Marvin Lewis Should’ve Been Fired at the End of 2016

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I’m not one to jump to conclusions two weeks into a season, nor am I trying to establish that the Bengals can’t turn it around and save their 2017 season. But at the heart of the Cincinnati Bengals’ 0-2 start, I can’t help reviving the empty feeling present after seeing the team go 6-9-1 in 2016. That feeling ruminated into a single issue: Marvin Lewis, the longtime head coach.

With the use of an analogy tinged with NFL history, Marvin Lewis is this generation’s Jim E. Mora. Over 100 wins as a head coach, Mora was a head coach for 15 years, Lewis is currently in his 15th year as head coach of the Bengals; numerous winning seasons, zero playoff wins. Both men have shown that they can be successful as coaches as long as they have the right pieces around them, yet neither have (or had) enough to prepare their team for the spotlight, to take on the most crucial games, to make plays in the most crucial moments. Mora had Peyton Manning at the helm of his team for four years. Two playoff appearances. Zero playoff wins. Marvin Lewis, whether Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton, A.J. McCarron, and a top ten defense, can’t get it done, either.

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The 6-9-1 record was only a precursor (as it seems now) for the dysfunction the Bengals would face after a heartbreaking loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2015-16 AFC Wild Card Round, where the Bengals’ defense allowed the Steelers’ offense to get into field goal range, by means of personal fouls, and kick the winning score. It was the fifth year in a row that Marvin Lewis got his team into the playoffs. For the fifth time, he lost… in dramatic fashion. Despite all of these chances, all of these shots at finally getting that first win, he can never seem to do so. Looking into it, Marvin Lewis’s teams’ success in primetime in general is abysmally poor. From what I could gather from ProFootballReference, Lewis’s record in primetime games since his first year as head coach is 9-29-1. I suppose this is where the Bengals’ “Can’t win in primetime” stereotype comes from.

Some (such as I) were even calling for Lewis’s firing after the playoff loss to Pittsburgh in 2015-2016. It was the seventh playoff loss—and fifth straight—of his career, and people were probably clamoring for change. It’s not so surprising to me that the owners would hold off after achieving a 12-4 playoff record and having an “excuse” as to losing the playoff game (starting quarterback was out), but how the next season played out, I was in shock when Marvin’s name wasn’t even really rumored to be on the outs. They lose a fifth-straight playoff game in a tragic way, then recede into a 6-9-1 record and no one gets fired? I suppose the owners felt it was just an “off year” after five years of success (in the regular season). Should the Bengals slide into the top 5 worst teams in the league by year’s end, I would be absolutely stunned if Lewis wasn’t fired, but I felt he had it coming a year earlier.

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It may feel bloated by now, but it is the lack of success in big games that leaves me unenthusiastic about Cincinnati’s position. When I started following the NFL religiously back in 2011, the Bengals were a team I found myself rooting for… for some reason. I would always defend Dalton’s play, Lewis’s coaching decisions, and their layoff losses year after year. After a while, it got to the point where the team needs to stop making excuses and take action, take a stand and do something to shake up an environment of regular season accolades followed by postseason shenanigans. Marvin Lewis is good enough as a head coach to give your team a chance, but his constant miscues when it comes to the postseason are a liability to a team’s long-term success. At some point, the owner has to step in and say enough is enough. Sometimes, change is a good thing.

Many were surprised at Lovie Smith’s firing at the end of the 2012 season, and the results have not been much in Chicago’s favor since. Yet it is the willingness to recognize that if a coach has lost their steam, it’s better to cut them loose early, rather than experience countless seasons of wasted potential. Lovie Smith is similar to Marvin Lewis, as both are defensive-minded coaches and are good enough to get a team ready for the postseason with the right pieces. While Smith has playoff success (including a Super Bowl appearance), Lewis’s time in Cincinnati has accumulated into a respectable regular season girth, but nothing more. Should he turn the team around and finally earn his first playoff win in 2017, I’ll eat my words. Until then, he should’ve been fired after 2016.

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Kaepernick’s Continued Unemployment Is a Simple Conundrum

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Reading the variety of impressions that Kaepernick’s protests have left, if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that the story has gone on for far too long. Such as with Deflategate, Bullygate, and the symbol of purity that is Tim Tebow, Colin Kaepernick’s tale of silent protest is one that has created a wide disconnect between the vacuum-sealed world of football and the entirely human aspect of those who play—and watch—the game. Even now, a year after Kaepernick’s first kneel—and after being unemployed for the last six months—articles still appear almost daily about the “injustice” of his absence within the NFL, along with pieces questioning why he hasn’t been signed despite his pedigree as a former starting quarterback. Some take the avenue of statistics while others simply cry foul politics in support for the message Kaepernick wished to convey with his protests. With so many lenses to view from, it would seem difficult to pinpoint the answer behind it all. I assure you, as someone who’s watched football for many years, that it is all quite simple.

Before that, allow me to clarify that I am not a know-all, be-all for football schematics. The arguments I am to make are simply something I’ve learned through observation of NFL’s history and the structure of pure pro-con business mindset. I’m not going to pretend that this is the universal answer and that I’m right on every point; note that this is all just speculation, as most about the topic is, and I could very well be simplifying a not so simple situation.

Kaepernick’s Worth (And Pride)

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Kaepernick’s ability as a quarterback is something of a hot commodity. At one point, he was leading the San Francisco 49ers into battle against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. Afterwards, he had a win-loss record of 23-28 as a starter, with last season adding 1-10 as a starter. Despite that, his statistics look fairly competent, save completion percentage, which is lucky to be over 60% in any season. Along with his dual-threat ability as a runner, his potential and value shines brighter than many quarterbacks currently in the league. Do I believe he could start in the NFL? Certainly. The question at hand is Kaepernick’s priority of being paid like a starting quarterback.

