Why Donovan McNabb is Vastly Underrated

It is possible to win an NFL championship without a great quarterback. In 43 Super Bowls, we've seen winning quarterbacks who were very good but not great, as well as a handful who were barely average. But most Super Bowl champions begin with a Hall of Fame quarterback: 28 of those 43 Super Bowl winners had a Hall of Famer under center (including Brett Favre, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning, all of whom are locks for the Hall).

Hall of Fame quarterbacks aren't a dime a dozen, of course, but they're not really uncommon either. Below, I've listed every Hall of Fame QB active since the 1970 AFL merger, going by decade (so some players are listed twice). A player whose name is italicized was active in fewer than 32 regular-season games that decade.

1970s

George Blanda, Terry Bradshaw, Len Dawson, Dan Fouts, Bob Griese, Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Fran Tarkenton, John Unitas

1980s

Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Dan Fouts, Bob Griese, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Warren Moon, Steve Young

1990s

Troy Aikman, John Elway, Brett Favre, Jim Kelly, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Warren Moon, Steve Young

2000s

Troy Aikman, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Warren Moon

Uh, where did all the Hall of Famers go? The '70s had nine HOF QBs, plus three part-timers, Starr at the beginning of the decade and Montana at the end, with Blanda as a backup. The '80s featured eight HOFers and two more part-time (Griese in 1980 and Aikman in '89). In the '90s, we saw nine Hall of Fame QBs: seven in their primes, plus the beginning of Peyton Manning's career and the end of Joe Montana's. Pretty steadily, we have about nine Hall of Fame quarterbacks per decade.

The 2000s basically have three: Brady and Manning in their primes, the agonizingly slow retirement of Brett Favre, and a combined total of 12 starts from Aikman and Moon, both of whom officially retired after the 2000 season. And let's be realistic: Favre is a Hall of Famer because of the '90s. He could have retired in 1999, and three MVP awards plus a Super Bowl ring would have made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He had some good seasons this decade (2001-2004, 2007), but he's also had a couple of pretty horrible seasons. Just on the last nine years, he wouldn't be a serious candidate for Canton.

So for the 2000s, we have two future Hall of Famers in their primes, plus another who played most of the decade. What happened? Aikman, Elway, Favre, Kelly, Marino, Moon, and Young were all in their primes for the '90s. How did we go from seven to two?

Some of it probably is just weird timing — Aikman, Elway, Marino, Moon, and Young all retired at or near the end of the '90s, and an extra couple of seasons would have substantially boosted the roster for this decade. I also suspect that some of the younger QBs in the league today will eventually become Hall of Famers, though I'm really not sure who. Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger are possibilities, plus maybe some of the really young guys. Kurt Warner could sneak in there if he has another big season or two. I can't imagine we'll really end up with only three HOF QBs from this decade when all is said and done.

But even five or six would still be a significant dropoff from previous decades, especially since the league is bigger than ever, with 32 starting quarterbacks instead of 26 or 28. I believe we must have quarterbacks who deserve to be Hall of Famers, but haven't gotten the recognition their accomplishments merit. There are several candidates who might have been Hall of Famers if not for their misfortunes: Steve McNair had near-constant injury problems, while Rich Gannon and Trent Green might have put together Hall of Fame credentials if they had gotten to play earlier in their careers. Warner didn't start an NFL game until he was 28. Still, those are might-have-been cases. Injuries and late starts to a career have happened in every decade. Who has played, without any of those excuses, and maybe played at a Hall of Fame level without us realizing it? There has to be somebody.

Assuming there is, I think it's pretty obvious that this somebody must be Donovan McNabb. Peyton Manning is easily the best quarterback of the decade, and Tom Brady is clearly second, miles ahead of anyone else. Almost as clearly, McNabb is third. Consider his accomplishments, season by season:

2000 — 11-5 in his first full year as starter, for a team that was 5-11 the season before. Passes for 3,000 yards, goes +8 in TD/INT, and leads all QBs in rushing, with 629 yards and 6 TDs. Makes the Pro Bowl and finishes second in MVP voting.

2001 — Leads the Eagles to their first NFC Championship Game in 20 years. Passes for 3,000 yards, goes +13 in TD/INT, and rushes for 482 yards and 2 TDs. Makes second straight Pro Bowl.

2002 — Gets off to the best start of his career, but misses the second half of the season with an injury. In 10 games, he passes for 2,000 yards, goes +11 in TD/INT, and rushes for 460 yards and 6 TDs. Returns for the playoffs, taking Philadelphia to a second straight NFC Championship Game and making his third straight Pro Bowl.

