent Green, Mark Brunell, Steve McNair, Rich Gannon, and Kurt Warner all come up just shy of the established hall of fame QB level, probability suggests that one of the four can get in if they can rally the voters behind them (it will be Warner). It shows us that Donovan McNabb is quite close, though he will likely have to do something of significance in Washington to get in.
There are 15 defensive ends in the hall of fame, all of which fit the criteria. Elvin Bethea, Fred Dean, and Lee Roy Selmon are the lowest rated players in the hall at that position, while Carl Eller, Bruce Smith, and Reggie White lead the way. Deacon Jones is the median here. Of the 18 DBs, Emmitt Thomas is the lowest ranked, and Rod Woodson the highest.
I’m not so much concerned about the positional rankings as much as I want to know: is it becoming easier or harder for players to get elected to the hall of fame. While the veterans committee gets a bad rap for “lowering the standards of the hall of fame”, I have found little evidence that their picks are any worse than the writers committee’s are. I’ll examine some of the more questionable picks of all eras, by first excluding first ballot hall of famers from an AV critique. Gale Sayers might only have accrued 54 career AV, but he was voted into the hall of fame on the first try, eliminating the need to evaluate how his knee injury truncated his career out of context. Doak Walker (50 AV), on the other hand, didn’t go in the HOF until 1986, 23 years after being first eligible.
This essay will henceforth break down hall of fame voting activity into five year periods, score the voting fairly (a first ballot hall of famer in 2007 is no different than a first ballot hall of famer in 1971) and in context of position and other critical factors (such as career shortening beyond control of the player). At the end, I’ll make some predictions for the upcoming classes.
Hall of Fame Classes 2006-2010
The classes of this era had the benefit of electing some of the most slam dunk hall of famers in NFL history. First ballot elections included: Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Bruce Smith, Rod Woodson, Darrell Green, Bruce Matthews, Reggie White, Troy Aikman, and Warren Moon.
I don’t think this was the era with the highest quantity of questionable selections, but they elected a lot of people in these five years — 29 in total, of which a high percentage (31%) were first ballot slam-dunks — and there are still a couple of really odd picks.
Charlie Sanders became the lowest rated TE in the hall of fame in 2007. His pick is very passively defensible. He doesn’t compare horribly to the six tight ends that preceded him, but when guys like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, and Jason Witten are up for election, the fact that Sanders was elected in 2007 is a bit comical. It not like you couldn’t have seen the role of the tight end changing in the near term future. Worse is when Shannon Sharpe gets rejected on his first TWO tries.
The standards for a hall of fame wide receiver change violently from year to year, as just three receivers were admitted in these five years: Rice (duh), Art Monk, and Michael Irvin, all good choices. Not admitted: Tim Brown, Andre Reed, and Cris Carter, all of whom have a pretty strong hall of fame resumes. As the players who were responsible for turning the NFL into a passing league start to become eligible (Marvin Harrison: class of 2014), it’s trouble if Brown, Reed, and Carter haven’t already gotten in.
Defensively, neither Andre Tippett or Harry Carson is really up to standard for a hall of fame linebacker. At least, not the previously established standard. Rickey Jackson, who will go in on Saturday, absolutely, positively, yes. Derrick Thomas was a good pick as well. Try to guess which two of the four played their home games in the densely populated northeast. Emmitt Thomas was certainly no Rod Woodson, but you can put that one on the veterans committee. They did better with Roger Werhli a year prior (and botched it with ‘Bullet’ Bob Hayes last year).
AV struggles with offensive lineman, to be sure, as there’s not a lot of statistics to go on. With that said, it almost certainly does a better job in hindsight than the voters. About half the offensive lineman in the hall of fame made it to 100 AV — certainly then, that’s not the golden standard by which a hall of famer be judged. But I think it’s reasonable to expect career value to be in the vicinity. Russ Grimm, to be enshrined on Saturday, is the first (and so far, only) member of Washington’s mid-eighties OL to be in the hall of fame. While I agree that you can’t shut the unit out, Grimm is in because he gradually pulled support from the much more deserving Joe Jacoby. Grimm had a very strong, but short peak, and by age 28, his career was winding down. That sounds like a hall of famer to me. The other guards selected were good choices, particularly Randall McDaniel. Gary Zimmerman was an excellent tackle, and Rayfield Wright is certainly not out of place amongst HOF tackles (though indistinguishable from Jacoby, who now won’t get in because Grimm did).
