War Hero: Kurt Warner - Hall of Fame Edition

January 22, 2009 | Comments (0) | by Chaim Witz

January 30th, Y2K. I rocked back and forth atop a dilapidated leopard skin couch, tugging nervously at the strings of my UNI hoodie. Former roommate and current bartender Brant Brown sat underneath a newly acquired St. Louis Rams blanket, meticulously eating Pringles and wondering aloud if the game would end before our wrestling pay-per-view began. Our heater was broken, but our spirits were not. That was because our rags-to-riches hero and UNI alum, Kurt Warner was marching the Rams down the field on the way to a wholly improbable Super Bowl victory. So began the fairy tale, and for me, the man-crush that has lasted nearly 10 years.

Over the next ten years, I would follow Kurt into the trenches. The good times, boy were they great. Dazzling displays of pinpoint accuracy, perfectly thrown deep balls and a five o'clock shadow that didn't know when to quit. This was sexy, captivating football played to near perfection. But it didn't last. Our hero, beset by injuries, mental fatigue and the kind of bad luck that sees you get displaced by not one, but two of the most hyped rookies of the decade, fell on hard times. As quickly as the bandwagon had filled up, it emptied twice as fast until no one remained. Well, almost no one.

For the next few years, I would trek to various sports bars every Sunday, watching our hero hand off to Tiki Barber and overthrow Ike Hillard's corpse. Calling places to ask if they showed the Cardinals, only to be told, "Baseball season is over man, and besides, this is Cubs country." Dozens of wings were left in my wake. More Diet Coke refills than any waitress should ever have to endure. Countless text messages to my brother in arms, Adam, who like me, sat alone, usually at a Bennigans in dusty San Antonio, suffering through the same highs and lows.

Last year, the tides started to turn once again. It was baby steps, but given the opportunity and the right set of circumstances, Kurt Warner began what has been a stirring comeback. After a remarkable year, he has done the impossible, taking arguably the most woeful franchise in professional sports (yes, worse than the Cubs) to the Super Bowl. The final chapter of his story has not been written, but a win in Superbowl 43 would be the perfect bookend to a remarkable story and a Hall of Fame career. That's right, a Hall of Fame career.

There has been quite a bit of talk recently of sending Kurt to Canton. In the past week he's received HOF endorsements from everybody from Chuck Klosterman to Joe Montana (and that was before the NFC Championship). On Tuesday, Pomp Culture stalwart Daft Funk eloquently argued on this very site as to why Kurt should not be in the Hall of Fame. He cited various stats, not once but twice invoking the name of Chad Pennington as a comparison, but failing to mention that the noodle-armed Chadwick has yet to even sniff the jock of a single Championship Game, much less three Super Bowls or any sort of postseason MVP hardware. Because I'm here to tell you folks, if you want to get into Canton without buying a ticket, the best way isn't through regular season stats. It's through the Big Game. It's through mythology, legend and aura. And over the past decade, there haven't been many football legends better than that of Kurtis Eugene Warner.

What do I mean by all this myth/legend mumbo jumbo? Glad you asked. The mistake a lot of people make when looking at Hall of Fame candidacy is to assume that all Hall of Fames were created equal. This is a critical error in judgement and I'll tell you why. Let's use Canton and Cooperstown as our examples.

Baseball is a sport built on numbers, on records. Numbers and statistics are what makes baseball so fun for the fanatics and so boring and impersonal to outsiders. Everything is baseball is predicated on statistics and that is how greatness is judged. What are this guy's career numbers and how do they stack up to his peers? Baseball is a pure sport that hasn't changed a lot throughout the years (a 95 MPH heater in 1949 is still a 95 MPH heater in 2009), so comparing stats from different eras remains both interesting and plausible. New stats like OPS are created seemingly every year, with baseball fans devouring them with a nerd-like zest usually reserved for Star Trek conventions.

Think about it. Everyone knows what the major baseball records are/were. (For the sake of keeping things simple, let's overlook the "steroid records"). 56 game hitting streak. Ted Williams .406 batting average. 755. 61. 4,256. I don't even need to tell you what those numbers equate to and you probably know what they are. The 500 homer benchmark. 3,000 hits. 300 wins. Stats, stats, stats! Notice how all of those stats are regular season stats too. Postseason glory has it's place in the Hall of Fame (it certainly helps if you're a Yankee), but the bottom line is that when the dust settles, you're judged on your bottom line.