The starting quarterbacks with the least lucrative average contract (excluding rookie deals), according to Spotrac.com, are Brian Hoyer and Josh McCown, who are both making a base salary of $6 million in 2017. It’s entirely possible that Kaepernick, seeking the type of deal that Jay Cutler received earlier this month at $10 million this year, is holding at hopes that he can receive more for his services. After all, Mike Glennon, a quarterback with very limited recent starting experience, got more than $15 million a year. Brock Osweiler, who played only half of the regular season in 2015, and none of the postseason where the Denver Broncos won a Super Bowl Championship, received a $18 million-a-year deal with the Houston Texans. Part of the reason Kaepernick remains unsigned may simply be because his fee is too high—perhaps within the range of over $10 million a year—when teams would be more interested in him as a back-up option. That in and of itself wouldn’t be too much of a hassle for desperate teams if it wasn’t also for…

Kaepernick’s “Circus”

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Colin Kaepernick and Tim Tebow are two sides of the same coin. Whether subject to mass public scrutiny or substantial fan popularity, NFL teams are scared to death of the impact of distractions. While I acknowledge that Colin Kaepernick is and likely always will be a better NFL quarterback than Tim Tebow, there are people who still believe Tebow should be given a chance to start. But if there’s one thing these two quarterbacks have in common, it’s the attention they bring to whatever team chooses to sign them.

I remember long ago when the Jets signed Tebow to a contract after he was released from the Denver Broncos in favor of Peyton Manning. The moment it happened, the NFL Network was right on the cusp of it, flashing red all over with “BREAKING NEWS” littering every hovering text platform. Shortly thereafter, they held a live press conference where Tebow would speak to the media about being signed. Because every player gets a whole press conference dedicated to them wherever they’re signed. The media is a powerful platform that can cause a lot of detriment to a team, and with enough pushing, it can drive people over the edge. This goes for players, coaches, and the strength of a team, especially when the players are taking sides. I recall halfway through the 2012 season, many NFL-related websites were calling for Sanchez to be benched and Tebow to start. Every time Tebow came out for a trick play or two, the commentators would announce it as if it were a special occasion. The crowds would roar with delight. That can’t have been very good for Sanchez’s morale. And in a game not completely devoid of human anxiety, that can kill a quarterback’s concentration.

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Much of the same would likely occur with Kaepernick, but in an opposite effect. Now with the stigma of being “Anti-American,” crowds would likely boo harder at his inadequacy, rampage the team with complaints and countless social media harassment messages. Unless he were to become a genuinely good quarterback, many would continue to hold that against him, and unlike with Michael Vick, whose acts of animal cruelty still strike a chord with many people, Kaepernick’s act is seen as a defiance of the entire fabric of the country. Whether this angle is justified or not by this point is fruitless; the only fact that matters is that he’s now among the most despised NFL players in history. Teams don’t want to take a risk that large with a quarterback that may not even be quality starting material.

In essence, the argument for whether Kaepernick is being “blackballed” or not will rage on further than any sane individual would like to progress it. Some cry racism, others say it’s his anthem antics, with the rest only shrugging and exclaiming, “He sucks!” For me, the issue is one that is not just one thing, but a combination of many factors, with the two most notable being things I’ve already addressed. Colin Kaepernick’s free agency has been among the loudest for an individual player in quite a while. Though I feel it’s the duo-handicap of being not quite good enough to make up for the undivided attention he brings with his character, it remains one of the media’s most puzzling mysteries of the sports world… even when the answer is likely less complicated than they like to project it.

A Quarterback’s Ability Should Not Be Measured by Team Success

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Thinking upon the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game of football, many will start with names like Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Terry Bradshaw, and Roger Staubach. Debates continue to arise as to who was the best of the best, but many are also resolute in their minds that the greats are able to single-handedly carry their team to the promised land. Manning constantly faced criticism early in his career for “not being able to win the big one.” Andy Dalton faces scrutiny every year for going to the playoffs four straight years and winning a total of zero games.

Seeing comments online or talk from “football experts,” many make the argument that a quarterback’s worth is with their playoff success, assuming one can even get there. What of Dan Marino’s (pictured above) ability? What of his impact to the game and his worth as a quarterback? Is he worse than his peers because he never won a Super Bowl? Is Terry Bradshaw four times better for winning four more Super Bowl rings? This post aims to provide a different perspective on why quarterbacks shouldn’t necessarily have their greatness handicapped by circumstances out of their control. And while it won’t end comments online about how Tim Tebow is a better quarterback than Derek Carr because he has a playoff win and Carr doesn’t, hopefully it will provide some insight into why the argument shouldn’t hold as much weight as it already does.

It’s a Team Game

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One person does not win football games. It is a meticulously planned and properly practiced approach by eleven men on the field at the same time, each with their own responsibilities, on a play-by-play basis. If a quarterback won all the games by themselves, why not just put them out there alone? It’s easy to point fingers at the quarterback, who holds more responsibility to the offense (and the team) than any other player. Yet, one must understand that they are but one player. A quarterback can’t rush another quarterback, can’t defend the run, can’t make the receivers catch the balls, or kick a field goal in the final seconds of a game. Like any other player, the quarterback can only do their job, even if that role looms larger than others.

Not to pick on Dalton again, I recall the 2015 AFC Wild Card Game, the Bengals faced off against the Indianapolis Colts. In that game, Dalton did not have his #1 or #2 receiver in the game, as well as his #1 tight end. This resulted in the team having to use Rex Burkhead, a running back, as a wide receiver. It’s hard to win games—playoff games at that—when a quarterback is being aided by back-ups in place of starters, yet Dalton played better than many expected him to. The very next year, the Bengals were back in the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Steelers. This time not with Dalton, but A.J. McCarron was at the helm, and they came one defensive implosion away from winning. Would that mean A.J. McCarron is a better option at quarterback than Dalton? Perhaps some would agree.

In a game of “What If,” Dan Marino being a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970’s may have gotten him more than zero rings; hell, perhaps even more than four. Why does this assumption work? Because there exists great quarterbacks who play for bad teams, as well as mediocre to bad quarterbacks playing for good teams. Just ask Trent Dilfer. Being able to recognize that distinction is imperative in justifying how great a quarterback really is, though the debate will always rage on. Would Dan Marino win a ring if he played with the New York Jets’ current roster? Not likely.

Stats Matter

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What the photo above doesn’t add is that Matt Ryan is a four-time Pro Bowler and one-time league MVP. Joe Flacco has neither of those honors to his name.