By far, the worst selection of this five year group was Floyd Little. O.J. Simpson, who played in the exact same generation, is the hall of fame standard. Floyd Little was practically an average player. Just jawdropping.
- 29 inductees
- 9 first-ballot inductees
- 8 questionable selections (3 by veteran committee)
- 60% LiveBall approval rating
Hall of Fame Classes 2001-2005
The best rated QB by AV was inducted in this period. Dan Marino is the all-time AV leader among hall of fame quarterbacks. He is NOT the all time leader among all quarterbacks: the leader is an active player who is going to be 34 this season. Consider your mind blown. Also elected: Steve Young, John Elway, and Jim Kelly. Kelly is probably the most fringe QB elected in the past 20 years, but he fits in quite well historically. Kelly does not strike me as a hall of famer from the modern game, but with George Blanda in the hall, it’s hard to complain too much.
Somehow, Elvin Bethea was elected to the hall of fame before Carl Eller.
Lynn Swann was the Sterling Sharpe of his generation. How about a more modern comparison? Swann was the Anquan Boldin of his generation. Well, kind of. Anyway, both he and teammate John Stallworth were elected to the hall of fame in consecutive years, which was highly controversial at the time. Now with guys like Reed and Carter on the outside, it just seems all very, very stupid. The 70’s Steelers may have been one of the three greatest dynasties of all time, but I’m really not sure they need four offensive players in the hall of fame from a unit that ranged between good and above average from year to year.
- 20 inductees (plus two from the pre-AV era)
- 7 first-ballot inductees
- 3 questionable selections (none by veteran committee)
- 77% LiveBall approval rating
Hall of Fame Classes 1996-2000
This was not an era where voters were going crazy and inducting every player from the 80’s who ever did anything of note — only 20 players were elected in five years — but there were still many weird picks.
Joe Montana was the only QB elected in this five year span. Ozzie Newsome was the only TE elected.
There were a few really odd choices for lineman. Billy Shaw was a Bills guard in the AFL days. He was regarded as one of the better guards in the AFL, going to many consecutive pro bowls. He was eligible for the hall of fame in 1975, and wasn’t elected. He was eligible in 1985, but no one really remembered him as more than an all-pro guard. In 1995, still, not really being floated in hall of fame discussion. Good AFL guards tend not to be great legacy hall of famers. Only then, in 1999 Shaw was elected to the hall of fame.
Centers are underrepresented in the PFHOF, but Dwight Stephenson had a really short career. He was the best in the business for Shula’s Dolphins in the mid-eighties. Like Russ Grimm, he was retired in his early thirties. Unlike Grimm, he didn’t go into the hall representing an entire unit or a team. He was the best center in the game between 1983 and 1987. Maybe that’s all you need to be a hall of famer. Get Nick Mangold’s bust prepared now, am I right?
Dan Dierdorf fits in well in the hall of fame, but he and Rayfield Wright are the reasons that people feel that tackles are overpopulating the Hall compared to other spots on the OL. I’m not for less offensive tackles, for the record, but electing interior lineman with short careers isn’t the answer either.
Mike Singletary and Lawrence Taylor were two of the five best linebackers of all time. The third hall of fame linebacker elected in this era was, uh, Dave Wilcox.
The case of Tommie McDonald is tough. He’s listed as a flanker, and there are very few flankers in the PFHOF. He had some very good receiving seasons for the early 60’s Eagles, then went off and wasn’t much of a factor elsewhere. The standard for receivers and ends in the Hall might be lower, but this is one of the few times that the committee has gone back and rewritten history. McDonald wasn’t a game altering player, he was a pretty valuable early receiver in his youth.
- 20 inductees
- 6 first-ballot inductees
- 4 questionable selections
- 71% LiveBall approval rating
Hall of Fame Classes 1991-1995
There were 18 inductees (excluding coaches, kickers, and executives), and 7 of those players went in on the first ballot. Earl Campbell may have made it in just in time, as he was eligible just a year after Franco Harris, and a year before Walter Payton. This is the first era where multiple tight ends have been elected, as John Mackey, Jackie Smith, and Kellen Winslow all made it in at the same time.
While it was nice to see an original Buccaneer get into Canton, I don’t know if Lee Roy Selmon really measures up to the lofty standard for ends. He played nine effective seasons and hardly revolutionized the position. This is more or less what Osi Umenyiora has done for the Giants since 2003, or Alex Brown for the Bears.
