Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is Troy Aikman The Worst HOF QB, Or Just A Pale Imitation Of The Worst HOF QB?

Hall of Famers in any sport (and rock ‘n’ roll as well, though the very idea of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame still chaps us worse than bike shorts) can be dumped into one of three buckets: The absolute greats, the quite good, and the momentarily good. Halls of fame should be repositories for only the absolute greats, but if they did that they’d be out of business in a month, because the necessarily meager number of absolute greats and their fans means the halls’ rust-belt towns would go a-begging two years out of three. Canton needs Gene Hickerson fans. Cooperstown needs bonkers Cubs fans to spend like pork-barrel congressmen in support of the opium dream that Andre Dawson is actually worthy of sitting at Hank Aaron’s elbow.

The momentarily good are another issue. Sometimes it’s obvious why they make it – they only got half a career because of segregation, for instance – and other times it’s more obscure than the enduring popularity of cute cat pictures. Joe Tinker, Crab Evers and Frank Chance, for instance. They’re in the Baseball HOF because of a poem. That’s like putting the Old Spice guy in Canton because he looks good on a horse.

More on topic, Red Grange blew out his knee in his first pro season, and his career was less distinguished than that of Gob Buckeye. But Red Grange was pro football’s first great draw. Without him there might have been no Chicago Bears, no pro football, and no Football HOF. Enshrining him was an act of self-preservation akin to enshrining fire in the Hall of Great Inventions.

To a lesser extent this explains Charlie Trippi as much as anything can. Trippi was the postwar Grange and he led the Cardinals to their only championship. Call it a sop to Bill Bidwill or a nod to Trippi’s ability to put butts in seats regardless of his on-field performance, because Trippi is the worst HOF QB ever in the same way that Cy Young is the all-time winningest pitcher. No one will win 700-plus games in the majors again, and no QB will be elected to the HOF with worse numbers than Charlie Trippi. You can quit holding your breath, Stan Gelbaugh.

So the question is, which bucket gets Troy Aikman? Aikman was the Cowboys’ QB when they truly were America’s Team, a lurching juggernaut controlled by J.R. Ewing from the Mini-KISS version of Dallas. He was Tom Brady in cowboy boots without a supermodel mama on his arm, and he led his team to many a big win. Does he qualify on numbers, or did he fly in on some Texas-sized je nais se quoi?

The skinny on Aikman places him squarely in the quite-good bucket. His career comps are guys like Mark Brunell and Donovan McNabb, upper-echelon guys whose careers were nonetheless marred by an inability to win the big game. Troy Aikman, then, is an upper-echelon guy who takes the next step: a McNabb who beats the Patriots, a Brunell who beats the Oilers and gets J-Ville into the big game, a Steve McNair playing in a market that feels about football the same way Osama bin Laden feels about the Koran. Lest you think that A) winning the big game and B) playing in Dallas don't matter, consider Troy Aikman Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution.

It does beg the question, though: Even if he’s not just momentarily good, is Troy Aikman the worst non-Trippi HOF QB ever?

A very simple test is to examine the ever-helpful career comps at If someone was worse than Aikman they would likely have fewer HOFers in their career comps. So we checked the career comps and lo and behold! Roger Staubach, Bart Starr, and Joe Namath have two HOFers as career comps; Aikman, Y.A. Tittle, and Terry Bradshaw have three.

Okay, so Aikman escapes there. Let's dive deeper into the numbers. We created an index that measures how the postwar HOF QBs (and Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady) finished on categories that have nothing to do with a 16-game season versus a 12-game slate -- things like completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating, career value, All-Something nods, and interception percentage. When we plotted where the QBs fit, here’s what we got (FYI: lower is better):

Manning 8.67
Young 13.44
Montana 18.67
Marino 22.56
Favre 25.00
Brady 25.78
Fouts 42.22
Kelly 43.44
Moon 43.78
Graham 47.50
Elway 49.67
Staubach 52.22
Tarkenton 53.00
Layne 60.38
Jurgensen 62.22
Aikman 67.67
Griese 72.22
Starr 73.44
Van Brocklin76.50
Unitas 77.00
Tittle 77.00
Dawson 77.11
Bradshaw 90.89
Namath 109.33
Blanda 194.78

Maybe we chose the wrong categories if we’re trying to prove Aikman’s lack of worth. Looking at it this way, the QBs separate themselves neatly into five distinct bands: The undisputed greats (Manning, Young, Montana, Marino, Favre, and Brady); the greats (Fouts, Kelly, Moon, Graham, Elway, Staubach, and Tarkenton); the consistently quite good (Layne, Jurgensen, Aikman, Griese, Starr, Van Brocklin, Unitas, and Tittle); the momentarily good (Bradshaw and Namath); and George Blanda, who we can only assume made it in as a kicker.

Aikman fares acceptably, which makes sense. He threw for a decent amount of yards in a game, and to the intended receivers, and put the ball in the end zone with reasonable frequency. He nestles in a little sub-group with the superb game managers Bob Griese and Bart Starr, and that’s about right. Aikman managed things in Dallas as well as anyone could, and that alone justifies his trip back to the rust belt.

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