The NFL gets to show off four of their greatest quarterbacks this week. Has this fearsome foursome ever been topped? Your Scramble team remembers conference championships of yore, and take a trip back to their childhoods to try and find an answer.
26 Jul 2006
Guest column by David Lewin
In a recent FO mailbag a reader asked why Ken Anderson is not considered a candidate for the Hall of Fame despite having two of the top ten quarterback seasons of all time according to an essay in Pro Football Prospectus 2005. Here was Mike Tanier's response:
Mike Tanier: You mention the baseball HOF. I usually start any discussion about the Pro Football Hall of Fame with a warning: Canton is not Cooperstown. The two Halls have different traditions and different tendencies. Recently, Jimmy Smith retired, and many writers speculated that Smith might be a HOFer, citing his statistics. Smith has as much chance of reaching the Hall of Fame as I do. Cooperstown rewards guys who hang around for 20 years and ring some magic bell like 3,000 hits. Canton rewards guys who win championships, or dominate the game for a period of years, or change the way the game is played or perceived. Smith did none of those things.
Anderson is an interesting case. He won a conference title but no Super Bowls, so he falls short in that category. His stats are great but not overwhelming, and he is hampered by playing part of his career in the offense-starved 1970s. He may have been among the best players in the league in 1981 or 1982, but in most seasons he would have been considered the third, fourth, or fifth best quarterback in the league behind Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Dan Fouts, and guys like Ken Stabler and Fran Tarkenton.
Anderson did "change the game" in one way: he was essentially the first West Coast Offense quarterback. To some voters, that's actually a disadvantage; they may hold against him the fact that his great 1974 and 1975 statistical years came in an offense that emphasized short passes. Had he won a playoff game or two in the mid-70's, his reputation might be better. (Cincinnati's problem wasn't Anderson, it was horrible run defense in a run-heavy era.)
It is somewhat unfair to say that Anderson is not considered a candidate for the Hall, as he has been a finalist twice. Still, this seems like less than Anderson might deserve. Mike Tanier's concise and accurate response about why Anderson is not in the Hall didn't answer the deeper question: Should he be?
Anderson was an elite quarterback in the 1970s and early 1980s. He appears to have been good enough to merit serious Hall consideration. Anderson went to the Pro Bowl four times, leading the NFL in quarterback rating each season. He was named NFL MVP in 1981. At the time of his retirement he ranked sixth in career passing yards. In addition to his skills as a passer, he was one of the best running quarterbacks of his era.
Although the NFL specifies that only on the field performance should be taken into account, off the field behavior and contribution to the game often come into play in the Hall of Fame selection process. This does not seem to be a major factor for Anderson. He comported himself in a professional manner, and got on fine with the media. As Mike noted, he contributed to the league by pioneering the "West Coast Offense" with Bill Walsh and Paul Brown, and he is currently quarterbacks coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. All of this seems quite reasonable for a Hall of Fame candidate, so let's take a closer look at Anderson's performance on the field.
In the Tennessee chapter of Pro Football Prospectus 2006 I take a look at whether Steve McNair is going to end up in the Hall of Fame. In order to evaluate the hall candidacy of McNair and other recent quarterbacks I used a methodology similar to that used in last year's essay "100 Greatest Quarterback Seasons of All Time."
The basic idea is to adjust every quarterback's statistics to a 2004 offensive climate; this puts every player on a level playing field. For example if in a given year there were 25 percent fewer passing yards than there were in 2004, then every quarterback to play in that year gets credited with 33 percent more passing yards for that season. Also, every season is prorated to 16 games, including the strike shortened 1982 and 1987 seasons. This process was repeated for each year of each quarterback's career. The results allow us to compare apples to apples in terms of statistics. It also enables application of an approximate PAR formula to each player's career stats, giving us a one-number value of a player's career production.
This approximate PAR formula is slightly different that the one from last year's book. It does not include sacks, fumbles, or a defense adjustment. Leaving out sacks is not a major problem, since they are often (though not always) a reflection of offensive line play more than quarterback play. The quality of defenses faced pretty much evens out over the course of a career. Overall, the formula is quite accurate and gives a good summary number of a player's passing and running performance.
Other factors like reputation and playoff performance certainly play into a quarterback's hall chances. For the purposes of this article I will use four main categories for the evaluation of quarterback careers: passing VOA, to measure efficiency; career total DPAR, to measure overall productivity; number of top 100 seasons, to measure dominance; and number of titles (Super Bowls, or AFL/NFL titles in the pre-Super Bowl era), to measure winning. In the case of Ken Anderson these numbers clearly show that not only does he numerically belong in the Hall, but also that he actually ranks above almost all of the quarterbacks already enshrined there.
(For those new to our site, PAR (Points Above Replacement) and VOA (Value Over Average) are our proprietary statistics, normally based on play-by-play breakdown. PAR is a total stat, VOA a rate stat. More here.)