Earl Campbell had a fantastic peak at running back, as he collected more than 5,000 rushing yards in his first three seasons. But that peak was short lived, and he declined after that. Campbell seems like an odd first ballot hall of famer, perhaps he might not have gotten in if he had been rejected the first time or two. Campbell’s peak was like Larry Johnson’s peak. An amazing player for two or three seasons, and once workload did him in, he hung around for five or six more years as a marginally effective player. I do not think that Larry Johnson is going to be in the Hall of Fame class of 2018. Campbell was a much better selection, however, than Leroy Kelly, who had a four year peak between 1966-69 where he was over 4 yards per carry after taking over for Jim Brown in the Cleveland backfield. Kelly had six other seasons under four yards per carry. Like Ronnie Brown, maybe?
This era of inductees was all about the impressive peaks. Part of this was because there weren’t a ton of slam dunk hall of famers up for election. John Hannah, Steve Largent, Randy White, and Walter Payton were probably the best players to retire in the late 80’s. Dan Fouts was the only quarterback elected, joining Joe Montana as the only two QBs elected between 1991-2000.
- 18 inductees
- 7 first-ballot inductees
- 3 questionable selections
- 73% LiveBall approval rating
Hall of Fame Classes 1986-1990
This was a quarterback era, as all the legendary passers of the seventies went into the Hall about the same time. Fran Tarkenton was clearly the best. And then there was a not-so-shabby rest: Terry Bradshaw, Len Dawson, and Bob Griese. Not one of these three players was more deserving than Ken Anderson, but are all equally deserving of hall of fame honors. It was a strong era as well: Ted Hendricks got pushed out of first ballot consideration because Mel Blount and Terry Bradshaw were first ballots in that same year. The 70s were a defense-heavy era, and these classes certainly reflected that.
It’s hard to critique any of the defensive guys elected in these years because those are some of the greatest defensive players ever. The offensive record was a bit more spotty. Offensive tackle Bob St. Clair of the 49ers was elected in 1990. He was a 5 time pro bowler, but zero times all-pro. He appeared in fewer games than any player elected from 1987-1990. Fred Biletnikoff might have made the PFHOF based heavily on his college career. His career with the Raiders is long and impressive, but undistinguished from the deep threat who played across from him, Cliff Branch. Branch to this day remains on the outside.
Two stars of the 60’s whose careers don’t look very good on paper are Don Maynard of the Jets, and Paul Hornung of the Packers. Maynard played for a very long time, 15 seasons, but only made a difference when Joe Namath was QB of the Jets. Hornung got turned down from the Hall 14 times, mostly because he was just a pick to represent Vince Lombardi’s Packers who rushed for more than 400 yards just three times, and never more than seven hundred yards. Doak Walker was one of the most versatile players in history, but probably didn’t revolutionize the kicking game enough to be termed an ‘innovator.’ He was a very good runner and a very good receiver, four times ranking in the top ten in yards from scrimmage. He probably isn’t a hall of fame professional (college, on the other hand…).
- 26 inductees
- 9 first-ballot inductees
- 7 questionable selections (all on offense)
- 59% LiveBall approval rating
Hall of Fame Classes 1981-1985
I made an exception for Bobby Mitchell here, who might not have had a hall of fame playing career, except that he was famous for breaking the color barrier with the Washington Redskins, and is probably deserving of the nomination for that alone. Without him, 16 players were inducted in this era.
In these days, it’s tough to figure out which wide receivers were thought to be dangerous open field players, and which simply played in an offense ahead of their time. A guy like Charley Taylor is probably a case of both, playing most of his career with one of the great pure passers of all time, Sonny Jurgensen, but in an era where he was really the only Redskin weapon on some really dreadful teams. He’s not the greatest offensive player in NFL history, but I think he’s a hall of famer. Paul Warfield (if not Don Hutson), might have been the greatest pre-Rice receiver in history. Doug Atkins, Bob Lilly, and Bobby Bell don’t get nearly enough mention when talking about the greatest defensive players. Deacon Jones probably gets too much attention (though clearly, the definition of a Hall of Fame player).
This group had a few all-time greats on the line, but offensive tackle Mike McCormack likely isn’t among them. George Blanda went in on the first ballot, despite never being a great pro quarterback. He did do a lot to help the AFL grow, and had that one magical season with the Raiders, but…bleh.
