Monday, August 25, 2014

Is Kurt Warner a Hall of Famer?

I've had this conversation a few times with a few different people, and it's always been a tough nut to crack. Kurt Warner's career has had so many ebbs and flows that it's hard to think of it as one single entity. There's his time in St. Louis, when he won a Super Bowl with The Greatest Show On Turf. Then his forgettable stint with the New York Giants. Then his revitalization in Arizona.

But rather than try to pull the answer out of thin air, I'm going to try to pull it all together, compare the career in its entirety to other HOFers and non-HOFers, and see what comes out. My previous instincts have always been that he isn't a Hall of Famer, but I'll try to approach this with an open mind and come to a founded conclusion.

The Argument Against

I think a good starting point for the conversation is to look at how Warner's career stats stack up against other players. So here goes.

Warner rates 33rd in all-time passing yards with 32,344 (HOFers with asterisks, active players bolded):

30. Troy Aikman**
31. Ken Anderson
32. Philip Rivers
33. Kurt Warner
34. Sonny Jurgensen**
35. Mark Brunell

Obviously Rivers is still active, but the rest are an interesting bunch. Aikman is one of the winningest quarterbacks in NFL history, while Jurgensen had exactly one postseason game in his career. Sonny and Ken Anderson, however, were prolific in a different era. Mark Brunell was a fine quarterback with a couple of exceptional seasons, but had a mostly forgettable career, and obviously isn't a Hall of Famer.

Statistically, the player whose career is most similar to Warner's from this group is Brunell, simply because of its inconsistency. Brunell led the NFL in passing in 1999 (the year Warner exploded onto the scene with St. Louis), and had a couple of high-win seasons. But Brunell's offenses (outside of his record-breaking season) were mostly driven by a strong running game, featuring mostly Fred Taylor as well as a few other flashes. Warner was almost always the focal point of his teams' offensive strategies. So Warner was able to post his stats in 35 fewer starts. Warner also recorded more passing touchdowns than Brunell.

Dancing around the list a little bit, we find some other, more appropriate comparisons. Drew Bledsoe ranks tenth all-time in passing yards, with a similar level of fluctuation from year to year. He was a bit more healthy and entrenched as a starter than Warner, but they shared the same proclivity for interceptions. Rich Gannon is down at 46th, but had a similar career arc to Warner's. He was a solid starter for Minnesota, wallowed in Kansas City for a few years, then exploded in Oakland towards the end of his career. But he never won a Super Bowl, which Warner did, in addition to losing two others. Bledsoe and Gannon are not in the Hall of Fame.

One of the best comparisons I've found is Phil Simms. Simms rates 27th all time in passing yards, and won the Super Bowl in 1987 (he might've won another in 1991 if he hadn't gotten hurt; nobody can convince me that Jeff Hostetler did things Simms couldn't have). Simms never had the performance peaks that Warner did, but as far as overall stats and success in the postseason, they're similar.

Phil Simms isn't in the Hall of Fame. Now, that's not saying Simms will never be in the Hall of Fame. He's got enough of a name and presence, and the NFL process is enough of a mystery that you can never be sure. But he didn't get in before John Elway or Troy Aikman or Steve Young or Warren Moon, guys who played well after Simms hung up his spikes.

The Argument For

So does that mean that Warner, with similar general statistics, won't get in either? Well, no player can be summed up in just a few statistics or generalizations. But if you wanted to sum up Warner in a few statistics that made him seem like a likely Hall of Famer, you could probably do it. Let's try.

Warner is second all-time in total passing yards in the Super Bowl. He's ahead of Aikman and Peyton Manning who also played in three Super Bowls (so far), Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, and Jim Kelly, who each played in 4 Super Bowls, and ahead of Elway who played in five. He was clearly not phased by the bright lights of the big stage. Additionally, his lowest yardage total for a Super Bowl is the third-highest total of all time. For those of you who have trouble doing math, that means that his Super Bowl performances rank first, second, and third in terms of passing yardage. Not bad.

He also had higher "highs" than most of the non-HOF players I mentioned above. Three times he eclipsed 4,300 passing yards, and twice led the NFL in touchdown passes. He also led the NFL in completion percentage each of his first three years as a full-time starter, with the aforementioned "Greatest Show On Turf." He brought two fairly disappointing franchises out of the doldrums and into the Super Bowl, and that makes him noteworthy.

The Journeyman Aspect, and Injuries Abound

Towards the end of his time in St. Louis, Warner suffered a few injuries, and Marc Bulger took over the offense. And he was...pretty good. He threw a lot of picks, but he stacked yardage on top of yardage, and Warner became expendable. So he went to the Giants.

Warner's year in the Big Apple was a disaster. Every memory I have of him that year is of getting sacked, losing a fumble, or his eventual departure due to concussion (and the team's obvious intention to force Eli Manning down our throats).

He then left for the Arizona Cardinals, and it all just felt like him hanging on to a career that was as good as over. He couldn't stay in the lineup, whether because of injury, or because the team wanted to get a look at Josh McCown/Matt Leinart/anybody else but Kurt Warner. So when Warner entered 2008 as the starter, nobody expected it to stay that way. But you know the rest; they won a feeble NFC West, and clawed their way to the Super Bowl, where they were edged by the goddamn Steelers (sorry, momentary lapse of journalistic integrity).

Warner obviously earned another year, and went 10-5 as a starter in 2009 (Leinart earned a loss to the Titans in week 11 when Warner couldn't go). After one of the most excitingly terrible playoff games I've ever seen in which the Cards edged the Packers in overtime by scoring one million points, Warner called it a career.

In the end, he averaged just ten games a season, sometimes due to ineffectiveness, but most often due to injury. In his best six seasons (three each with the Rams and Cardinals), he totaled 24,365 yards, 181 passing TDs, and 98 interceptions, averaging out to 4,060/30/16. If, theoretically, he'd been able to stay healthy and put up a pace of at least 90% of that (which would even be low theoretically, since injuries took most of his age 31-35 seasons), he'd have unquestionable Hall of Fame credentials. Do we penalize him for injuries taking away some of the best years of his career?

The answer is, yes, we do.

Terrell Davis is the best running back I've ever seen. Better than Emmitt Smith, better than Barry Sanders, better than Adrian Peterson. But after a gruesome injury in 1999 ended his season, he was never the same. He was done as a full-time running back, and pretty much done altogether, never recapturing that magic from his early career. He was a Hall of Fame semifinalist a number of times, including this past season, but he remains a ways off from getting in. He likely never will.

I'm sure there are a dozen similar stories about great players whose careers were marred or ended by injuries. Warner's story has to remain with them, in my opinion. He had a few fantastic seasons, and a few magical playoff runs. He might've been an all-time great at quarterback if he'd been able to stay healthy. But as is, he remains just another very good player. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Boomer Esiason was a very good player. So was Ahman Green. They just don't belong in Canton.

Verdict: Not a Hall of Famer

PS: By the way, there's one thing I didn't mention: Warner's best years coincided with the years when he had the most prolific offensive weapons around him. Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Anquan Boldin, and Larry Fitzgerald were all fantastic when Warner played with them. The reason I didn't include them is that the skill level of your teammates doesn't seem to matter for the NFL Hall of Fame. Great players who played with other great players, if anything, are more likely to make the Hall, because they're more likely to have been on championship teams. So the caliber of Warner's teammates isn't really relevant to the discussion.

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