2003 — Leads the Eagles to a 12-4 record and their third consecutive NFC Championship Game. Passes for 3,000 yards, goes +5 in TD/INT, and rushes for 355 yards and 3 TDs. Makes fourth straight Pro Bowl.

2004 — Easily the best season of his career, even better than his near-MVP performance in 2000. McNabb passes for 3,875 yards with 31 TDs and only 8 interceptions, a TD/INT differential of +23, which is among the 10 best single-season marks in NFL history. He posts a passer rating of 104.7 and rushes for 220 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Eagles breeze through the NFC playoffs, winning by a combined 54-24, before losing by a field goal in Super Bowl XXXIX. McNabb is named a Pro Bowl starter, his fifth consecutive selection.

2005 — Probably the worst season of his career, hindered by the Terrell Owens implosion and the world's most famous sports hernia. In only half a season of play, McNabb still passes for 2,500 yards, going +7 in TD/INT. For the first time in his starting career, McNabb misses the Pro Bowl and the Eagles miss the playoffs.

2006 — McNabb starts the season playing at MVP level, but his season is cut short by injury. In 10 games, he passes for 2,500 yards, goes +12 in TD/INT, and rushes for 212 yards and 3 TDs. His passer rating of 95.5 ranks second in the NFC.

2007 — 3,000 passing yards, +12 TD/INT, 89.9 passer rating, 236 rushing yards.

2008 — Career-high 3,916 passing yards, +12 TD/INT, fifth NFC Championship Game appearance.

Here we have a quarterback with very good statistics: almost 30,000 career passing yards, almost 200 TDs and under 100 interceptions, a passer rating of 85.9, and over 3,000 rushing yards, plus 26 rushing TDs. How good are those numbers?

* McNabb has more career passing yards than Terry Bradshaw. For that matter, he has more than Brady, Brees, or Warner, too.

* There are seven QBs in NFL history who have 100 more passing TDs than interceptions: Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Donovan McNabb. That's not just select company — it is incredibly elite company, probably the six best quarterbacks of the last 30 years. I'd entertain arguments for including John Elway (+74) in that group, but you see my point. You have six no-brainer HOF QBs, plus McNabb. Either this statistic is meaningless, or McNabb is at least on the second tier of HOF QBs, with guys like Jim Kelly (+62) and Warren Moon (+58) and Troy Aikman (+24).

* McNabb's career passer rating of 85.9 ranks 12th among players with at least 2,500 pass attempts. Only three players with as many attempts as McNabb have a higher rating: Manning, Marino, and Montana. Again, this is very select company.

* McNabb is among the greatest rushing quarterbacks in history. Only six other QBs have 3,000 rushing yards: Randall Cunningham, Elway, McNair, Fran Tarkenton, Michael Vick, and Young.

If you have a guy with some of the best passing statistics in history, who is also one of the best running quarterbacks in history, made five straight Pro Bowls before injuries became a problem, and took his team to five conference championship games, you might think it would be obvious that such a player should be considered for the Hall of Fame.

So why is McNabb seldom mentioned as a strong candidate for the Hall? The main reason is that he doesn't have a Super Bowl ring; it's almost a prerequisite for quarterbacks. Kelly never won a ring, but he played in four straight Super Bowls. Moon never even played in the Super Bowl, but he threw for a zillion yards and was chosen to nine Pro Bowls. McNabb's accomplishments are strong across the board, but he doesn't have one statistic that jumps out at you like that.

I would also submit, though, that judging McNabb by his statistics would cause us to underrate him. This is a player who has never really had a first-class receiver. Fine, he had one season with Terrell Owens. One season, and apart from that he's never played with a Pro Bowl receiver or an elite tight end. Go ahead, name the best wide receiver McNabb has played two full seasons with. Todd Pinkston? Reggie Brown? There's certainly no Jerry Rice here, no Marvin Harrison or Michael Irvin or Shannon Sharpe. The one full season he played with Owens, McNabb's statistics exploded. It seems reasonable to guess that if he'd had a few years with a Sterling Sharpe or a Randy Moss, McNabb's numbers would be even more impressive.

If the Eagles had surrounded McNabb with better receivers, or if he had won a Super Bowl, I think we would view McNabb as a lock for the Hall of Fame. He wouldn't be at the same level as someone like Manning, one of those guys you bring up in best-of-all-time arguments, maybe not even first-ballot, but a good, solid Hall of Famer. The 2006 Colts, who did win a championship, weren't any better than the 2004 Eagles, and Indianapolis didn't win because of Manning any more than the Eagles lost because of McNabb. Manning and the Colts faced a Bears team that had peaked early in the season, while the Eagles ran into the heart of the Patriots dynasty. Sometimes luck plays a role in these things.