Please note that tables in this article feature only quarterbacks who began their careers after 1950 and finished their careers before 1990. This excludes early players for whom we do not have reliable stats. It also excludes current and recently retired players like Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Warren Moon, Brett Favre, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, and Peyton Manning. If you would like to see how these guys stack up, pick up Pro Football Prospectus 2006 and check out the Tennessee chapter. The formatting is slightly different here than in the book, but between the two articles pretty much every great quarterback in NFL history is covered.
There are a few major arguments against Ken Anderson. The first is that he simply wasn't good enough. This is easy enough to debunk using statistics, and then the others come into play: he didn't win in the playoffs, he didn't dominate the game, and he was the product of a West Coast system that was ahead of its time.
|Hall of Fame Quarterbacks 1950-1990, and Ken Anderson|
|B. Starr||1956-1971||2917||4371||66.7%||33285||7.61||180||107||26.6%||22||772||794||1||5||J. Namath||1965-1977||2997||4935||60.7%||38255||7.75||226||171||12.8%||-4||565||562||2||1|
|*Number of seasons listed among the Top 100 QB Seasons (1960-2004) in PFP 2005.
VOA and PAR numbers are approximations.
Anderson's conventional accomplishments are good, but he really stands out when we put him in the context of his era. The table above shows every Hall of Fame quarterback whose career began after 1950 and ended before 1990. It has their era-adjusted career statistics as well as their approximate rush PAR, pass PAR and pass VOA. There are 11 Hall of Fame quarterbacks plus Anderson.
It is easy to see why many regard Johnny Unitas as the greatest quarterback of all time. He has excellent numbers overall, as well as three titles and five top 100 seasons. Fran Tarkenton is the only guy with better numbers than Unitas, but his failure to win a title has left him on the outside looking in when it comes to best QB of all time debates. It seems that in this regard Tarkenton is very similar to Peyton Manning and Dan Marino.
Anderson ranks third in total PAR. He also ranks third in passing VOA. He ranks ahead of Dan Fouts, Sonny Jurgensen, Bob Griese, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Namath in both total PAR and passing VOA. This means Anderson both accomplished more in total over the course of his career and was a more efficient passer than all these players.
In the cases of Starr, Bradshaw, Namath, and Griese it is clear they did not get into the Hall of Fame because of their statistics; they got in because they won Super Bowls, made guarantees, and went undefeated. The point of comparing Anderson to them is not to say that because they are in, he should be in. It is simply to establish that Anderson's career statistics are far above the minimum threshold for a Hall of Fame quarterback. The table clearly shows that if statistics alone were the measure of a quarterback's greatness, Anderson would be mentioned among the greatest of all time.
Unfortunately for Anderson statistics are not the only criteria for induction. Winning championships is highly valued by the selectors and this is something that Anderson did not do. His Bengals made the Super Bowl once, in 1982 (following the 1981 season), when he lost to the budding San Francisco 49ers dynasty and a young Joe Montana. This loss can hardly be blamed on Anderson, who went 25-of-34 for 300 yards and two touchdowns, ran four times for 15 yards and a score and clearly outplayed Montana. His 25 completions and 73.5% completion rate both set Super Bowl records.
Still, it must be acknowledged that Anderson lacks the clutch credentials of many of the quarterbacks in the Hall. Anderson must be compared to the quarterbacks on the list that never won a Super Bowl. There are three: Tarkenton, Fouts and Jurgensen. While Anderson can't match up with Tarkenton's gargantuan numbers, he does beat Fouts and Jurgensen in both total PAR and passing VOA.
Before we move on, it's worth noting that not all titles are created equal. NFL or AFL titles pre-1966 were achieved in leagues with between 8 and 14 teams. From the first Super Bowl on there were never fewer than 24 teams. The chance of winning a title is equal to one over the number of teams in the league; therefore these titles are worth somewhere between a conference title and half of a Super Bowl title. Most HOF voters fail to properly account for this. Now, on to the guys who didn't win any titles, easy or hard.
Comparing Anderson to Jurgensen shows great similarity. In fact Jurgensen's era-adjusted stats are almost identical to Anderson's. Jurgensen's Eagles and Redskins teams of the 60s were consistently mediocre, worse in fact than Anderson's Bengals teams. Jurgensen only made a Super Bowl late in his career after he was replaced by Billy Kilmer as the Redskins' starter in 1972. Jurgensen has two of the top 100 seasons of all time (26 and 30), while Anderson has two of the top 10 and four of the top 100 (including the prorated strike-shortened 1982).
Anderson had a slightly more productive career, more playoff success, and more dominant seasons than Jurgensen. This is not to say that Jurgensen should not be in the Hall. He should be; many regard him as the greatest pure passer of all time. The point is that if Jurgensen is in then Anderson should be in as well.
Fouts is a particularly interesting comparison with Anderson because their careers were almost completely concurrent. As the numbers above show, Fouts threw the ball more over the course of his career but was slightly less efficient. Anderson was a much better runner than Fouts; Anderson's excellent running ability is often overlooked.
