Tuesday, August 25, 2015
HOF Chooses Wrong Senior Candidates
The Pro Football Hall of Fame recently announced this year's candidates, Ken Stabler and Dick Stanfel. Both were fine players, and both men died this summer. Sentiment clearly played a role in these choices, and it shouldn't have.
If we're going to use failing health as a criterion for Hall of Fame selection, I would much rather induct former stars before they die, when they can appreciate and acknowledge the honor, rather than afterwards. A player's death may cause casual fans to remember how much they loved Stabler, or to recall the arguments on Stanfel's behalf, but dying doesn't increase anyone's qualifications, and the Hall of Fame's Seniors Committee should be above any "flavor of the month" influence: this is supposed to be a measured process by the most qualified selectors in the world, and instead they're just choosing guys who are in the news.
It's not that Stabler and Stanfel weren't good players. Ken Stabler was the most accurate passer of the 1970s. He led all QBs of the decade in completion percentage (59.9), yards per attempt (7.69) and net yards per attempt (6.51), and TD% (6.0). He threw too many interceptions, but that was a direct consequence of his bold playing style and confidence in his own precision passing. Stabler's aggressive play probably helped the team more than it hurt. He was NFL MVP in 1974, and in 1976, he led the Raiders to a 13-1 record and their first Super Bowl victory. He is one of 14 players to win a league MVP Award (Associated Press) and win a Super Bowl as starting quarterback. Twelve of the other 13 are in the PFHOF or not yet eligible; Joe Theismann and Stabler are the only exceptions.
Even more than his accomplishments on paper, Stabler was an icon. He was the face of the Raiders in the 1970s, when they were the most loved and hated team in the AFC: silver and black, pirate logo, downfield passing, Stickum, dirty play ... the whole package. Stabler was a party monster, a hard drinker and notoriously lazy with the playbook. There was a charm about him, and on his good days, no QB of that era could outplay him. He had a knack for the right play at the right time, and he is the only player in history to be associated with three plays that have names: the Sea of Hands, Ghost to the Post, and The Holy Roller.
Dick Stanfel is less remembered, because he was an offensive lineman, and he retired almost 60 years ago. Stanfel played only seven seasons in the NFL, but he was first-team all-pro in five of them, with five Pro Bowls and two NFL championships. Born in 1927, Stanfel served in the army before college and didn't play in the NFL until he was 25. He was tall for the 1950s, and excelled as both a run blocker and pass protector. Stanfel retired young but remained in the game as a coach, including a brief stint as interim head coach of the New Orleans Saints.
A couple of weeks ago, my uncle asked me if Stabler was in the Hall of Fame, and when I said no, he asked me why not. There are several reasons, but the biggest is that Stabler only had a handful of good seasons. The best quarterbacks usually play 15 years, and Stabler was only an effective starter from 1973-79 — and that's being generous, since it includes 1975 (when Stabler threw 16 touchdowns and 24 interceptions) and 1978 (16 TD, 30 INT). Can you really put a quarterback in the Hall of Fame who only had five good seasons?
Stabler didn't start regularly until he was 27, and his last five seasons, with the Oilers and Saints, significantly damaged his legacy. Stabler played poorly and made uncharacteristic mistakes, while Jim Plunkett replaced him and led the Raiders to two Super Bowl victories in four years. Particularly notable was the Oilers' 1980 playoff loss to Oakland. Houston rode league MVP Earl Campbell to an 11-5 record, but Stabler was unable to lead his new team to victory against the old one. The Raiders won 27-7, with Campbell rushing for Houston's only touchdown, Plunkett throwing two TDs, and Stabler tossing two interceptions, one in the end zone and the other returned for a game-clinching touchdown.
There were also plenty of people who didn't like Ken Stabler, including a few of his teammates as well as some prominent sportswriters. Paul Zimmerman, Sports Illustrated's legendary Dr. Z, despised Stabler. The more time goes on, the more Stabler's drinking and partying seems irresponsible rather than charming, genuine, or admirable.
Stanfel doesn't share Stabler's character issues, but he too is hindered by a short career. While Stabler did play 15 NFL seasons, granted that he was only a useful player for a third of them, Stanfel's career was less than half that length, and even when active, he struggled with injuries. Stanfel played a full season only three times and retired with only 73 career games. He isn't in the Hall of Fame for the same reason Erik Williams and Tony Boselli aren't in the Hall of Fame.
HOF arguments provoke strong feelings. Many fans worshipped Ken Stabler, and his death this summer reminded many people how much they loved watching him play. If the Hall of Fame is about fame, then Stabler probably belongs: he was a truly iconic player. But if the Hall of Fame is for the best players, Stabler is the wrong fit. He threw way too many interceptions, he only had five good seasons, and there's reason to believe that his success was a product of the Raiders organization rather than the other way around. Stabler at his best was a remarkable talent, but his lack of dedication meant that we only saw that "at his best" performance in flashes, and only for a handful of seasons.
Dick Stanfel is unique: this is his third time as a Seniors candidate for Canton. The Seniors nominees usually get in, but Stanfel was nominated — and rejected — in 1993, then re-nominated in 2012, and rejected again. Now, only four years later (Stanfel's nomination is for the 2016 Hall of Fame class), he's back on the ballot. Following the 2004 ballot, Seniors candidate Bob Hayes was rejected, and Paul Zimmerman resigned from the Seniors committee in protest. Since then, 18 of 21 Seniors candidates have been inducted. The exceptions were Marshall Goldberg in 2008 (a pre-Modern back and not a Hall of Fame-quality player), Claude Humphrey in 2009 (Humphrey was re-nominated and inducted in 2014), and Stanfel in 2012.
There are so many deserving candidates to be Seniors nominees. Giving Stanfel a third spin of the wheel, just four years after the selectors rejected him, seems like a waste to me. There are other great players of that era whom the Seniors committee has never nominated. Why not take a look at, say, Billy Howton or Alex Karras? How about Joe Fortunato or Bobby Dillon? Howton is the only player to hold the career lead for receptions, who is not in the Hall of Fame. Fortunato retired with the most fumble recoveries of any linebacker. Karras played 12 seasons, and he was all-pro from 1960-62. Dillon was just as exceptional, in a short career, as Stanfel. He had three seasons with 9 interceptions, 52 altogether in a career that spanned only eight seasons. He was all-pro four times.
What does the Seniors committee understand about Stanfel's career that the selectors didn't understand in 2012? Or 1993? It's hard to look at this year's selections — Stabler and Stanfel — and not conclude that they were motivated by sentiment more than merit. I'm not trying to insult either player. Both had fine careers, and both deserved to be remembered following their recent deaths. But emotion-based decision-making is not an effective process for good selections. The Hall of Fame has a five-year waiting period after a player's retirement, specifically to allow for some distance and perspective on his career. Now the Seniors committee is trying to rush through Stabler and Stanfel mere weeks after their passing.
In this case, the poor process has led to poor results. Stabler and Stanfel were fine players, but not Hall of Famers. For the first time in history, the voters should reject both Seniors candidates. And the committee who selected them should be ashamed of itself.