The quality of quarterbacking in this league is probably as high now as it has ever been, and I refuse to believe that Manning and Brady are the only HOF-caliber quarterbacks of this decade. There's someone else out there who is deserving, and he plays in Philadelphia.

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Comments and Conversation

August 10, 2009

Tom Highway:

Donovan McNabb is a nice quarterback, but he’s no Kurt Warner. Warner can turn it up another gear in the playoffs, whereas McNabb tends to become more erratic in the postseason.

You’ve got to wonder what went through McNabb’s mind after last season ended… He must be wondering what it will take to win the big one… especially when he actually played a really good game in the NFC Championship, but Warner just completely outplayed him with a near-perfect game and blew up the vaunted Eagles defense.

But I’ll give McNabb this…. His playoff record is still far and away better than Peyton Manning, who — except for one year in which his defense and running backs took over — has been consistently awful.

August 11, 2009

Chase:

In the link in my name, I’ve got McNabb listed as around the 40th best QB of all-time. My biggest argument against him is the lack of elite seasons; he was basically a compiler outside of ‘04 and maybe his injury-shortened ‘06. The best argument for him is the terrible receivers he was usually saddled with.

I will say that his raw numbers are very misleading compared to earlier QBs. Statistically, I think McNabb is a borderline candidate.

August 12, 2009

Brad Oremland:

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Tom, you’re right, of course, that Warner has a better playoff record (8-3) than McNabb (9-6) or Manning (7-8). He also has better postseason statistics.

But if McNabb had Anquan Boldin and Fitzgerald, would McNabb have been the one with the near-perfect game? If Warner’s receivers were Kevin Curtis and Brent Celek, would he possibly have done as well?

Also (and forgive my stating the obvious), to win a Super Bowl, you have to get to the playoffs first. The Eagles have made the playoffs 7 out of 9 seasons since McNabb became starter, the Colts 9 out of 11 with Manning. Warner has gotten benched as many times (3) as he’s made the playoffs. He sat down for Marc Bulger in ‘03, Eli Manning in ‘04, and Matt Leinart in ‘06. He even lost a couple starts to Josh McCown in ‘05.

McNabb has been better in the regular season than Warner, better at getting his team to the playoffs. Manning has been light years better.

And it’s not at all accurate to claim that Manning has been “consistently awful” in the playoffs. He averages almost 300 yds/gm in the postseason, with more TDs than INT and a passer rating of 85.0. He’s had a passer rating over 130 three times and he won a Super Bowl MVP. Credit where it’s due.

Chase, McNabb made 5 Pro Bowls and was an MVP candidate four times (2000 and 2004, plus ‘02 and ‘06 before his injuries), so I would dispute a “lack of elite seasons”, but I agree that just on the stats, McNabb is a borderline candidate for Canton. However, I think that when you consider his awful receiving corps, he emerges as a very serious contender.

You’re right that contemporary QB statistics shouldn’t be compared to those from before 1978, and that’s something I made a conscious effort to avoid in the piece; I think the only one is Terry Bradshaw. All of the other direct comparisons are to guys who played in the ’90s and ’00s.

McNabb’s stats compare well to QBs from any era. If you’re in a group shared only with Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, and Joe Montana, you’re obviously doing something right. If you’re also in a group with those three plus Tom Brady, Brett Favre, and Steve Young, that’s awfully impressive.

Even going by statistics, McNabb is pretty clearly the third-best QB of his generation. He rates a little lower in your system because of the injury-shortened partial seasons, but he’s 24th in the era-independent rankings. There are 31 QBs in the Hall, so by that method he looks deserving.

August 18, 2010

tradingfoursj:


hey,

mcnabb definitely deserves to be in the hof. there are way worse qb’s there.

mcnabb has performed at a very high level for his career, he helped the eagles in turning their history around and being one of the contenders for the full decade. he hasn’t won the big game, but this is the quintessential team sport, and the eagles defense and team chocked massively in each and every one of their playoff exits (the coaching staff has also been found wanting). his numbers are also worthy, especially in taking care of the ball and avoiding sacks, and most of all because of the talent level in the skill positions he had to work with. i liked and agree with mike greenberg’s piece.

November 2, 2011

crtsmnr:

i am glad somebody notice mcnabb greatness given the talent around him. everyone says how great marino was but marino didnt win a superbowl. he only played in one and didnt go to nearly as many afc championship games.but he is in the hof. so i am glad u pointed out how good donovan has been in his career.

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