Makowsky: Precedent says Plunkett should be in Hall

Feb. 1, 2011, 1:35 a.m.

The two weeks between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl are a media frenzy. With little professional football in between to cover—the Pro Bowl in no way counts—it is a time of boundless speculation, where stories are fostered to keep people interested.

The latest meme: Does a third Super Bowl ring guarantee Ben Roethlisberger a spot in the Hall of Fame? It revolves around nothing except his literal winning of championships. It’s not about his career—much less Super Bowl—performance, and certainly not his off-the-field transgressions. It’s simply this: with a ring, is he in?

The question isn’t so crazy, because the current metrics indicate that, well, yes, he probably is. Of all of the quarterbacks who have won multiple championships, only one has yet to be elected to the Hall. This column is about the merits of those criteria—if we installed my draconian views on Hall of Fame eligibility, there would likely be only about two-dozen people enshrined. Instead, it’s about that lone outsider: Stanford’s own Jim Plunkett.

Plunkett, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1971 draft and the Cardinal’s only Heisman Trophy winner, has two rings, both won with the Oakland (and then-Los Angeles) Raiders in the 1980s. He was stellar in both performances, combining for four touchdowns against zero interceptions and amassing an average 122.8 passer rating. He was the MVP in Super Bowl XV, and if not for a superhuman performance from running back Marcus Allen in XVIII, likely would have won the honor again.

Contrast that with Roethlisberger, for instance, who had one of the worst performances by a winning quarterback in his first Super Bowl, tossing two interceptions and no touchdowns while compiling a paltry 22.6 rating.

Needless to say, Plunkett came through when it counted. So why no love from the powers that be?

Plunkett’s career was not nearly as impressive as his Super Bowl performances. He finished with 164 touchdowns against 194 interceptions, went 72-72 in his career, only averaged about 165 yards through the air per game and had a completion percentage (52.5 percent) that modern analysts would scoff at. Why campaign for him, then, as the Raiders’ owner Al Davis has begun to do in recent weeks?

Let’s get one aspect out of the way. In the 1970s, when Plunkett was struggling early in his career with the woeful New England Patriots, football was not nearly as open of a passing game as it is today, and the stats are skewed appropriately. The rules in place back then were dramatically different from the ones we have now, which heavily favor the quarterback and put defenders at a serious disadvantage.

But the crux of the matter is that in the system the NFL currently uses to select its Hall of Fame quarterbacks, if you’ve won multiple Super Bowls you should have to be significantly worse over the course of your career than any other quarterback of the same vein in order to be excluded. And Plunkett wasn’t.

Joe Namath, whose candidacy is questioned frequently given his less-than-stellar statistics, made the Hall of Fame as a one-time Super Bowl champion with career totals of 173 touchdowns, 220 interceptions and a completion percentage right at 50 percent. He lost more games than he won. He is in the Hall of Fame. He and Plunkett overlapped for a number of years in the pros, and if you normalize their statistics to try and reflect a general average across all eras—as Pro Football Reference’s Advanced Passing Statistics do—then you find that Plunkett and Namath are within just a couple of points of each other in the overall rating, and rank quite similarly overall.

(For the record, I side with Broadway Joe, who followed through on perhaps the greatest and more improbable guarantee in professional sports history and almost single-handedly saved the AFL in the process. But siding with him is to also side with Plunkett.)

It’s not just Namath. Terry Bradshaw, with four rings, has a similar score. So do Bob Waterfield and George Blanda.

Let’s not kid ourselves: Plunkett’s career would place him in the bottom group, statistically, of enshrined quarterbacks. But he would still be in that group and not significantly below it.

Reexamine our criteria: if we accept that quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl rings will almost always be elected to the Hall, then the quarterback with that resume who doesn’t make it in must be dramatically worse than the rest of that peer group. And Plunkett is not.

If we’re going to discuss Roethlisberger’s candidacy based solely on his jewelry, then we must continue an erstwhile discussion on Plunkett’s success, too.

Wyndam Makowsky would have to be dramatically worse than other columnists not to get your feedback. If he’s not, contact him at makowsky “at” stanford.edu.

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