Saturday, July 10, 2010

Greatness, The Keltner List, and Yes, Donovan McNabb

Chris stuck a bit of a stick in the hornets nest with his recent series on Donovan McNabb. I don't know that this reflects anything particularly controversial that he wrote, but rather that everyone has their own definition of greatness and their own beliefs on what the Hall of Fame should be.

I've gone back and forth on the issue and on Chris' posts, down to considering discussing his articles on a point-by-point basis. Writing nothing was also an option. This is an interesting topic though, and since it seems to generate widespread opinions I'm going to go ahead and hammer out a few thoughts that I've been mulling over the last few days.

Statistics in football are funny things. Of the major American team sports, football is the one that least lends itself to statistical analysis. Every player on the field has a different role, and every player on the field is to a great extent dependent on every other player on the field. Statistics can identify some things. If a running back rushes for 2000 yards he had a great year, but we really didn't need statistics to tell us that. If a running back rushes for 200 yards? Well he still might have had a great year, depending on his other contributions.

What about quarterbacks? 4000 yards is a great season, right? Well, maybe. Did you know that Lynn Dickey once passed for 4000 yards in a season? I didn't. Bill Kenney, Jay Schroeder, Brian Sipe, Jon Kitna (twice), Neil Lomax, Steve Beurlein and Don Majkowski each had 4000 yard passing seasons. Two quarterbacks have passed for 5000 yards in a season, in one of those seasons the team went 14-2 and made it to the Super Bowl, in the other the team went 8-8.

What about passing touchdowns? 15 times in NFL history a quarterback has passed for 35 touchdowns in a season. All of those teams were good, even very good, however only two of them won league championships or Super Bowls*

Okay so my point, which took longer for me to make than I expected or than was probably necessary is that football statistics aren't particularly meaningful when evaluating the quality of a team or a player. Yes, the best teams/players will have better statistics than the worst ones but we don't need statistics to identify the differences.

Greatness is usually self-evident. We know it when we see it. In the 2008 Super Bowl David Tyree had 3 catches for 43 yards and a TD. A nice game from a secondary receiver. What the statistics don't tell us is that one of those catches - the most important catch - was the single greatest or most improbable reception in Super Bowl history. Everyone who saw it instantly knew it was great and no one needed to run to the box score later to confirm what their eyes had seen.

Now Donovan McNabb. Is he a great quarterback? This is a very tough question. He has done great things for sure. He has had great games, even great seasons. He has led his team deep into the playoffs repeatedly and he has done it with teams that lacked the firepower that the greatest teams of the era had. No one confuses the Eagle defense with the Raven or Steeler or Buccaneer or Bear defenses that were great this last decade, no one confuses the offenses with the Ram or Colt or Patriot or Saint offenses. The Eagle accomplishments despite these shortcomings are impressive. So are these shortcomings McNabb's undoing? As you will see, I think they are not.

So the Keltner List. I'm sure many people have devised similar checklists for football but I am too lazy to find one I like so we'll just go ahead and adapt this one.

  1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

  2. Donovan McNabb was never regarded as the best player in football.

  3. Was he the best player on his team?

  4. Most years, yes. If nothing else he was certainly the most important player on his team for the last decade.

  5. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

  6. No, he was probably never considered the best quarterback in football. That said though, from about 2001 - 2005 if a team was starting a team from scratch and needed a quarterback, McNabb would have rated just behind Peyton and Brady. Maybe behind Carson Palmer too at the end of that stretch.

  7. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

  8. Yes. From 2000 - 2009 his team went to the playoffs 8 times, to the Conference Championship 5 times and to the Super Bowl once.

  9. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

  10. Yes.

  11. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

  12. Can't answer this one for fairly obvious reasons. Assuming that Peyton, Favre, Brady and Warner get elected, McNabb would be next up.

  13. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

  14. Yes. Half of his comparables listed at PFR are Hall of Famers. Assuming McNabb continues to build his resume, his comparables should only improve.

  15. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

  16. Yes.

  17. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

  18. Yes.

  19. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?

  20. Cannot answer.

  21. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

  22. Once again, cannot answer this. He never won the MVP. Tough to find the voting history. My gut says that he never got a lot of votes.

  23. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go to the Hall of Fame?

  24. Okay, here we go. 19 quarterbacks in NFL history have 6 Pro Bowl selections (or more). Other than active players (Favre and Peyton) every player from this group is in the Hall of Fame. If we go down to 5 Pro Bowl selections there are 5 more players; Tom Brady and 4 Hall of Famers.**

  25. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

  26. This seems self-evident. Yes.

  27. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

  28. Not really. He was drafted as one of the "new" quarterbacks back in the misguided days when multithreat quarterbacks became a brief fad. I suppose it is meaningful that only Culpepper and McNabb succeeded from that group.

  29. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

  30. Yes.
So is McNabb a Hall of Famer? I'm actually kind of suprised that there is much of a debate. If you look at any one component of his career you wouldn't think so, but he has accumulated accomplishments in all components of his career, and it is that accumulation that puts him over the top. We haven't even discussed his playoff passing accomplishments. He is currently 11th all-time in playoff passing yardage. He will probably move to 7th with one more game. He is tied for 9th in playoff passing touchdowns. He is 4 career TDs behind Peyton and Brady, and while he may not catch either, I think the perception is that they are both much more accomplished playoff quarterbacks. The numbers seem to disagree.

One other point where I disagree with Chris. I don't believe he needs to win a Super Bowl to go to the Hall of Fame. While that can make the difference with more marginal players, McNabb isn't marginal. I have little doubt that he will be elected.

*George Blanda also accomplished this for Houston in 1961 but I am reluctant to include results from the AFL.. Houston did win the league championship that year
**Likewise these lists do not include 3 players who were primarily AFL players. These guys got no respect. John Hadl and Jack Kemp each went to 6+ Pro Bowls with the AFL/NFL and neither are in the Hall.


  1. 2nd in NFL MVP race to Faulk's Greatest Show on Turf -- voting was 24-11 [ - to zero apparently, via AP.]


  2. You mention some of the QBs who have thrown for 4,000 yards as if they are a bunch of stiffs, or jokes. Lynn Dickey, Brian Sipe, and Neil Lomax were great QBs. (Esp Lomax.) They just didn't sustain it for very long. Steve Beurlein and Don Majkowski were at least good at one point.

  3. Great post and analysis Patrick. I'm on your side of this debate.



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