Prior to Super Bowl LI, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the seven new inductees who will make up the Class of 2017. LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor, Terrell Davis, Kurt Warner, Morten Andersen, Kenny Easley, and Jerry Jones will make up this year’s class, and in that group are some interesting selections. In particular, Davis, Warner, and Easley were all superstar talents at one time, but had very short careers by Hall of Fame standards. The there’s Andersen, who cleared a major hurdle in becoming just the third pure kicker/punter inducted and the second in the last four years, which could signal a changing of perception.
I’ll start with Davis, who was absolutely phenomenal for the first four years of his career, running for 6,413 yards, 56 touchdowns, and 4.78 yards per attempt, while earning Super Bowl XXXII MVP honors and league MVP honors in 1998. The remainder of his career is a different story, however, as Davis was derailed by injuries. He would run for 1,194 yards from there on out, or just 77 yards more than his worst season total up to that point. His 3.8 yards per carry over those last three seasons was a far cry from his four-year prime. So yes, he was incredible for the first four years of his career, but was his peak historic enough to make up for the early end to his career? In the history of the NFL, there have been nine other players who ran for 5,500 yards in their first four years.
With a quick look at this list, you’ll notice six Hall of Famers, and four others. Adrian Peterson will get into the Hall of Fame, so let’s focus on the other three. Davis has better numbers than all of them, but not by a whole lot. Two of them, Chris Johnson and Jamal Lewis, probably won’t come close to ever getting inducted, while Clinton Portis’s name isn’t brought up a whole lot in that conversation either. I suggest you take a look at Portis’s Pro Football Reference page and compare his career alongside Davis’s. With that being said, Johnson, Lewis, and Portis all had multiple 1,000 yard seasons after their first four years and lasted much longer than Davis.
If Davis can get into the Hall of Fame, what does that mean for some active running backs? DeMarco Murray and Jamaal Charles have been up and down, but have also been unstoppable at times. How much more does Le’Veon Bell need to do to enter the Hall of Fame discussion? What about LeSean McCoy?
There is one thing Terrell Davis did better than anyone else – coming through on the biggest stage. Davis averaged 142.5 yards per game over eight postseason contests and won a Super Bowl MVP. None of the other aforementioned backs can lay claim to that, although Lewis won a Super Bowl as well. Davis’s incredible playoff heroics have to count for something. After all, it is the Hall of Fame, and Terrell Davis fits that bill.
Kurt Warner’s career in many ways mirrors Davis’s. Neither was a highly regarded prospect out of college, but both proved the doubters wrong, with each of them winning regular season and Super Bowl MVP awards. But while Warner was incredible during his peak as well, he lacked the longevity of other Hall of Fame quarterbacks. It’s one thing for a running back to get inducted based off a brief but brilliant career, but quarterbacks often need to last longer to be considered among the all-time greats. Among all 10 quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame who debuted after 1970, Warner has the fewest total passing yards and second fewest touchdowns behind Troy Aikman. There’s even three Hall of Famers who debuted from 1948-1970 with more yards than Warner and six with more touchdown passes, despite playing in a time when it was much more difficult to throw the ball.
The case to be made for Warner rests on his two league MVPs and four Pro Bowl nominations. What he was able to accomplish, despite getting a late start to his NFL career is nothing short of remarkable. But it’s easier to ignore his late career start than the middle of his career, where Warner started just 31 games from 2002-2006. In fact, he only started ten or more games seven times during his twelve-year career, and only started more than eleven games four times.
If that’s enough to warrant a spot in Canton, so be it. But if that’s the case, how do some current passers stack up? The first two players that come to mind are two franchise quarterbacks from the same draft class – Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. Believe it or not, both Ryan and Flacco have already thrown for more yards in their careers than Warner did. Ryan now has an MVP award to his name, and has led his team to a Super Bowl. Flacco is not quite as good as Ryan, but did win a Super Bowl MVP and had maybe the greatest postseason run any quarterback has ever had leading up to that game. Neither is thought of at the moment as a future Hall of Famer, but they’re not far off from Warner statistically speaking.
Warner’s induction also makes Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning near locks, whether you agree with it or nor. Then there’s Tony Romo and Philip Rivers, who have yet to reach a Super Bowl, but have had a much longer period of regular season success than Warner. The currently eligible Donovan McNabb could have a case as well.
Of course, Warner was a great player in his best years. I’m not necessarily saying him or Davis shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, but rather trying to predict how their inductions can impact the cases of players who will be eligible in the future. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is much different than the Baseball Hall of Fame. Football tends to reward the most phenomenal performances, no matter how short they may be, over longevity, which is perfectly fine. It’s not anywhere near as exclusive either, which is one of the reasons I’m not as invested in the process as I am with baseball.
Sometimes, football does seem to be inconsistent with how players are evaluated for the Hall of Fame. The most glaring omission among this year’s finalists is Terrell Owens, who has now missed the cut two years in a row. While wide receivers usually have to wait longer than others for whatever reason, it’s baffling how the man who is second only to Jerry Rice in receiving yards has yet to be inducted.
The answer is unfortunately quite obvious; people don’t like him. A showboat who frequently caused a stir with teammates, coaches, and the media, it’s safe to say T.O. rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But that shouldn’t be enough to keep him out. Like it or not, having a “good guy” reputation really helps your Hall of Fame case.
Last but not least, Morten Andersen becomes the second pure placekicker and third kicking specialist elected. The NFL’s all-time leading scorer deserves a spot, and it should also open the door for others. With Ray Guy getting inducted in 2014 and now Andersen, voters seem to be coming around to the idea that kickers and punters play vital roles in the game, and we should therefore honor the best who ever did it.
If the football Hall of Fame chooses to honor flashes or greatness and fame for players who lack the longevity of their peers, there’s nothing wrong with that. Terrell Davis and Kurt Warner both have fascinating stories, and it’s pretty cool that parents will be able to tell those stories to their kids when they see their busts in Canton. Davis was taken near the end of the 1995 draft in the sixth round by the Broncos. Throughout his career, he had to deal with migraines that he suffered from since childhood. Warner wasn’t drafted at all out of college and had to go through a grocery store, the Arena Football League, and NFL Europe before getting a real chance.
Some people believe a person’s Hall of Fame credentials should rest on their importance to the game. If the Pro Football Hall of Fame is going to honor those who were the best at what they did and brought the most to the NFL, Morten Andersen, who scored more points than anyone else, needs to be recognized. And if you’re going to tell the story of the NFL’s past two decades, you cannot tell it without mentioning Terrell Davis and Kurt Warner.