Kurt Warner and the Hall of Fame
January 29, 2010 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
Cardinals QB Kurt Warner announced his retirement earlier today, and one of the hot topics this weekend is sure to be Warner's worthiness for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Some people feel it's obvious that he should be in. He won two NFL MVP Awards and a Super Bowl MVP. He passed for 4,000 yards three times, threw 200 TD passes, and has one of the best passer ratings in history. Others question his credentials. He was surrounded by great teammates, he got benched by every team he ever played for, and early in his career, he protected his passer rating by taking sacks instead of throwing the ball away.
For years, I've taken a wait-and-see approach with Warner. He's had good times, he's had bad times, let's see where it all ends. Well, now it's ended. Unless, heaven forbid, the man pulls a Brett Favre. If he unretires, I won't support him for Canton. I don't care if he throws for 6,000 yards in a season and wins a Super Bowl by himself after all his teammates get ejected. I'm tired of this "psych, I'm coming back" stuff.
Basically, though, this wait-and-see approach meant that I didn't think Warner had earned his way in yet. Here's the case against him:
* He didn't deserve those MVP Awards. Marshall Faulk did. Faulk won team MVP both years. If you're not the most valuable player on your own team, how can you be MVP of the whole league?
* I'd have a decent passer rating if I spent my whole career throwing to Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Larry Fitzgerald, and Anquan Boldin. If Warner's best receivers had been Deion Branch, Todd Pinkston, Marques Colston, and Darrell Jackson, what would those stats look like? Would he have won a playoff game, much less a Super Bowl?
* Warner only played four full seasons: 1999, 2001, 2008, and 2009 were the only years he started 12 or more games. At a position where the best players often stick around for 15 seasons, is that really enough?
* Warner got benched three times, by three different teams: in 2003, by the Rams (for Marc Bulger); in 2004, by the Giants (for Eli Manning); and in 2006, by the Cardinals (for Matt Leinart). He arguably got benched by the Cards in '05, too, for Josh McCown. We'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was still hurt. Still, that's a lot of times his team decided they had someone better.
The argument for Warner, I've decided, is Sonny Jurgensen.
Jurgensen, who played for Philadelphia and Washington from 1957-74, is one of the lesser-known QBs in the Hall of Fame, but he's often described as the best pure passer in the history of the game. Vince Lombardi said that Jurgensen — not Bart Starr — was the best quarterback he ever saw. Jurgensen's relatively anonymity owes to two factors: he played mostly for bad teams, and his career was limited by injuries and Norm Van Brocklin. Altogether, I think his career has a shape similar to Warner's. Let's compare them.
We'll start with numbers and go from there. The gross statistics are very, very close.
The efficiency stats clearly favor Warner.
Warner is ahead in every category except touchdowns and TD%. Looking at the numbers, you might conclude that Warner was better, and that it's not particularly close.
That's because passing statistics have changed in the last 35 years. Jurgensen is at a statistical disadvantage because of changes both in the rules of the game and in offensive strategy. When Jurgensen played, it was legal to "chuck" a receiver anywhere on the field. That meant no five-yard zone from the line of scrimmage, and no such thing as "illegal contact." Almost every significant passing record fell within 10 years of the new rules, which were instituted in 1978. The other, and possibly even more important change, was the new emphasis — attributable mostly to Bill Walsh — on short, high-percentage passes.
Today's quarterbacks throw more efficiently and more often than at any other period in history. Fortunately, there's still a way to compare statistics that makes sense: instead of straight numbers, we'll move forward with the statistical concepts of black ink. The figures you see below show the number of times each player led the NFL in that category. Higher numbers are better.
I used combined NFL/AFL statistics for Jurgensen, so the competition is roughly the same size, 21-26 teams for Jurgensen and 31-32 for Warner. I didn't include interceptions this time, because the guy with the fewest interceptions in a season is usually a backup with 12 attempts all year. I will include interception percentage, though, when we look at the averages.
These statistics show a very close statistical battle. Jurgensen is ahead in the gross stats, and Warner in the efficiency metrics. We see more distance between them with gray ink, counting the number of times each player ranked among the NFL's top 10 in that category. Once again, I've included the AFL for Jurgensen.
Jurgensen adds a small advantage in rushing. These are straight stats. Sacks were not recorded during Jurgensen's career, but we can safely assume that Warner took many more sacks.
Pretty clearly, I think, Jurgensen compared better to his peers, but this is not a blowout; Warner is in the same neighborhood.
It's important to recognize that great teammates can help a quarterback achieve more. Great offensive teammates help pad the stat sheet. All good teammates, offense or defense, can facilitate the wins and championships by which we so often judge quarterbacks. And of course, great coaching always plays a role.