The biggest argument to statistics is that their resoluteness doesn’t tell the whole story. Much like the idea that a quarterback is better or worse than his peers because of his playoff success, one can easily say Ryan is better than Flacco because he’s thrown more touchdowns. Stats or not, it is still a team game, and the team around one can affect their play. However, when someone leads another in basically every category the way Ryan does Flacco, or Philip Rivers does Eli Manning, the window of justification begins to close. It’s all about how large a gap looms between players’ stats, especially ones within similar eras.

Take Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, the two quarterbacks with the highest statistical superiority over any other quarterback in NFL history. Despite their stellar stats, both have only won a single Super Bowl. Is Rodgers’s season where he throws forty touchdowns to seven interceptions suddenly invalid because he lost in the NFC Championship Game? Is Russell Wilson’s season where he throws thirty-four touchdowns to eight interceptions and posts the highest quarterback rating in the league kaput because he was blown out in the NFC Divisional Round? These two quarterbacks continue to provide great play every year, but fall short in the playoffs. Does that mean they’re to blame? Unless they play badly, I wouldn’t agree. One has to look at the whole picture.

When Eli Manning goes on to win the Super Bowl after posting regular season numbers as those shown in his 2007 campaign, then compare that to Tom Brady’s 2010 campaign where he wins league MVP and goes one-and-done in the playoffs, who’s the better quarterback? I firmly believe that there are simply years where everything goes right for a team and anyone be damned to stop them. Like the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, 2015 Carolina Panthers, or the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, teams have spontaneously great years that result in the big show (no matter the result), only to wiggle into overwhelming expectations soon after. Great quarterbacks are able to do a lot with a little, like Drew Brees, Tom Brady, or Aaron Rodgers, but can’t do everything on their own. Sometimes people have the benefit of a great team around them. Others don’t.

Looking at the Big Picture

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Such a point has been sprinkled within every paragraph thus far, but one has to have the proper context for the results of various games and situations. Take Brock Osweiler, who had a painfully bad year as the Houston Texans’ starting quarterback in 2016. Yet, the one silver lining of the season is that he won a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders, a seemingly up-and-coming AFC powerhouse, in the AFC Wild Card Game. Although an achievement altogether, what makes it less satisfying is that they did so against Oakland’s third-string quarterback; the rookie, Connor Cook.

Examples such as this seem to happen every other year, as well. Back in the 2014 season, the Arizona Cardinals started their third-string quarterback against the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Wild Card round, and were handily defeated. Mentioned above, that same year the Bengals went without their top two receivers and top tight end against the Colts, and were demolished. There should be some willingness to see things from a perspective that could justify various circumstances. T.J. Yates, a journeyman back-up quarterback currently with the Buffalo Bills, has a single playoff win to his name. Conveniently enough, it came against Andy Dalton and the Bengals when both were rookies. Is Yates, the journeyman back-up, better than Dalton, the undisputed starter of Cincinnati for the past seven years? Because the Texans have typically had great defenses and running games? Perish the thought.

What became prime motivation for writing this post was a comment stating that Jay Cutler was better than Matthew Stafford because he had a playoff win and Stafford didn’t. Compelled to prove them wrong by writing a piece they will likely never see, while I have no definite opinion as to whom of which are better, I simply didn’t care for their reasoning. Jay Cutler had players on defense such as Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Alex Brown, and Julius Peppers; a modern version of the “Monsters of the Midway.” Stafford had Ndamukong Suh. And Calvin Johnson on offense. What can one man do? Some teams are just better than others.

With all that’s said and done, the hecklers will continue to heckle, as is the spirit of competitiveness and heckling. It’s better to not take it so seriously, but to use it to craft what makes a player better or worse to the mind of an individual is something I wholly enjoy. After all, this post was inspired by a single comment, one that rubbed me the wrong way. So I thank you, random commenter, for planting the seed that eventually grew into the motivation to make this post possible. And to those looking on, I appreciate you stopping by and reading. This is just my opinion, after all.

Top 10 NFL Late-Career Surges

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People say the longer you play into your thirties, the worse you get. Father Time is undefeated, and it’s a matter of time before one can’t muster the ability to play to their full potential. In the NFL, younger is typically better than older, with some positions becoming outright obsolete upon hitting a certain age. Of course, there are exceptions to everything, and with that, I decided to look into the most notable cases of players performing spectacularly at a time when they probably shouldn’t have. On a further note, this list is specifically looking for players that weren’t already consistently great players. One must simply perform far better than initially expected at the most unexpected time of their careers. Much like the saying, “It’s not how you start, but how you finish.”

#10: Aqib Talib

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The only current player on this list, Aqib Talib is a somewhat polarizing player. His antics within games has given him the image of a dirty player, and at times costs his defense some ground. Controversial image aside, his production is something that makes up for his bad temper.

Talib was drafted 20th overall in the 2008 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He became an established starter the year after, where he would stay until 2012, when prior to the trade deadline cutoff, he was traded to the New England Patriots. As 2013 rolled by, it was evident that the Buccaneers gave up a great player when Talib was named to his first Pro Bowl with the Patriots. Unable to work out a long-term deal, he signed with the Denver Broncos prior to the 2014 season, where he would become a part of a mega-deal spending spree for Denver, along with the signing of DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward. Talib showed he was worth every penny.

Between 2008 and 2012, Talib was a good, but not great player. Once he had joined a great team in New England, his true skills were brought to light, then again when joining Denver. Since 2013, Talib has made the Pro Bowl every year, along with a First Team All-Pro selection just this last year. His skills as a corner also reflect in his ability to turn those picks into points, as he’s recorded five pick-sixes in the last three seasons with Denver. At age 31, his ability to play doesn’t seem to be in question, which can’t be said for other once-great corners, unfortunately.

#9: Dan Fouts

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Fouts’s career surge isn’t exactly late into his own specific career, but it’s late enough to be considered something noteworthy. With the addition of head coach Don Coryell in 1978, the San Diego Chargers’ offense got retooled into something unlike the NFL had ever seen before. At the helm was Dan Fouts, a third-round pick back in 1973 who had had limited success as a starter, but was kept around for sheer talent alone. That talent bloomed suddenly in 1979 when the offense began to click on all cylinders.

