Football Friday: How does a quarterback make the Hall of Fame?

Eli Manning of the New York Giants
Eli Manning - Future Hall of Famer?

I’ve been listening to a lot of New York sports talk radio, and Giants fans are rightly happy with their team’s playoff win over the Falcons last weekend. And I’ve heard at least a few callers raise the question about whether Eli Manning is on track for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It’s not a completely silly question, and one that deserves a closer look. First off, Manning is a Super Bowl champion. That automatically puts him in a special group of NFL signal callers. But if he never wins another title and continues to put up good passing numbers for the next five or six (or more) seasons, is that enough?

It may be instructive to look at the QBs who are already enshrined in Canton to see how Manning stacks up against them. Perhaps there is some unofficial criteria that can be applied to Manning’s career (or any other current NFL quarterbacks with similar careers)?

The Theory

It seems to me that the three surefire ways for a QB to get into the Hall of Fame are:

  1. Win multiple championships (I am including the AFL in this discussion).
  2. Put up gaudy passing statistics, at least compared to other QBs of their time.
  3. Do both.

The Champions

There are 23 quarterbacks in Canton from what the Hall of Fame calls the “Modern Era.” Of these, 16 (70%) have won multiple league titles.

  • Bart Starr (five NFL, two Super Bowls)
  • George Blanda (three AFL)
  • Otto Graham (three NFL) — Graham also won four AAFC titles, which may not be a factor.
  • Len Dawson (three AFL, one Super Bowl)
  • Johnny Unitas (two NFL, one Super Bowl)
  • Joe Namath (one AFL, one Super Bowl)
  • Terry Bradshaw (four Super Bowls)
  • Joe Montana (four Super Bowls)
  • Troy Aikman (three Super Bowls)
  • Steve Young (three Super Bowls)
  • John Elway (two Super Bowls)
  • Bob Griese (two Super Bowls)
  • Bobby Layne (two NFL)
  • Roger Staubach (two Super Bowls)
  • Norm Van Brocklin (two NFL)
  • Bob Waterfield (two NFL)

The wild card here is Warren Moon. Moon did win five Canadian Football League championships, but I’m not sure how much that factored into his HoF induction. I think it does, but in addition his career stats are mighty impressive, so let’s make him the 17th member of this group.

Dan Marino, Sports Illustrated 1983
Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins legend

The Outliers

OK, so now we’re left with six Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have no titles at all.

  • Dan Fouts
  • Sonny Jurgensen
  • Jim Kelly
  • Dan Marino
  • Fran Tarkenton
  • YA Tittle

Let’s see if any of these QBs fit into the second criteria — no title, but big-time stats.

Dan Fouts — Fouts is currently ninth on the all-time passing yards list, and was higher upon his retirement after the 1987 season. He’s also a Top 20 QB in terms of pass completions and touchdowns, as well as a six-time Pro Bowler and a member of the 1980s All-Decade Team. He fits.

Sonny Jurgensen — Ah, our first old-timer. Jurgensen finished his career in 1974, so his yardage and completion stats simply don’t stack up against modern superstars. He did, however, win three NFL passing crowns in the ’60s and was selected to five Pro Bowls. He was a consistent standout in an era when the running back was king of NFL offenses. He fits.

Jim Kelly — Poor Jim Kelly, always the bridesmaid. Kelly’s stats were neck-and-neck with the most prolific passers of his day, and he retired with the fourth-most passing yardage and third-most completions. This in spite of the fact that he had Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas on the same offense. He fits.

Dan Marino — I don’t even need to look this up. Marino is the greatest QB to never win a title I have ever seen. He fits like an Isotoner glove.

Fran Tarkenton — I’ll just go ahead and steal this from the Hall of Fame website: “At the time of his retirement, Fran owned every significant passing record – 3,686 pass completions, 47,003 passing yards, and 342 touchdowns.” To say nothing of his numerous Pro Bowls, playoff appearances, and the fact that his scrambling redefined what a quarterback could do. He fits.

YA Tittle — Like Tarkenton and Kelly, Tittle had plenty of chances to claim the ultimate prize but fell short. His New York Giants lost in the NFL championship game in 1961, ’62, and ’63. He had some of his best years when he was on the other side of 40 years old, which would be a miracle today. I think Tittle is another QB from the old days whose numbers don’t quite match up to modern passers, but were right there with the greats of his day. He fits.

Conclusion

I think we can safely conclude that while Eli Manning’s one Super Bowl win helps his candidacy, a second would pretty much make him a lock. The only QB of the Super Bowl era with two or more titles who is not in the Hall of Fame is Jim Plunkett, unless you want to credit Phil Simms for getting the Giants most of the way there in 1990.

But what if Eli never wins another title? At this point, he doesn’t have the numbers to get in. If he spends another five or six years with the same kinds of numbers he’s getting now, he enters the discussion.

As for other quarterbacks lighting it up these days — Peyton Manning is already in (on numbers alone), as is Tom Brady with his multiple titles. Drew Brees is just about there and probably will be soon. The one recent QB with no rings but excellent stats that will merit debate is Donovan McNabb.

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  • Noah

    Is Kurt Warner in there too?

    • Tough call. Again, a 2nd title would’ve locked it for him. My guess at this point is he gets in, thanks to what he did in Arizona.

  • Noah

    Ken Stabler won a Super Bowl and called all his own playas and was in one of the best overtime games ever the “Ghost to Post” game. Why isn’t he in it?

    • If he had won a second he would be in. As it is, he deserves consideration but probably gets lost in the shuffle against the likes of Bradshaw, Staubach, etc.

  • Bad timing will sink McNabb’s chances. Unless he makes a comeback next year with another team. Unfortunately he will be remembered for 3 INTs in the Super Bowl and not the 300+ yards and 3 TDs he threw in spite of a gimpy #1 receiver, another who left with cramps and a non-existent running game.

    Of course this has all become a total joke because of the over-emphasis placed on the QB position. McNabb’s performance in the SB has left him with the label of a choker. Manning (both of them) played worse, and are MVPs.

    • McNabb is definitely the victim of some bad circumstances, but regardless I don’t ever see him making the final cut in any year. Not with the QBs he’ll be up against.

  • I think it’s going to start getting tougher to evaluate QB’s for the hall much as it’s getting that way for WR’s. The game has changed so much to favor the passing game. You had two guys (Brees & Brady) break Marino’s record this year and two others (Stafford & Eli) come close. Of those four, right now Brady’s a mortal lock. I think you’re right, multiple titles are going to be the big factor.

  • Duh, what about Roethlisberger? He’s got two titles? Do his off-the-field issues negate his two titles?

    • I wasn’t really trying to determine which current QBs are Hall-worthy, other than Eli for the sake of discussion. But as for Big Ben, he’s pretty much a lock as well.

  • And you also have to acknowledge that Favre is a lock.