Minnesota Vikings’ head coach Leslie Frazier made the decision to stop pondering—about his quarterback—and instead, start “Pondering.” This means, of course, that Christian Ponder, a rookie first-round draftee out of Florida State, will take the reigns this Sunday at home versus the World Champion Green Bay Packers.
With the promotion of Ponder comes the demotion of veteran signal-caller Donovan McNabb, the 13-year veteran, longtime Philadelphia Eagle and multiple Pro Bowl quarterback.
Time will tell whether the move is the right one for the 1-5 Vikings, and time will also reveal if Donovan McNabb (who will turn 35 in November) will ever again be the starting quarterback for another NFL franchise.
Since my speculation is not taking me in either of those directions, I am pondering (oops) another question: Does Donovan McNabb, upon retirement, deserve to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Phrased another way, although he’s been a bust in DC and in Minnesota, does he deserve a bust in Canton, Ohio?
Perhaps, “Five” will still write a successful post-Eagles act to his story, but let’s go on the premise that his body of work is more or less completed. Does he own Hall of Fame credentials?
THE QUICK CASE AGAINST MCNABB
As I write, I can sense some derisive snickers coming from several readers who may be hard-pressed to look past a couple salient factors:
- He never led his team to a Super Bowl win.
- He was terrible after he left the Eagles.
The first point is inarguable, and anybody who knows the first or second thing about the NFL can say this. Does it matter? Sure, it matters a lot to fans of the teams that he played for, if only a little bit in assessing his overall record. More on that later.
The second point is almost as hard to argue against. In the last almost year-and-a-half, encompassing 19 games as the quarterback of record, McNabb is a lousy 6-13. He was 5-8 with the Redskins and 1-5 with the Vikes. It would be easy to say that these are Hall of Lame numbers.
There is a counterpoint to be made that a prime Johnny Unitas, or Joe Montana, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers would not have achieved much in those situations, either, but this is all a part of McNabb’s record. The games all count, and it’s a chapter or two of his book. It just should not be anything close to the whole bio. Novel?
THE QUICK CASE FOR MCNABB
I am aware—more than all but a few pundits—of McNabb’s statistical record. Frankly, some statistics bolster his case, and others don’t. Anybody can look up stats, but as an Eagles fan, I also “lived” through those stats he amassed during his 11 years as the franchise quarterback.
McNabb’s career in Philly will probably be dissected, analyzed and hotly debated 50 years from now, and although I’m already a little sick about the usual parameters and discourse surrounding these debates, I hope I’m still around to lend a rational voice to the proceedings. But enough about me.
The case for McNabb was a little easier to make before he started his second act in Washington. When he left the Eagles, he could boast of being a six-time Pro Bowler who had compiled a 92-49-1 regular season mark as a starter.
If you’re shrugging your shoulders and raising your eyebrows now, you may wish to lower them when you consider that of all the quarterbacks in NFL history (since 1949) who had more wins at the time, only five had compiled more wins and a greater winning percentage: Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw and Steve Young. Not bad.
Would I say that McNabb’s career has been as good as any of them? In a word, no, but his record—in this aspect—is in their company. And last I checked, winning is a pretty good attribute for an NFL quarterback.
It is true that McNabb has done less winning than Charlie Sheen since leaving Philly, and his record (to say nothing of his reputation) has taken a beating. His 6-13 post-Philly numbers have pulled his .650 winning percentage down to a strong, if not superlative,.609.
He now has a few more wins than Young, but the following Hall of Famers with more wins than McNabb now have higher winning percentages as well: Brett Favre, John Elway, Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas and Jim Kelly.
Do I feel that McNabb’s career has been in the class of this group of all-time greats? Yes, in the case of Kelly; no, in the case of the others. More on Kelly in a bit.
Currently, McNabb’s 98 wins put him in a tie for 12th all-time. It is probably not to his advantage that he is deadlocked with two good quarterbacks—Drew Bledsoe and Dave Kreig—who would not get much, if any, support for enshrinement in Canton.
Sports fan love round numbers. It would help McNabb’s perception if he can eclipse 100 wins. Five more wins would put him (however temporarily, with guys like Drew Brees and Ben Roerthlisberger rapidly scaling the list) in tenth place. Yes, all of the 11 in front of him now are in the Hall.
OKAY, BUT ISN’T THERE MORE TO THIS?
Of course, there’s a whole lot more to this that can be examined, but wins and winning percentage are terrific places to start for a quarterback.
The overall record will probably show that McNabb posted good to very good stats, if not overwhelming personal numbers. In extremely general terms, McNabb played with good (but not dominating) defenses that helped him compile wins. He also—in the same terms—played with a mediocre offensive supporting cast that would not do anyone’s passer rating many favors.