The Chargers of the early ’80s were what many considered the father of the modern passing attack of today’s NFL. Dan Fouts managed to conduct the passing machine with grace as he consistently piled on the passing yards game after game. In his first three years as a 16-game starter, he threw for 4,082, 4,715, and 4,802 yards, numbers that were mind-blowing at the time. Even with the strike-filled 9-game 1982 NFL season, he threw for 2,883 yards, good for an average of 320 yards per game. Those are Drew Brees numbers back when Drew Brees was in diapers.

Between 1979 and 1985, Fouts was named to six Pro Bowls and granted two First Team All-Pro honors. His rampant success didn’t begin until he was 28-years-old. He may have placed higher on this list if he sustained that success until retirement, but alas, his last two seasons were forgettable at best. Injuries also caused the acceleration of his regression. If only his talent allowed him more success in the playoffs.

#8: Jimmy Johnson

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No, not that Jimmy Johnson. This Jimmy Johnson was a long-time player for the olden-days San Francisco 49ers. And boy, did his career go out with a bang.

The start of Johnson’s career proved just as interesting as the developmental prodigy’s finish. While listed as cornerback, Johnson also saw some time on offense in 1962, catching 34 balls for 627 yards and four touchdowns. For 1962, those are some fine numbers! Snagging that many receptions would make sense for Johnson’s ability to snag interceptions as a cornerback, with 47 career interceptions along a sixteen-year career. His role in the offense dissipated after 1963, and for a while, he served as a capable, if not expendable starter for the 49ers’ defense. At the tender age of 31, Johnson became a part of a changing atmosphere in San Fran, part of which shows with his production.

Between 1969 and 1972, Johnson landed four straight Pro Bowls nods and was named to four straight First Team All-Pro teams. He had established himself as the league’s top corner after nine seasons of subpar team records. He even has a safety to his credit! A safety! As a cornerback! He would make the Pro Bowl one more time in 1974 before finishing his career the same we he started it: by consistently playing to his best capabilities. A sixteen-year career as a cornerback is rare in and of itself, but to have your best success on the wrong side of thirty? That’s remarkable. Jimmy Johnson deserves some recognition for his fantastic ability to stop the clock, if only for a little bit.

#7: Ted Hendricks

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Many remember Kurt Warner’s early success, middle blank, and late revival, but Ted Hendricks did it nearly thrity years before. Only difference was that while Warner was undrafted and had to work to get his shot in the NFL, Hendricks was a second-round pick and immediate starter for the Baltimore Colts in 1969. He made an impact, too, though the hardware wouldn’t start until 1971.

Between 1971 and 1974, Hendricks made the Pro Bowl four straight years and snagged two First Team All-Pro titles. Interestingly enough, one of those All-Pros was earned in a lone season for the Green Bay Packers in 1974. In ’75, he signed with the Oakland Raiders and wasn’t immediately named a starter. He eventually gained the coaches’ trust and became one of the core pieces of a championship-caliber team, but his production was somewhat overshadowed by other members of the team. Hendricks’s rise to fame came at the twilight of his career, in 1980, his twelfth NFL season.

At age 33, Hendricks was named to his third First Team All-Pro team, then continued his dominance by earning another two years later, all the while being voted to the Pro Bowl in as many years. He again was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1983, his last NFL season, which ceremoniously ended with the fourth Super Bowl ring of his career. With four Pro Bowls and two First Team All-Pros in his last four NFL seasons, and a Super Bowl title win in his final game, Ted truly rode out on top of the world.

#6: Bill Forester

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An oldie, but a goodie.

Before the Packers were run by the late Vince Lombardi, they were a laughing stock. Losing season after losing season, the team had talent, but couldn’t ring in their ability to win games. Bill Forester was one of those players that were lost in the shuffle of it all. As a third-round pick in 1953, Forester played within a team in disarray, but played well enough to earn his starting spot. He would remain in that spot for his entire career, never missing a game between 1953 and 1963. Once Lombardi came along, Forester became an irreplaceable plug in the Lombardi conundrum.

In every year but his last once Lombardi was head coach, Forester made the Pro Bowl. He also made three straight First Team All-Pros between 1960 and 1962. Even with his final season, he performed well enough to start every game and contribute to the team. Under the right management, Forester was able to unleash his talent in a way that suited his strengths, and the league recognized his superior talent within a pool of fantastic athletes. Forester was one of many greats in Lombardi’s Packer defense.

While Bill’s success didn’t seem all that late, with his best years coming in his late-twenties, he retired somewhat early in 1963, at the age of 31 (31 keeps coming up in this list for some reason). Who’s to say if his career would’ve stayed consistently great had he kept playing, or if he realized his ensuing regression in his final year and decided to hang up the cleats to save himself the embarrassment. Whatever the case, Bill’s legacy lives on in the hearts of many old Packers fans, as he helped his team win back-to-back championships in ’61 and ’62.

#5: Rich Gannon

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Rich Gannon is a player who was lucky enough to survive in the NFL for as long as he did. The man was drafted by the New England Patriots, but never played a down for them. He caught on with the Minnesota Vikings and eventually became their primary starter, but flamed out after three years. A quick, one-year stop in Washington also didn’t pan out very well. He would see limited success with the Kansas City Chiefs years later, playing well enough for the Oakland Raiders to take a crack at him in 1999… twelve years after he was drafted by New England.

34-years-old, Gannon would see his career take a different turn suited in the silver and black. In his first year as a starter, he made the Pro Bowl. The next three years, his team would go 33-15, and a big part of that was Gannon throwing for 81 touchdowns, a 64% completion rate, and around 12,000 yards. His performance earned him two First Team All-Pro honors and three straight trips to the Pro Bowl, bringing his total to four in four years with the Oakland Raiders. There was no doubt that in that four-year span between 1999 and 2002, Gannon was a top-three quarterback in the NFL.

His success wouldn’t continue through his final two seasons, unfortunately, as injuries and a rapidly regressing team cost him a shot at winning the big one. He would end his career on a soft note, but to think that Gannon would be considered among the best quarterbacks of the early 2000’s after twelve years of relative obscurity is something no one would’ve predicted from a fourth-round pick in 1987. Winning the NFL MVP award at the age of 37 isn’t too shabby, either.

