Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The QB - Does McNabb Belong in the Hall of Fame, or the Hall of Very Good?

I ended the last article with a brief look at McNabb and what may or may not be a Hall of Fame career. It’s a question that I believe deserves a significant look. McNabb has been a great quarterback through his 11 years thus far, but is it worthy of Hall of Fame consideration?

The answer to this is pretty complicated, and begins with the caveat that his career isn’t over yet, so there’s no way to make a definitive argument one way or the other today. If McNabb blows up for 4,500 yards, 30 TDs and 15 INTs per season the next three years and wins two Superbowls, he’s almost certainly a lock to get in. If he implodes next year and washes out of the game completely without adding anything to what he’s done thus far, he’s likely not to be considered.

For purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that he plays another 3-5 years, averaging around 3,200 yards, 20 TDs and 10 INTs per year, which are slightly lower than his historic numbers. Tack on another 500 rushing yards and 5-10 rushing TDs, and McNabb would round out his career with numbers that look something like this:

3,900 / 6,550 … 59% completion rate … 45,500 yards, 300 TDs, 140 INTs
3,750 rush yds, 35 rush TDs, 5.7 YPC

This puts him at 6.9 YPA and an 87.0 QB rating for his career. I’m simply not going to assume anything about post-season play because that’s way too hard to predict. But the above numbers assume basically four more years at the annual production levels I noted, and those are I believe pretty fair assumptions.

These numbers would give him the following places for overall career passing leaders:
#6 overall completions
#8 overall attempts
#8 overall yards
t- #5 overall passing TDs
#60 overall INTs (!!!)

And he’d be somewhere in the top 20 in passer rating, though this is difficult to predict given that 13 of the 17 people currently in front of him are still active. I’ve already shown QB rating is improving dramatically, and he’s actually not likely at all to hold any of these places for very long.

There-in lays the problem. While it’s incredibly impressive that McNabb will likely finish top ten in all the major passing statistical categories; given the improvement of QB play over the recent years, we should probably expect him to fall out of the top ten no less than a decade after his retirement. There are several QBs playing today that would certainly pass these numbers just by playing 10 more years (though not all of them will).

From here, the discussion could diverge in several directions. So I’m going to step back and examine the arguments for why he should and why he shouldn’t be considered a legitimate HoF candidate.

The argument for induction

A good portion of the argument for his induction has already been made, as a top ten finisher in the most common statistical categories. He’ll finish with better numbers than many modern age Hall of Famers like Montana, Kelly, Aikman and Young. And despite the fact that at least a reasonable portion of this can be said to be due to improvements in QB play and the passing game over the last decade, the reality is he’s been playing at a high level for an exceptionally long time. Each of the four I just mentioned played 8-11 years at a very high level. McNabb already has ten years of high level play under his belt (stripping his rookie year which wasn’t bad for a rookie save a terrible completion rate), and will likely get another few on top of it.

Despite what I believe many people think, longevity has to be a fairly critical consideration. Playing five years and averaging 3,200 yards, 20 TDs and 10 INTs is decent but certainly nothing special in the NFL. Playing ten years at that level is pretty good. Being able to do it for fifteen years? Well, one of the major reasons that McNabb will finish his career top ten in those categories is precisely because not many players can play for that long at that high a level.

It’s almost the Emmitt Smith argument. Emmitt was a great runner, but he wasn’t a dominator for the vast majority of his career. What he was, was a great runner for longer than pretty much anyone had ever been a great runner. No one else has ever run for 1,000+ yards in 11 separate seasons, and it’s possible no one ever will. And at the end of McNabb’s career, it’s likely he will have thrown for over 3,000 yards ten or more times; a rarity for a reason. There’s a legitimate argument to make that a player being great for a very long time deserves HoF consideration just as much as a player who was exceptional for a moderate amount of time.

We also must consider some of the more subjective measures…ones that aren’t monitored just by statistics. The reality is that McNabb is good at winning games. It’s partly a function of playing for a great organization with a great coach and solid surrounding cast. But he’s a big part of why they win games. McNabb carries a .651 regular season winning percentage, is 9-7 in the playoffs, has been to five Conference Championship games and to the Superbowl once. Only a very select few quarterbacks can make such a claim. Marino can’t. Moon can’t. Fouts can’t. His track record of winning must be a strong consideration.

In addition, McNabb has played a majority of his career with almost no help at receiver. Names like Chad Lewis, Todd Pinkston and James Thrash do not particularly strike fear into the hearts of DBs. The one season McNabb did have a legitimately great threat at receiver – ’04 with TO – he had by far his best season, completing 64% of his passes for nearly 3,900 yards with a better than 3:1 TD:INT ratio. Translate those numbers over even a five year stretch of his career, and this may not even be a discussion. Assume he'd been drafted one year earlier, and gone #1 overall to Indi, playing his entire career with Marvin Harrsion / Reggie Wayne / Dallas Clark, and we may instead be discussing where he belongs in the discussion of the greatest QBs ever to play the game.

