Hall of Fame Quarterbacks

Tony Romo’s announced retirement has people talking about the Hall of Fame and quarterbacks. Is he good enough? What is the criteria? What will the Hall of Fame committee do?

Since I’ve put so much work into my quarterback research, I thought I’d take a shot at answering the question. The simple answer? No. Romo will not reach the Hall of Fame. He simply didn’t play enough games.

But what’s the fun of an analysis without sharing a little more about what went into the conclusion?

I limited my work to quarterbacks who played in the modern NFL. As I’ve written many times, I think analysis of quarterback play before 1974 is completely different from analysis of today’s game. In 1974, the NFL changed the rules to open up the passing game. Before then, receivers could be bumped, tackled, you name it. This greatly limited strategies. The rules were fine-tuned over the next few years, and offenses took some time adjusting to the new NFL.

There have been 15 quarterbacks inducted into the Hall who played in the modern NFL. Roger Staubach, who retired after the 1979 season, was the first. Fran Tarkenton retired a year earlier, but didn’t get in until his third year of eligibility.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame committee is notorious stingy about offering the gold jacket to quarterbacks – about one every two years on average. And when a quarterback has the votes to emerge from the nominating process and is one of the finalists, he’s almost certainly getting the call. Only five quarterbacks haven’t been voted in the first time they were nominated. Of those five, four eventually reached the Hall. There’s only one exception, which I’ll get to later.

Point being: the committee knows what it wants in a quarterback and it’s not that hard to figure out what they did.

In my analysis, I looked at a large number of factors. But I found that the simpler I made the criteria, the more easily I could tell who was in and who was out. The committee doesn’t care about long delays between inducting quarterbacks, and they don’t care about inducting several in a short amount of time if they feel it’s deserved. Five got in between 2004-2006, all when they were first eligible. None got in for the following nine years. We’ve since had three in two years.

I found only two factors mattered. One is purely the number of games the quarterback won. I fine-tuned this a tiny bit by adding an eight-game bonus for a Super Bowl win and a three-game bonus for a Super Bowl loss, but the numbers work almost as well without that. The second is my quarterback metric, which is a way of easily comparing performance across different eras. Obviously, the committee doesn’t call me and ask for my metric. They have different sources of material – probably just experience knowing who, year after year, were the quarterbacks opponents respected the most.

The committee doesn’t seem to care about touchdown passes or total yards or when a player was drafted. It’s just a combination of winning and excellence.

Back in the ’80s, when the first of these modern quarterbacks was eligible, the committee was a little more like baseball’s committee; they seemed to view induction in the first year of eligibility as a special honor. Hence Tarkenton and Bob Griese had to wait, even though they had exceptional careers and weren’t close to the minimum threshold for induction. Later, it was more an up-or-down vote.

Not much needs to be said about the “easy” choices. You know the names: Montana, Favre, Marino, Bradshaw, Young, Elway, Aikman, Staubach, Tarkenton, Griese and Kelly. All excellent quarterbacks who won an enormous number of games.

So I focused more on the four quarterbacks who didn’t seem as though they were easy choices, plus those who were close. The ones who are in: Dan Fouts (1993), Warren Moon (2006), Ken Stabler (2016) and Kurt Warner (2017).

Moon’s case is unique. Generally, the NFL has a very good record when it comes to race, but black quarterbacks faced considerable discrimination for a long time. Despite having all the tools, Moon went undrafted in 1978. So he went to the CFL, and in six years broke so many records and led the Edmonton Eskimos to so many titles that in just that brief amount of time, he’s considered one of the best ever to play the game north of the border.

And then what did he do? He went and had an exceptional career in the NFL, putting up more than 100 wins. So even without the first six years of his career, he’d be on the borderline, maybe a little short. It seems quite reasonable for the committee to give Moon some extra points for what he did in the CFL – it is, after all, a professional league. Moon was inducted in his first year of eligibility.

Stabler is another unique case. His win total puts him solidly in the “long look” category. Not enough to make it automatic, but enough where his statistical excellence should make it an easy call. But Stabler was a character. And controversy followed him. You can look up reports of connections to known gamblers, even some suspicion of thrown games. The committee wrestled with Stabler like no one else. He was a finalist three times, starting in his first year of eligibility. He was a semifinalist six straight years (2004-2009) before dropping out of consideration. After he died, the veteran’s committee inducted him in 2016.