#4: Charles Woodson

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This selection is very similar to that of Ted Hendricks. Only difference is that Woodson was a bonafide star coming out of college, as the only defensive player in College Football history to win the Heisman Trophy. Selected fourth overall by the Oakland Raiders in 1998, he would enjoy a little of that success that Rich Gannon enjoyed when he was signed there a year later. Woodson, also like Gannon, enjoyed immediate success donning the silver and black.

In his first four years, Woodson was named to the Pro Bowl four straight years, along with First Team All-Pro honors in 1999. In 2002, the year Oakland made it to the Super Bowl, Woodson was injured halfway through the season, almost symbolic of the downward spiral the franchise would face for years to come. Woodson would continue to deal with injuries for the next few years, until he was eventually released by Oakland after the 2005 season. He eventually signed with the Green Bay Packers, and after two seasons of good play, his real potential would be unleashed once Aaron Rodgers took over the team in 2008.

Between 2008 and 2011, Woodson was selected to four straight Pro Bowls, snagged two First Team All-Pro honors, and won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2009. He picked off 25 passes in that span, with seven scores along with them. Woodson was at the top of his game playing in his early thirties, the age most defensive backs were slowing down. The performance wouldn’t last, as in 2012, an injury cut his season short, and was released by the Packers soon after. As fate would have it, Woodson would sign back with the Oakland Raiders and spend three years as their starting safety. In his final season in the NFL, at the age of 39, he made the Pro Bowl one last time.

#3: Gene Hickerson

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A seventh-round pick out of Mississippi, there wasn’t much expectation for Hickerson to become the star that he did. For a while, that expectation stood, as while he played in a good number of games, he wasn’t so important to the team that he was recognized as a star on the field. No, Hickerson wouldn’t find his groove until mid-way through his career.

Gene didn’t make his first Pro Bowl until the age of thirty, in 1965, seven years after he was drafted. This would result in a consistent surge from Hickerson, making the Pro Bowl six straight years between 1965 and 1970. In that span, he was also named First Team All-Pro three straight years. For a seventh-round pick, this was an absolute steal.

By the end of his career, Hickerson would appear in over 200 career games, performing at a level many wouldn’t have expected him to. His last three years were standard fare, but he started every game and ended it with the toughness that the Cleveland Browns were known for back in the old days. He would eventually be rewarded for his efforts by making the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, 34 years after he retired. This honor wouldn’t have happened without that unprecedented six-year span of dominance, and is very well deserved, despite the wait.

#2: Chuck Howley

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Speaking of the Hall of Fame, here’s a player that probably really deserves to be in there.

Chuck Howley was drafted seventh overall by the Chicago Bears, but had so little impact for them that he may as well have not played for them. After two seasons in Chicago, he didn’t play at all in 1960, but was eager to play the next year. Chicago traded him to Dallas, where he would play under Tom Landry and the “Doomsday Defense,” though his contributions wouldn’t become notable until some years later.

Howley played well within the defense, but his best years started in 1965, seven years after he was drafted and at the age of 29. Between 1965 and 1971, he would make six Pro Bowls and five First Team All-Pros. His exertion of skill showed tremendously in his early-to-mid-thirties, in spite of Father Time. He recorded two seasons of five or more interceptions as a linebacker. Some defensive backs can’t even do that, and to do it in the ’60s? Absolutely fantastic.

While playing well in 1972, he didn’t make the Pro Bowl, and injuries caused his final season in 1973 to be relegated to a single game. Still, how poetic it is to have Howley’s last great season as a Cowboy be celebrated with a Super Bowl victory. It almost seems like once he made it to the top of the mountain, he took his time coming back down. Even so, the journey to the top paid off for him in a big way, with all sorts of awards to his credit as one would expect from a first-round pick. It just took him a little while to find a system where he could play to his heart’s content.

#1: Steve Young

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This was really a no-brainer, at least for me. Steve Young is one of the most fascinating stories in NFL history, and his talent is evident in his performance alone.

Touted as a great NFL prospect in 1984, Young decided to skip the NFL and sign a ten-year, $40 million contract with the emerging USFL football league, where he would play with the Los Angeles Express. In 1985, the league went under, and after being selected first overall in the NFL’s Supplemental Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Young would spend his first two NFL seasons being chased around by opposing defenders. His record with Tampa Bay as a starter was 3-16. He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 1987, where he would serve as the back-up to the legendary Joe Montana. He would play sparingly, but never took the starting spot from Joe until a fateful injury in 1991.

Starting in 1992, at the age of 32, Steve Young was the bonafide starter for the San Francisco 49ers. He performed as though Joe Montana was just another quarterback.

While Young didn’t win as many Super Bowls, he was absolutely magnificent in the starting role. In the span between 1992 and 1998, he made the Pro Bowl every year, was awarded with three-straight First Team All-pro honors, and won the NFL MVP award twice. His three-year run between 1992 and 1994 had him post three consecutive quarterback ratings of over 100. In 1994, he completed over 70% of his passes, a feat only done three times up to that point. He led the league in completion percentage five times, in quarterback rating six times, and in touchdown passes four times. He was an absolute monster as the 49ers starting quarterback, and in a lot of ways better than his predecessor. It would be naive to say he wasn’t the best quarterback of the ’90s. His only knock was that he didn’t perform nearly as well in the playoffs.

Almost in a Peyton Manning-like sense, Steve Young was a fantastic pure passer, but wasn’t exactly the best person to win championships with. Even so, what he was able to accomplish in the regular season (along with a single Super Bowl victory) makes him incredibly deserving of the top spot on this list. Young enjoyed the most success of his career when most quarterbacks would be relegated to back-up roles. For that, his late-career surge is certainly one that should be noted for all who wish to know.

Honorable Mentions: Kurt Warner, Jay Hilgenberg, London Fletcher

Quarterback Clash: Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady

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If the NFL itself wasn’t hyping up the battles between two all-time greats, fans were belligerent in proclaiming either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning as the GOAT—Greatest Of All Time. Both have loaded resumés; seven Super Bowl wins, nearly 1,000 touchdowns, and 408 career wins between them. No one should argue that both aren’t among the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, but which was the better choice? Which of these two would you rather have manning (no pun intended) the offense with the Super Bowl on the line? The intricacies of the position are so complex that either side could have a better argument depending on their definition of success in the NFL.