One last strong consideration must also be that he’s one of the best rushing QBs of all time. He likely finishes with 3,500 – 4,000 rushing yards and over 30 rushing TDs at between 5.5 and 6 YPA. These numbers are untouched by a vast majority of other QBs that also qualify as prolific passers. Cunningham and Young can boast such claims, as can Steve McNair. Elway has solid rushing overall numbers but more because of a higher number of attempts than most other QBs get, his YPA don’t compare. Other than those few, almost no other QB that has been as good of a rusher has been such a capable passer.

The argument against induction

While McNabb’s overall numbers are impressive, one thing we must do is attempt to normalize them in some fashion. Getting into the HoF is not about how great you are in comparison with the other players that are in the Hall. It’s how great you are in comparison with the players you played with. In the email discussion, Patrick had this to say, which echoes my sentiments exactly:

There can only be so many HoF players at a position at a time. Right now we have Peyton and Brady and Favre for sure .... Warner is very likely. Brees is building credentials and a few others may be on the way up. Is there room for McNabb in that group? I don't know...


Since there really isn’t a great way to make a strong, objective argument in how to compare players of certain times without using statistics, I’ve attempted to develop a framework for comparing McNabb to other QBs during his tenure, and compare that with current and future Hall of Famers as well as guys with impressive stats that can either be considered on the margin or just “Hall of Very Good” candidates vs. their respective co-workers.

Using the data from the first two in this series, I ranked the players according to anything I thought could be considered a major stat category. This involved a lot of sorting and cut/paste rankings for all the different categories. This allowed me to get a data set that showed McNabb’s 11 seasons, and where he ranked in all of them. I had this for all the QBs in my data set. Then I could average what McNabb and his peers were ranked across their careers.

For example, in the data set below, McNabb’s “Average of Yards” rank is 14.0. This means that across his career, he was on average 14th in total passing yards by season.

I then compared this against four different groups of other passers. The first I called “Old HoF,” which I defined as the HoF QBs in my data that played a majority of their careers prior to the five yard contact rule change. The second is “New HoF,” the HoF QBs playing a majority of their career after the rule change. The third is “Future HoF,” QBs that I believe are likely to make it into the HoF. The last is “Marginal,” which was an arbitrary group. These are QBs that have amassed impressive stats over the course of their careers, and may at some point be Hall candidates, but I don’t think will ever make it. The names in each group are as follows:

Old HoF: Jurgenson, Unitas, Tarkenton, Namath, Staubach, Griese and Bradshaw
New HoF: Fouts, Kelly, Marino, Young, Montana, Moon, Aikman and Elway
Future HoF: P Manning, Brady, Warner, Brees and Favre
Marginal: D Bledsoe, McNair, Testaverde, Esiason, Simms, Cunningham and Brad Johnson


Higher numbers are worse for all “Average” categories

A few things jump out from these numbers. The first has to be how impressive McNabb’s INT rank and INT % rank are vs. the competition. Part of this I’m sure is due to his lower completion percentage. If the ball’s not getting near the receiver’s reach often, it’s probably not in the DB’s reach either. But this doesn’t fully explain how exceptional he’s been at not throwing INTs. Even in the playoffs, where he’s gained reputation with some as a choker, he’s thrown 24 TDs to only 17 INTs.

The second fully supports the argument that McNabb really shouldn’t be a legitimate Hall candidate. Other than his INT rank, his other rankings don’t stand up well to any of the HoF’er categories, and really only compare to the Marginal categories. For the count categories, it’s only relevant to compare him to the Future HoF category. These are his peers; his direct competition in getting into the Hall as the players who played a majority of their careers at the same time he played his. And his numbers are low vs. that group, despite being fairly impressive overall. He of course still has time to add to these numbers, but so do those other players on this list (Warner’s the exception). Overall, he statistically doesn’t stack up to his competition.

Conclusion???

The question is complex, and I don’t think Jim, Patrick or I could come to a definitive answer. There are pretty powerful arguments on both sides, and this leads to a fence-straddling unlike most I’ve encountered in football arguments.

My general sense is that there’s one final factor that will wind up determining if McNabb makes it or not. I believe the final determinant of whether or not he makes it will be predicated on whether or not he wins a Superbowl. If he does, I think it puts him over the top. Six Conference Championship games, two Superbowls, one Lombardy, with his pedigree, I think would be difficult to deny him entry.

However, if he doesn’t win that Superbowl, I feel like McNabb is the sort of marginal player who will likely spend several years on the list of candidates to be considered, but will always be passed over for a more deserving candidate.

So ends the quarterback / passing game analysis series, at least for now. I’ll hang onto the data and may dig in some more in the future for some other interesting tid-bits. Thanks to those that read this whole thing…I know it’s been a lot. And thanks especially to Patrick and Jim who really shaped these articles significantly with the discussion we’ve had over the past few days.

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