Overall, the inductees between 1981-1985 were probably the best chosen group of all time by the voters.
- 16 inductees
- 6 first-ballot hall of famers
- 2 questionable selections
- 88% LiveBall approval rating
Hall of Fame Classes 1976-1980
As I creep closer to the pre-AV era, I’m going to begin to start eliminating more and more inductees from discussion on the basis of when their careers occurred.
There are a lot of early tackles who made the hall of fame in an era where their position wasn’t highly valued compared to interior lineman, and they weren’t all that awesome anyway, which is why a lot of people feel tackles overpopulate the Hall. Ron Mix may be an example of this phenomenon, but Forest Gregg was ahead of his time, even before his coaching days.
Lance Alworth probably paved the way for Lynn Swann to be selected, with his graceful highlight reel and somewhat underwhelming statistical career.. Alworth was a great weapon in the Coryell offense. Frank Gifford also likely comes up short by most hall of fame standards, but he was a do-it-all golden boy for a New York club, and likely a more prolific player than Paul Hornung by comparison.
The low approval rate is merely a function of so many players being elected first-ballot.
- 17 inductees
- 11 first-ballot inductees
- 3 questionable selections
- 50% LiveBall approval rate
Hall of Fame Classes 1970-1975
This group will conclude the analysis. We’re looking at just 17 players who went into the hall in this era. 16 of which, are legitimate, no frills, hall of famers.
Some of the first ballots from this era: Gino Marchetti, Jim Brown, Hugh McElhenny, and Ollie Matson. Matson is one of the great kick returners in NFL history, but he had limited offensive value. He was a touchdown scorer in a variety of ways, the Josh Cribbs of his time. Very, very fringe for a first ballot hall of famer.
Especially so, when you consider players who didn’t make it on their first try in this era: Andy Robustelli, Lou Groza, Raymond Berry, Night Train Lane, Bill George, Lenny Moore, and Y.A. Tittle.
The high approval rating is a function of such a low percentage of first-ballot hall of famers.
- 17 inductees
- 4 first-ballot hall of famers
- 1 questionable selection
- 92% LiveBall approval rating
Conclusions and predictions
There are a few conclusions that can be drawn from this research:
- The bar is higher in the pro football hall of fame on the defensive line than at any other position. It is lower at receiver and tight end than other positions. Running back, half backs, and flanker types, especially ones who return kicks, have been able to get in doing less than any other positions, but these days, it’s tough to get in as a RB with less than 100 AV.
- In the last ten years, about one-third of all players who get in (excluding first-ballots) are selections based on reasons outside of accomplishments during a playing career. In the thirty years of inductees prior to that, the percentage of odd selections was more than five percent lower. I went in with a hypothesis that the voters were getting more accurate with time, but this appears to be disproven.
- One possible reason for the disparity is that there is now a hall of fame veterans committee that gets to nominate two players for inclusion each year. But there’s no evidence to suggest that the veterans committee is picking any worse than the writers are, unless you limit the sample to include just the last three years, in which case, you have sample issues. Russ Grimm, Fred Dean, Floyd Little, Lynn Swann, and John Stallworth were all nominated and inducted by the writers, and even with the veterans committee, the writers are primarily responsible for these players being in Canton while Reed, Brown, Sharpe, and Carter all wait.
There are a pair of Chiefs’ lineman available over the next two years, it would be a travesty if Willie Roaf isn’t elected the first ballot next year, and if Will Shields isn’t elected in the 2012 class. One year after that, Tom Nalen will have an interesting case. Interior lineman are under-represented, but there are some good ones coming up for election in the next few years.
I predict Tim Brown will have to wait the longest of all the available receivers. I think Shannon Sharpe, Andre Reed, and Cris Carter all get in next year. By 2012, Brown should be in, but there will be one more HOF player that comes eligible at that time: Rod Smith.
Warren Sapp might not be thought of as a first ballot player, but the statistics disagree. He was a better player than John Randle. I think Aeneas Williams will get more push in future seasons, and he will be the next defensive back who makes the trip to Canton. I think when Brian Urlacher becomes eligible in about seven years, he’s going to have one of the most hotly debated cases in memory. I think Torry Holt will be just as violently debated.
Finally, I’m taking the Bengals to beat the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame game Sunday. Congrats to this year’s class and all hall of fame inductes, and welcome back, pro football!