Consistency

Something that Manning has managed to accomplish throughout his career is being the beacon through which his offense runs off of. It seemed as though no matter the offensive scheme, coaches on the sideline, or the weapons at hand, the Colts, and later on the Broncos, managed to have a top-five offense with Manning at the helm. While not without some seasons with far too many interceptions, he never threw less than 26 touchdowns in a single season, sans his final season with the Broncos. Watching him play was like seeing an artist at their very highest, in complete control of their ability to craft articulate things with ease. Manning showed signs that he was destined for the Hall of Fame since his second season as a pro.

On the other end, Tom Brady was in a bit of a hierarchical dilemma to start his career. Winning three Super Bowls in four years helps your status as elite, but his play wasn’t so terrific that it garnered unanimous praise, unlike Manning. Brady bordered between really good and elite, with a lot of his performance being attributed to the system that he played in. Bill Belichick is commonly associated with coaching greats a la Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, and co. To be able to play under such insight is something Manning never had the chance to discover, though many felt he was his own coach on the field. Some wondered if Brady really had full control of his offense, or if Belichick eased him into the role so that he could develop slowly as time passed. Brady’s coming of age didn’t happen until 2007, where he threw for a then-NFL record 50 touchdowns, in his seventh year as a starter.

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Playoff Success

Tom Brady was 9-0 in the playoffs in his first four years as a starter. Peyton Manning was 0-2. Brady didn’t lose a playoff game until his eleventh shot. Manning didn’t win one until his sixth season as a starter. In fifteen years qualifying for the playoffs, Manning went one-and-done nine times. In fourteen years qualifying, Brady went one-and-done twice. Manning’s record in the playoffs is 14-13. Brady’s record is 25-9. What does this all amount to? One of two things: Brady always had a superior team around him or Manning chokes.

Interestingly enough, in the time when Brady became more of an offensive powerhouse of his own, between 2007 and now, his record in the playoffs is 13-7. Before then, he was 12-2. It seems there’s a correlation between offensive powerhouses and playoff success dropping between these two legends. Manning’s last season with the Broncos was a rollercoaster ride, but he did just enough to cruise through the playoffs riding his top-three ranked defense. While his 2006 defense with the Colts wasn’t very impressive, they handled enough in the playoffs to give Manning every opportunity to win the game. With Brady, his championship defenses were typically stellar, especially in points allowed. Disregarding the last few seasons and the first three Super Bowl teams, the Patriots’ defense wasn’t exactly frightening. One could make the case that Brady only played a minimal part in his early playoff success, riding the coattails of a super team concocted by a genius head coach. Peyton Manning single-handedly made his team a playoff contender year-in and year-out.

It wasn’t until Brady’s two Super Bowl wins in the last three years that he was able to establish himself as a quarterback that could single-handedly win a Super Bowl with his arm, especially coming back from 3-28 against the Atlanta Falcons. This gives an edge against Manning, who couldn’t do the same.

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Statistics

Peyton Manning holds quite a few passing records. The two most notable ones are career passing touchdowns and passing yards, with him leading the former by more than thirty touchdowns to the person in second (Brett Favre). There’s a possibility it may be surpassed by either Drew Brees or, conveniently enough, Tom Brady, but Peyton Manning’s offensive spectacle deserves that top spot. Manning surpasses Brady in nearly every statistical category (including interceptions), while also doing so in a record number of games.

Tom Brady is no slouch in the statistical category, either. His career touchdown to interception ratio is 3 to 1, a number only surpassed by Aaron Rodgers’s mind-blowing 4 to 1 ratio. The one leading example he has over Manning is that Brady has thrown nearly 100 fewer interceptions in his career. And should Tom continue his offensive capabilities, he may very well surpass him in career touchdowns and passing yards, as well.

Peyton Manning is among the offensive greats who could make a team great with only his arm, much in the way Dan Marino was. Considering the lax rules in favor of offensive performance in today’s NFL, his stats may pale in comparison to current greats or future greats who rack up touchdowns like it’s a chore. With the context that Manning was able to achieve what he did in the early 2000’s, consistently throwing for 4,000 yards and over 25 touchdowns, he becomes a shining example of offensive history. Not to mention, his first three years in Denver may go down as the best statistical three-year stretch by a quarterback in NFL history.

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Conclusion

What it all comes down to is statistics and consistency vs. winning. Manning has undoubtedly been forever a powerhouse in the NFL, while Brady has the cover of being plopped into great teams. Manning also has most statistical advantages. What Brady beats him in is Super Bowl wins/appearances. 5 of 7 vs. 2 of 4. Again, one could say it was the teams that led him to his staggering winning percentage or his coach, but how far does that argument carry in the face of people who get it done? While Manning has better records, they’re only slightly better overall, as Brady has enough numbers to show that he’s better than most that came before him, with the key statistic being the relatively low number of interceptions thrown in 237 career games. While Brady has always had a great core around him, he makes the team that much better. It’s hard to wave off five Super Bowl wins, too. That’s why, in my mind, Tom Brady is the GOAT.

Predicting Dak Prescott’s Sophomore Success

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One of the more intriguing storylines of the 2016 NFL season was the Dallas Cowboys and their surprise success after coming off a 4-12 season and losing incumbent starter Tony Romo to injury for the first half of the season. Instead of journeyman Mark Sanchez, the Cowboys decided to roll the dice with 4th-round rookie Dak Prescott out of Mississippi State to start at quarterback going into the season. The results included an NFC-best 13-3 record, a Pro Bowl berth, and Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. (Though many thought his running back teammate deserved it more.) In what is typically considered the hardest season for a pro athlete, Dak cruised through his rookie year like it was just another college game. Now, with the spotlight on him closer than ever, what are the chances of him sustaining, or even improving upon his first year as a starter?