Warner and Fouts did not have high enough win totals. But both were leaders of top offenses and put up exceptional numbers. Fouts was inducted in his first year, Warner not until his third. These are the cases I used to establish minimums for the committee.

Warner is up there with Montana and Young in my quarterback metric. This seems to kick in when a quarterback has more than 75 wins. Warner had 78 (including playoffs) and I bump that to 92 with the Super Bowl title and two losses (no eligible quarterback with three Super Bowl starts isn’t in the Hall). Fouts had 89 wins, as well as 57.3 in the metric, which is one of the top all-time scores for an established quarterback.

There really aren’t that many quarterbacks who have more than 80 wins (even with the Super Bowl bump) and aren’t in – 17 total. I used Elway’s career score of 52.7 in the metric as the bottom of the acceptable range. Elway is in because he won so many games and had such a high winning percentage that it would be ridiculous not to include him. He won Super Bowls. He won 14 playoff games. And 52.7 is solidly above average when it comes to the general quarterback population. Maybe he had the benefit of great teammates. I track fourth-quarter game-winning drives as well – he’s among the best in that category.

I’m not a big believer in clutch quarterbacking – generally teams that are good but not great have more of those drives than teams that consistently dominate. Tom Brady (15%) and Aaron Rodgers (11%) are among the lowest in NFL history when it comes to percentage of their wins that come from late fourth-quarter drives. You want to tell me they aren’t “clutch,” whatever that means? Or that Jay Cutler (29%) is the guy you really want when the game is on the line? Not that Cutler is a bad quarterback – he’s just not someone they’ll consider for the Hall.

Nevertheless, if anyone had that late-game magic, it was Elway. You look at his per-game numbers and wonder how he did what he did, because it stands out. So of the 15 quarterbacks with 80 wins (including the Super Bowl bump) who aren’t in the Hall, I have no problem removing those with a sub-52.7 metric and less than 110 wins. That eliminates eight. Take out those between 52.7 and 54.2 and less than 100 wins and you lose another six. Dave Krieg had 101 wins and a 54.2 in the metric. He’s an excellent example of the best of the “Hall of the Very Good.” As is Rich Gannon (77 wins, 0-1 Super Bowl record, 54.7 in the metric).

And that leaves us with one quarterback who isn’t in the Hall: Ken Anderson. He had 91 wins and a 58.7 in the metric. The 91 wins, especially with just an 0-1 Super Bowl record, isn’t enough on its own. But the 58.7 is behind only Young, Montana, Warner and Griese. Anderson belongs.

I’m hardly the first person to want to campaign for Anderson. Others have broken down the case for Anderson looking at Pro Bowls, years leading the league in passer rating, even showing that he had fewer Pro-Bowl teammates than just about any other candidate. I can’t do a better job than they’ve already done.

But just based on this relatively simple analysis combining my metric with wins, he’s the only modern quarterback not in the Hall that passes these tests. I sincerely hope the veteran’s committee reviews his case soon. He was a finalist in 1996 and 1998 – so he is also the only modern quarterback who has reached the finals not to make it. The committee knows he was great. I think that now that we’ve had another 20 years to digest his candidacy and get a better picture of the role of the modern quarterback in the Hall, this omission stands out like nothing else.

Will the criteria change? I wanted to spend some time discussing the future of the modern quarterback in the Hall.

Of current nominations, none meet the elimination test. Donovan McNabb (first eligible in 2017, but not reaching the semifinals) is the closest. He had 105 wins and an 0-1 Super Bowl record, which puts him in serious consideration. But only a 51.7 career metric. Like Krieg, the Hall of the Very Good. Phil Simms (99 wins, 1 Super Bowl win, 52.0 metric), also nominated but not a semifinalist in 2017, also falls firmly in this category.

As far as new candidates go, there are none until Peyton Manning in 2021. I don’t need to tell you which way that will go. Matt Hasselbeck (91 wins, 0-1 Super Bowl, 52.0 metric) is also eligible in 2021, but won’t get more than a nomination. And Romo will come up in 2022. With an exceptional metric (60.2), Romo deserves a long look. But he only had 80 wins. So on the surface, Romo’s candidacy looks a lot like Warner’s. But here’s where having the three Super Bowl starts makes a difference.

The second piece of this analysis is that quarterbacks are lasting longer these days. While the committee has and should go with the flow when it comes to letting in several quarterbacks in a small number of years, we’re in a slightly different era when it comes to the franchise quarterback. Training methods are improving, and losing an elite guy like Aikman at age 34 or Bradshaw at 35 probably wouldn’t happen as often today. Romo is 36, and his retiring now stands out – but he has faced some unusually unlucky and severe injuries.