This is the most important category, and it's relatively equal. Jurgensen played with three Hall of Fame wideouts: Tommy McDonald (1961-63), Bobby Mitchell (1964-68), and Charley Taylor (1964-70, 73-74). He also had Pete Retzlaff and Jerry Smith, two of the finest receiving tight ends of all time.
Warner's receivers are, remarkably, of similar caliber. Bruce and Holt should both make it into Canton, and Fitzgerald is well on the way. Boldin isn't chopped liver, either. I guess you'd have to say Jurgensen had a little more help, but this is just about even.
Warner has an obvious edge here. He only had half a season with Tiki Barber, and got Edgerrin James past his prime, but Warner's best seasons came with Marshall Faulk. In addition to his fine running, Faulk was a very good pass-blocker and probably the greatest receiving RB in history. Jurgensen had a couple years with Timmy Brown in Philadelphia, and Larry Brown towards the end of his career, but had no one of consequence in the backfield during his prime. Advantage: Warner.
The Rams had an exceptional offensive line during Warner's glory years. The Cardinals have given him mostly adequate protection. Jurgensen, in contrast, had Len Hauss and a prayer.
I'm lumping the whole defense together, since it has less direct impact on a quarterback than the various offensive positions do. The Cardinals had a pretty good defense the last couple seasons, and the Rams were solid under Lovie Smith in 2001, but Warner has also played with mediocre defenses that couldn't hold a lead. Washington's defense was awful throughout the '60s, though, so this is probably another small advantage for Warner.
Warner played for Dick Vermeil, Mad Mike Martz, Tom Coughlin, Dennis Green, and Ken Whisenhunt. Jurgensen quarterbacked teams led by Nick Skorich, Bill McPeake, Otto Graham, Lombardi, Bill Austin, and George Allen. On the surface, that's an edge for Jurgensen, who had two Hall of Famers on the sidelines. Lombardi only coached in Washington for one season, though, and Allen and Jurgensen detested one another. Allen even benched his star quarterback for Billy Kilmer, and his conservative offense didn't lend itself to Jurgensen's style. Martz, meanwhile, clearly influenced Warner's success. Altogether, it's pretty close again.
This is why I like the Jurgensen/Warner comparison. This is close, in every area. They both had great receivers, a couple seasons with an elite running back, mediocre defensive support, and a shifting cast of coaches. You could make an argument for either one having better teammates, but I'm calling it a tie.
In the Clutch
This is a big part of the argument for Warner. He's thrown for about a million yards in the postseason. Jurgensen played in one postseason game his entire career, a 19-10 loss in his final season, when he was 40 years old. Warner was 9-4 as a starting QB in the postseason, with a sterling stat line of 307-for-462, 3,952 yards, 31 TD, 14 INT, and a 102.8 passer rating. In his three Super Bowl appearances, Warner averaged 385 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, and a 96.7 rating.
The postseason is an obvious advantage for Warner, but I don't want to hold it too strongly against Jurgensen. He missed opportunities for postseason play because the team around him was so bad, but was a good clutch player who led more comebacks than Warner.
I've thrown a lot of numbers at you, but sometimes it's hard to be confident that you've interpreted the stats correctly. How were Jurgensen and Warner evaluated on a yearly basis?
Jurgensen was named to five Pro Bowls and three Associated Press all-NFL teams, including a unanimous first-team selection in 1961. Warner was named to four Pro Bowls and two all-pro squads, both on the first team. Jurgensen's small advantage is neutralized by Warner's two MVP Awards. I'm calling this equal.
I don't think there's much doubt that Jurgensen comes out ahead in this comparison, but there's also little doubt that it's pretty close. Sonny Jurgensen is not a borderline Hall of Famer — he's probably one of the 12 best ever to play the position. For Warner to come out nearly equal with him, I think, is a convincing argument that Warner has indeed put together a Hall of Fame career.
Warner had down moments in his career, yes. Terry Bradshaw was repeatedly benched for Terry Hanratty. Troy Aikman had a miserable rookie season. The latter part of Joe Namath's career was basically injuries and interceptions. We remember those players for what they did at their best, not for the times they struggled. That's the way we should recall Warner's career, too. Fine, he disappeared from 2002-06. He was the best quarterback in the league from 1999-2001 and helped make the Cardinals contenders at the end of this decade.
He had two of the greatest statistical seasons in history, set postseason records, and won a Super Bowl ring. Five years from now, when Kurt Warner's name appears on the ballot for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he'll have my support.