There’s an interesting factor to consider when analyzing the value of a quarterback and what they can achieve in a specific system. Many times people hear general managers and coaches talk about “the pieces around” a quarterback, building the team around them. Oftentimes, analysts and experts will comment how a good defense and running game are a rookie quarterback’s best friends. This, more often than not, makes the difference between Dak Prescott’s rookie season and Tim Couch’s rookie season. Considering the Cowboys had one of the best offensive lines in the league, resulting in more time for the quarterback to throw and more time for the running back to find open lanes, that automatically gives an edge to Prescott’s success. Throw in Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, (an albeit aging) Jason Witten, and an All-Pro rookie running back in Ezekiel Elliott, it all but ensures his chances at finding success. Of course, one can still do badly with pieces around them.

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Another point that’s hard to really distinguish into words is the factor of being in the right place at the right time. Robert Griffin III had a fantastic first season, as well, leading his team to a 10-6 record and posting fantastic quarterback stats for a rookie. Since then, he’s been mediocre as a starter at best, and is currently out of the league with little hope of returning. The Redskins have managed to find success since then, so why wasn’t Griffin able to perform? Sometimes the NFL has a magic that deems some unworthy of consistent success despite their natural talent. Whether one-hit wonders or “magical seasons,” sometimes things seem too good to be true, with the weight of expectations bringing teams back down to Earth the following season(s). It happened with the Panthers last year, who finished 6-10 after going 15-1 and reaching the Super Bowl the previous year, despite being relatively unchanged roster-wise. Dallas’s roster is loaded with talent, at least offensively, but after a surprise success story last year, they’re due to be hit by NFL karma if they’re not careful.

And with the talk about roster, the Cowboys have let a number of people go this offseason, leaving questions as to how to fill them. Last year, the defense played exceptionally well despite not having many flashy players in the backfield. Though it may not seem as such with the lack of recognition, the unit allowed less than 20 points a game, among the best in the league. To lose starters Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, Terrell McClain, and Jack Crawford, Dallas looks quite thin on the defensive line and along the sidelines. With Ronald Leary signing in Denver and Doug Free retiring, that’s two big hits against their prestigious o-line, too. To combat this, the team drafted two cornerbacks with their second and third-round picks, with a third in the sixth round. They also took two defensive tackles in the seventh-round and Taco Charlton with their first-round pick. On paper, those holes seem to be filled, but once again, Dallas is rolling the dice on a number of rookies to pick up the slack of proven veterans. While offense is unquestionably solid, there are a lot of question marks on the defensive side.

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Many people make the argument that the 1972 Miami Dolphins perfect record isn’t as amazing as it seems because they had an easy regular season schedule. Dak’s opponents in 2016 weren’t that great, either, as strength of schedule based on winning records had them as the 6th easiest schedule in the NFL, with opponents such as the 3-13 Chicago Bears, 2-14 San Francisco 49ers, and 1-15 Cleveland Browns. With this season’s schedule released, Dallas’s strength of schedule, based on 2016’s results, has them in the top 10 in difficulty. If Dak is for real, this will be the season to prove it, with the league taking note of the team’s assumed quality.

The key difference for me between Robert Griffin III and Dak Prescott’s rookie years is that Griffin was better using his legs to compensate for his arm. Dak scored six rushing touchdowns in 2016, but only attempted to rush 57 times. Griffin tried over twice that amount in 2012, with seven scores on 120 rushing attempts. One can argue that Griffin had to to suffice the offense’s potential, seeing as most of his weapons were either injured or ineffective, but the less he ran over the course of his career, the lower his effectiveness as a quarterback was. Dak has shown (small sample size and all) that he can sit in the pocket and throw his way to victory. In the NFL, that’s the feature you want to see most in a quarterback. So long as Dak keeps himself steady, there’s no limit to his potential.

Taking everything into consideration, from the defensive roster overhaul to the unspeakable magic that limits the potential of various teams from year to year, I don’t feel the Cowboys will go 13-3 this year, but will find success on the shoulders of their offensive one-two punch in Prescott and Elliott. The offensive line still seems in great shape, most of the core offensive weapons stayed put, and so long as Elliott himself doesn’t regress, Prescott has the luxury of not taking on too much by himself. I expect Dak to better his statistics in touchdowns and yards, though perhaps not in completion percentage and interceptions, to make up for the defense’s shortcomings. Depending on one’s interpretation of success, I predict Dak to have a more successful quarterbacking season, if not a better team season.

Does Kurt Warner Belong in the NFL Hall of Fame?

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The NFL Hall of Fame is an exclusive, invite-only fraternity of the best of the best players in NFL history. Names that need to be addressed when speaking about the NFL’s “lore” make up that fraternity; the people who made an impact to the game whether in their own way or improving upon what was already established. Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Otto Graham, Terry Bradshaw, and Brett Favre are only five of many quarterbacks already enshrined within the Hall of Fame, and with the next group of enshrinees comes a new quarterback being given his own golden jacket. This quarterback’s name is Kurt Warner, and his inclusion within the now-crowded Hall was met with the same force that hampered most of Warner’s career: uncertainty.

Many have the mind to voice their opinion. Most times, one doesn’t need to be asked to do so. The debate upon Warner’s legitimacy as a Hall of Famer is one that many can’t seem to agree on. No one denies the talent that he had and the stellar performances he was capable of in his prime, but what seems to be the biggest factor of debate is his consistency. Because Warner did not have the ability to play fifteen-plus years of top-five quarterback play, he’s not worth being named among the greats of the league. Valid criticisms of his induction have been made, while others seem to be more speculation than anything. My aim is to sort out a lot of the arguments that I’ve seen from NFL fans and see if I can’t get a firm grasp of what I think of Warner’s legitimacy for the Hall of Fame from them.

“He had a long, forgettable in-between phase”

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Warner played one season for the Giants in 2004.

Among the most common complaints I hear (and the most valid) is that Warner had a long stretch of time where he was just a journeyman back-up quarterback. When injuries derailed his performance within the final years of his Rams tenure, he signed a deal with the Giants in 2004 to become their starter, only to be replaced by a rookie Eli Manning after nine starts. The next year, he signed with the Cardinals, where he was again plagued by injuries, on top of not performing well enough to win. The year after that, the Cardinals drafted Matt Leinart in the first round, who was known for his winning ways at USC. With this added pressure, Warner would fight for the starting job for the next two years, finally becoming the established starter after week seven in 2007.