Still, we have Tom Brady (207 wins plus 5-2 in Super Bowls, 58.7 metric) coming up. Brady could divide his career in two and each half would make the Hall. Drew Brees (137, 1-0, 60.5), Ben Roethlisberger (135, 2-1, 58.4) and Aaron Rodgers (99, 1-0, 61.6) are also automatic choices (Rodgers still has a few good years left). I have a hard time believing Matt Ryan won’t be automatic – he’ll be only 32 next season. That’s five who are over 30 right now who likely get in on the first ballot, no hesitation.

It’s the next batch of 30-somethings that will force the committee to examine that statistical standard. Eli Manning (age 35, already at 116 wins with a 2-0 record in Super Bowls) may be a lock as well. But his 50.1 career metric isn’t that far from replacement level. Joe Flacco (age 31, 93 wins, 1-0 in Super Bowls plus a remarkable 10-5 playoff record) has a 50.9 career metric. On the other end of the scale, you have Philip Rivers (age 35, 98 wins, no Super Bowls, but a 58.4 career metric).

When you add Peyton Manning, that’s nine potential Hall quarterbacks who entered the league from 1998-2008. Maybe that’s a reflection of the current game, and what we need in the Hall. Or maybe it’s best to draw a line right under Elway from a statistical perspective and ignore Eli Manning and Flacco no matter how many wins they accumulate. Do they add Rivers because the statistics are exceptional? Hard to say which path is best, just that these are the cases that will determine the shape of the Hall in the future.

I’ve included charts of this information at the bottom of this article.

QuarterbackAdjusted WinsIn Hall
Brett Favre210Yes
John Elway186Yes
Joe Montana162Yes
Dan Marino157Yes
Terry Bradshaw151Yes
Fran Tarkenton139Yes
Troy Aikman127Yes
Jim Kelly119Yes
Roger Staubach117Yes
Bob Griese115Yes
Steve Young109Yes
Ken Stabler109Yes
Donovan McNabb108No
Phil Simms107No
Warren Moon105Yes
Drew Bledsoe104No
Dave Krieg101No
Steve McNair96No
Ken Anderson94No
Jim Plunkett94No
Vinny Testaverde93No
Joe Theismann93No
Kurt Warner92Yes
Craig Morton91No
Kerry Collins90No
Dan Fouts89Yes
Boomer Esiason87No
Brad Johnson85No
Mark Brunell84No
Randall Cunningham84No
Ron Jaworski82No
Rich Gannon80No

QuarterbackAverage MetricIn Hall
Steve Young64.2Yes
Kurt Warner61.7Yes
Joe Montana61.5Yes
Bob Griese59.6*Yes
Roger Staubach58.8*Yes
Ken Anderson58.7*No
Ken Stabler57.5*Yes
Dan Fouts57.3*Yes
Fran Tarkenton56.9*Yes
Troy Aikman56.3Yes
Terry Bradshaw56.2*Yes
Brett Favre56.2Yes
Dan Marino56.2Yes
Jim Kelly56.1Yes
Rich Gannon54.7No
Dave Krieg54.2No
Brad Johnson54.1No
Warren Moon53.8Yes
Joe Theismann53.8No
Steve McNair53.4No
Mark Brunell53.3No
Craig Morton53.2*No
Boomer Esiason53.0No
John Elway52.7Yes
Jim Plunkett52.4*No
Phil Simms52.0No
Randall Cunningham51.7No
Donovan McNabb51.7No
Ron Jaworski50.1No
Vinny Testaverde49.8No
Drew Bledsoe49.1No
Kerry Collins46.5No

QuarterbackAge (end of 2016)Adjusted WinsAverage MetricRetired
Tom Brady3925358.7No
Peyton Manning4022261.2Yes
Ben Roethlisberger3415458.4No
Drew Brees3714560.5No
Eli Manning3513250.1No
Aaron Rodgers3310761.6No
Joe Flacco3110150.9No
Philip Rivers359858.4No
Matt Hasselbeck419452.0Yes
Matt Ryan319058.7No
Carson Palmer378953.9No
Tony Romo368060.2Yes
Alex Smith328050.8No
Jay Cutler337051.6No

(* – does not include quarterback metric scores before 1974)

Author: Jim Gindin

Founder and Lead Developer, Solecismic Software