How many quarterbacks in the history of the game could have led their team to the Final Four with James Thrash, Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell as his weapons? Those weren’t weapons; they were barely targets.
But, this isn’t about excuses. McNabb has a record that should be admired, not excused.
Let us consider the obvious: Donovan McNabb never led his team to a championship.
That’s not a minor thing. He might still be celebrated (if not still playing) in Philly if this happened, and a Super Bowl win is the ultimate goal for most players in the NFL.
Quite obviously, there have also been Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks who were essentially in the right place at the right time: Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson and Jeff Hostetler are among those who come to mind. They deserve to be commended, but no objective pundit considers them to be worthy of enshrinement.
Okay, but what did McNabb accomplish?
McNabb played 11 seasons in Philly, 10 of which he opened the year as the starting quarterback. Of those 10 seasons, he ended eight of them in a healthy state. In seven of those seasons, the Eagles made the playoffs. In six of those campaigns, he won at least one playoff game, and in five, the Eagles made it to the NFC Championship Game.
Should that record guarantee him a spot in Canton? Not necessarily, but it’s hard to argue against, as his was a run that not many quarterbacks have produced.
For his playoff career, McNabb was 9-7, better than a whole bunch of current and likely Hall of Famers.
COMPARING MCNABB WITH HALL OF FAME QBs WHO DIDN’T WIN THE BIG ONE
There are five modern-era NFL quarterbacks who made it to the Hall of Fame without winning a title: Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton, Warren Moon, Jim Kelly and Dan Fouts.
To simplify what could be a much longer piece, I would put McNabb in the middle of this group.
In a cryptic nutshell, here are my takes—with the regular season and playoff won-loss record of each in parentheses)
Dan Marino (147-93-0; 8-8)
McNabb had more mobility than Marino, but as a pure passer, No. 13 was much better and much more prolific. Clearly, I would take Marino.
Fran Tarkenton (124-109-6; 6-5)
I saw the tail end of Tark’s career, and he also may have been labeled unfairly as a guy who couldn’t win the big one: His Vikings lost three Super Bowls. Fran was one of the first scrambling quarterbacks, and interestingly, he and McNabb are very close in career rushing stats. I would take Marino over Tarkenton, but also take Fran over Donovan.
Warren Moon (102-101; 3-6)
I respect Warren Moon’s longevity and the numbers he posted. As a pure passer, he was among the best I’ve seen and his all-time numbers are even more prolific if you factor in his success in the Canadian Football League.
Moon was already 28 when he joined the NFL’s Houston Oilers, and he started at least 10 games in the league for 15 consecutive years. Very impressive. As a pure passer, I’d take Moon; as an all-around quarterback, it’s a push.
Jim Kelly (101-59; 9-8)
Kelly and McNabb (98-62-1; 9-7) were very different yet their numbers are very close. Even their career passing numbers are very similar. Kelly posted his in an era where it was a little tougher to pass, but he also took advantage of superior weapons and a more innovative system.
Like McNabb, Kelly was tough and a winner, even if his career is defined by four consecutive Super Bowl losses, Of course, he had the skill, tenacity and leadership to keep getting back to that high level. I would call this one a draw on my scorecard.
Dan Fouts (86-84-1; 3-4)
The perception of Dan Fouts' greatness is probably much better than his actual record. Admittedly, I loved to watch Fouts and that Air Coryell attack with talents such as John Jefferson, Charlie Joyner, James Brooks and the great Kellen Winslow. They were one of the most exciting, potent aerials shows I’ve witnessed, and Fouts was a large part of that.
At his peak, Fouts may have been a hair better than McNabb, although I would take McNabb’s overall record.
This may or may not be the end of Donovan McNabb’s career as a starting quarterback. If it is, it has ended on a very low note.
The McNabb fan in me would love to see a final winning (even if not the ultimate prize) chapter to reverse some of the perceptions that have surrounded him.
If this is it, or if there are no more real victories to be had, the hope is that McNabb’s total body of work will be weighed with objectivity.
It is hard enough to debate whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame, let alone decide whether he has had a “great” career.
To my way of thinking, McNabb displayed a lot of greatness, even if his career should not be placed with the likes of Montana, Elway, Unitas and Brady. You can add some others that should be placed in a higher echelon than “Five.”
At the same time, the Hall of Fame has enshrined very good (if sometimes great) quarterbacks such as Moon, Kelly and Fouts. By that analysis, McNabb deserves the same consideration for Canton.
Even if his Redskins and Vikings stints are more worthy of Hall of Lame consideration.