Adding it all up, from 2002 to 2006, Warner had a win-loss record of 8-23, changed teams twice, and threw 27 touchdowns to 30 interceptions. Hall of Fame statistics? Certainly not.

His best years came between 1999-2001 and 2007-2009. His win-loss record in those spans combined was 59-26, while throwing 181 touchdowns to 98 interceptions. He was also 1-2 in Super Bowl games in those spans. Hall of Fame statistics? Could certainly make a case for it.

When all comes together, the argument is essentially the six-year spurt of greatness versus the five-year span of fighting for a job against unproven rookies. To some extent, I feel the baggage of drafting a quarterback with a high draft pick puts too much pressure on someone designated to be a “bridge-starter.” Kurt led the Giants to a 5-4 record in 2004 before being pulled for Manning, who lost every game he started for the rest of that season. Again during his tenure with the Cardinals, he was constantly looking over his shoulder. Leinart was an incredibly hyped prospect coming into the NFL and fans and likely coaches were clamoring to see what he could do on the field. The mental beating Warner must have taken probably built his patience, because no one could provide him with any. Ultimately, I’d guess the combination of lingering injuries and never being given a fair shot at competing dragged Warner down in his transitional phase.

“He was a ‘Feel-good pick'”

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Warner won the Super Bowl in his first year as a full-time starter.

It was a tough journey to the NFL for Kurt Warner. Undrafted in 1994, he would try out for the Packers’ practice squad, only to be cut later on. With nowhere else to turn, he played for the Arena Football League, and guided the Iowa Barnstormers to two Arena Bowl appearances. In 1998, he played football in Europe before catching on with the St. Louis Rams by the time the ’98 season rolled around. In 1999, incumbent starter Trent Green suffered a massive injury during the preseason, leaving Warner with the keys to the starting job. With that opportunity, he led the Rams to a 13-3 record and won it all over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. An undrafted player, who was bagging groceries for a living just the year before, was now a Super Bowl champion.

While not as sweet, Warner’s second Cinderella story came nine years later with the Arizona Cardinals, where he re-established himself as an elite starter within the league. With just a 9-7 record in the regular season, Warner took a talented, but flawed Cardinals team to the playoffs and farther than they’ve ever been in franchise history: the Super Bowl. If not for a spectacular catch by Santonio Holmes, or perhaps a hundred-yard interception return by James Harrison, he would’ve won two Super Bowls when the expectations were at their absolute lowest. It’s this sort of dramatic turn of events in sports that keeps the game interesting over time.

To some, this is more a distraction than anything else. However, I believe one of the most impactful things about the Hall of Fame is the players impact on the game itself. While I certainly believe a player must be good first and foremost, I can excuse that they may not have been as good as others if they changed the scope of what the game provided. Kurt Warner is a feel-good case, yes, and I feel that ultimately helps his case. One cannot mention Rams history without Kurt Warner, as he was the only quarterback to bring home a Super Bowl trophy. One cannot mention Cardinals history without Kurt Warner, as he’s been the only quarterback to bring them to a Super Bowl. His ability to perform at the highest level for two different teams (much like Peyton Manning) is a testament to his will and determination. Not to mention, why wouldn’t one want a guy who practically owns the penultimate story of being the underdog in the Hall of Fame? That’s what makes Sports more exciting, what makes them more than just a game. That passion is what makes the NFL such a magical experience year-in and year-out. Kurt Warner has that advantage to his resumé.

“His window of success was too short”

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Warner only played one full season as a starter with the Cardinals.

Here’s another valid criticism of Warner, whose best years came in seemingly very quick timeframes. As noted above, his best years came between 1999-2001 and 2007-2009. Is six years of fantastic play enough to warrant a Hall of Fame induction? The issue seems to divide a number of Hall of Fame voters and fans alike, as a number of players are subjected to such scrutiny.

Terrell Davis is an example of someone who got into the Hall of Fame despite his short window of success. He won two Super Bowls with John Elway and the Broncos in 1997 and 1998. With four-straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons (including one 2,000-yard season) to start his career, three-straight seasons with 13 or more rushing touchdowns, and three First-Team All-Pro selections in that span, Davis’s path to the Hall of Fame seemed predestined. Then, injuries began to pile on, forcing him to retire early after three more forgettable seasons in the NFL. So the question becomes, “Is four years of fantastic play enough to warrant a Hall of Fame induction?” It seems in this case, yes, as he will be joining Warner this year in the Class of 2017.

Alternatively, Sterling Sharpe is a good example of someone within that same discussion. A wide receiver for Green Bay during the ’90s, injuries forced him to retire early at age 29, the same age as Terrell Davis. Not counting his rookie year, though he played well regardless, Sharpe snagged five Pro Bowl nods and three First-Team All-Pro honors in six years. Unfortunately, he retired before Brett Favre managed to win his first and only Super Bowl, which may have hurt Sharpe’s chances at Hall of Fame status. While few would deny that Terrell Davis was paramount in the Broncos’ success during those Super Bowl runs, Sharpe was no simple cog in the offensive juggernaut himself. He led the league in receptions three times, in receiving yards once, and twice in touchdown receptions. There was little doubt he was a top-five receiver in his prime, so why no love for him as a Hall of Fame candidate? Because he didn’t win a Super Bowl? Tell that to Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton, Barry Sanders, etc.

It seems this “Window of success” argument hold weight in some cases, but not for others. Gale Sayers is an obvious choice as a Hall of Famer, and he only played seven years in the NFL. What a lot of these players have in common is the impact of injury on their careers, whether positively or negatively. Kurt Warner dealt with his fair share of injuries, too, so the justification of adding a Terrell Davis in a sort-of “What if” situation should then also apply to Warner, who managed to break through his injury bug and have a relatively successful end-of-career.

While other arguments may exist in the minds of NFL fans, whatever may arise, I feel the success of Kurt Warner’s career overlaps his failures. He has the benefit of having the hook of a pure underdog story, a Super Bowl ring, and a top ten career quarterback rating to his name. The theme of overcoming adversity should only benefit his inclusion in the Hall of Fame, as his leadership characteristics contributed to his ability to win at the most opportune times. Do I believe Kurt Warner belongs in the NFL Hall of Fame? Yes.