Looking at their careers on a year-by-year basis shows some interesting trends. Anderson was a star in the mid 70s, then had a couple of down years, and re-emerged in the early 1980s after passing rules were liberalized. Fouts did not emerge as a star until 1978, after the rule changes. This next table shows Anderson and Fouts' unadjusted stats for the years in which both were starters, 1973-1984. Can you tell which one of those is a Hall of Famer and which isn't? Didn't think so.
|Ken Anderson and Dan Fouts 1973-1984|
|Name||Comp.||Att||Comp. %||Yards||YPA||TD||TD%||INT||INT%||Rush||R. Yards||YPC||R.TDs|
Many people would say that Anderson's numbers are inflated by playing in a system (Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense) that was ahead of its time. This may or may not be true, but it applies equally to Fouts, as his career took off right around the time Bill Walsh joined the Chargers as an assistant coach, after being passed over for the Bengals' head coaching position. In fact, despite all the controversy about whether Bill Walsh or Sid Gillman is the originator of the West Coast Offense, the truth of the matter is that they worked together with the Chargers in 1976, and because of this their systems are intertwined.
All in all, Anderson posted similar numbers to Fouts during the late 70s and early 80s. Fouts' team was quite pass-happy, leading to bigger overall numbers, but Anderson and Fouts both have four seasons in the top 100. Fouts never reached a Super Bowl, partially due to a 27-7 defeat at the hands of Anderson and the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game in 1981. As the 27-7 score implies, Anderson (14-of-22, 161 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT, 5 rush, 39 yards) soundly outplayed Fouts (15-of-28, 185, 1 TD, 2 INT).
While both players failed to capture a Super Bowl title, Anderson was the better clutch performer and is equally if not more deserving of enshrinement. That Fouts made it in his first year as a finalist while Anderson is still waiting reflects the selectors' fondness for "big" seasons. They are impressed by Fouts' 4,700+ yards in 1980 and '81 even though these seasons were not really as good as Anderson's 1974 and '75.
As discussed before, and mentioned in Mike Tanier's response in the mailbag, Ken Anderson's numbers are often discounted because they came in the West Coast Offense when it was new and defenses were unsure how to defend it. Critics have also tried to argue that the short passing used in the West Coast Offense requires less skill than throwing downfield. While this may or may not be true, it must be applied to all of the quarterbacks who ran the WCO. Among those in the Hall of Fame or soon to be, this includes Montana, Steve Young, John Elway, Fouts (sort of), and Brett Favre.
Montana is considered by many to be the greatest quarterback of all time, and he probably is (a topic for a future application of this research, perhaps). He played in Walsh's WCO when it was still relatively new, and at the same time that Anderson was having some of his best seasons using the same system. Look at the numbers for both quarterbacks from 1979-1983. This was the beginning of Montana's career and the end of Anderson's. It is impossible to say from those numbers who was better at the time.
|Ken Anderson and Joe Montana 1979-1983|
|Name||Comp.||Att||Comp. %||Yards||YPA||TD||TD%||INT||INT%||Rush||R. Yards||YPC||R.TDs|
Obviously Montana would go on to distinguish himself from Anderson over the rest of his career and with his postseason performance, but the fact remains that Anderson came by his numbers no more easily than Montana did. In fact, if Anderson had not been so adept at running Walsh's system who knows if it would have ever caught on as it did.
It seems that compared to the other players in the Hall of Fame Ken Anderson belongs. What about compared to those not in the Hall? Are there any other quarterbacks not in the Hall of Fame that our system sees as worthy, or maybe even some that are more worthy than Anderson?
The answer is no. There are no other quarterbacks in the history of the NFL not enshrined in the Hall of Fame that approach Anderson's statistics. The only other quarterback (who played in the period 1950-1990) who has some claim to the Hall is Ken Stabler. Stabler was a contemporary of Anderson, playing from 1970-1984. Stabler has a 21.8 percent career approximated VOA, 691 total PAR, two top 100 seasons, and one Super Bowl title. This compares favorably to Namath (12.8 percent, 562, 2, 1). Of course Namath got in at least partially for being a world-class hype man.
Stabler has been a finalist three times, most recently in 2003. Meanwhile Anderson has only been a finalist twice, most recently in 1998. Stabler is borderline case, and while he would probably be the best quarterback of his era not in the Hall of Fame left out (except Anderson of course) he would also be the worst of his era in the Hall. Anderson falls in no such gray area. He is statistically one of the top quarterbacks of all time. His teams' playoff success and his reputation among Hall voters do not match up to his regular season stats. Still, it is crazy that Anderson is not among the 23 post-WWII quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame.
When not writing guest columns for FO, David Lewin takes classes at, and plays quarterback for, Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. His writes about his new projection system for rookie quarterbacks, as well as Steve McNair's career, in the new Pro Football Prospectus 2006.
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