Now let's travel Southeast to Canton, Ohio to the Pigskin Hall of Fame. What you have here is a whole different beast. Due in part to the nature of the sport, careers are more fleeting, the window for success diminished greatly. Numbers are great, but winning is better. In baseball, it's quantity over quality, where in football, it is reversed. Football greatness is in the mythology of it all, captured so brilliantly by NFL Films. Football records are nice to have but easy to forget. Emmit Smith is the all-time leading rusher, but with how many yards? You may know the Single Season Passing TD and Receiving TD marks, but if you do, its only because the Patriots broke nearly every record just last year. Career stats from the game's biggest luminaries are nearly impossible to recite, but no one blames you. No one is expected to remember football numbers. In baseball, the numbers are revered. In football, it's the mythology, often times born of championships.

It's easy to cherry pick number to support any argument, so I'll do just that. Let's take a look at the numbers of some NFL Hall of Famers, shall we?

-Joe Namath. Career record: 63-63-4 over 12 seasons. 173 TDS. (Warner has 182.) 220 INTS. 27,663 passing yards (Warner: 28,591 passing yards. Different era, yes, but remember that Namath was the first QB to ever throw for over 4,000 yards.) 3 playoff games...in his career. One Superbowl guarantee. Mythology.

-Lynn Swann. 9 seasons, zero with over 1,000 yards. Career year of 61 receptions. One famous catch and a member of a Steelers dynasty. Mythology.

-Troy Aikman. 12 seasons. 165 career TDS. 81.6 Passer Rating (Warner's passer rating for his ill fated year with the Giants: 86.5). Career Winning %: .569 (Warner: .570). 3 Super Bowl titles, Cowboys dynasty. Mythology.

-Terry Bradshaw. 12 seasons. 27,989 passing yards (less than Warner despite having over 400 more pass attempts). 210 INTS vs. Warner's 114. Steelers dynasty. Mythology.

I could go on. There are many, many players enshrined in Canton whose numbers aren't what you'd think they should be and whose careers were cut short (Gayle Sayers, Earl Campbell, etc) or hit the wall early. In some cases, if you don't have the mythology or postseason glory, then numbers do become important. A sort of 'Plan B' if you will. Dan Marino, Warren Moon and Dan Fouts come immediately to mind. Ideally though, the perfect candidate will combine solid numbers with a sparkling postseason resume.

Kurt Warner succeeds on both counts. 93.8 QB Rating, good for fourth All-Time. 1st All-Time in Passing Yards Per Game. (And given that his career winning % is higher than Aikman's, you can't really argue that those yards all come in garbage time losses). 2nd All-Time in Completion %. Highest percent of 300 yard passing games than any QB in history. Owner of two of the greatest single seasons (1999 and 2001) of any QB, ever. Sure, his cumulative stats lag a bit due to 'lost years', but cumulative regular season stats don't make the man in the NFL. Some would argue that he's only had 5 great seasons, and that's not enough. Go tell Earl Campbell you'll need his blazer back then. I dare you.

What about the mythology of Kurt Warner? I won't recite his background story here, as you're probably already familiar with it and will surely be getting reacquainted with it over the next couple of weeks. His story was great the first time around, and even better this time around. Everybody loves a good comeback story and he's given us two. After turning around the NFL's worst franchise of the 1990's (the Rams, who assumed the position again now that he left), he's done it again, this time turning around the NFL's worst franchise, ever. Their Superbowl run is the unexpected stuff of legend. Mythology.

I haven't even touched on the fact that Warner is seen as the consummate teammate (the fact that he willingly mentored Brother Eli and Fatty Matty is a testament to his character), family man and all-around good guy. Jesus shout outs aside, the guy is about as selfless and giving as they come, as evidenced by this recent piece that ran over the holidays. That kind of stuff probably shouldn't have any bearing on whether he gets into Canton, but it sure makes it hard to root against him.

Finally, if there was any lingering doubt, I would implore you to read the recent article from SI.com, titled, "Why Kurt Warner Is A Better QB Than Manning". The focus of the article is on the post-season, because, and I'll say it until I'm cardinal red in the face, that's what football greatness is primarily judged on. You need to read the piece for yourself, but for the chronically lazy, here are a few choice nuggets.

Warner's teams are 8-2 in postseason play. Manning's Colts are 7-8 in postseason play. In all of history, only Tom Brady (14-3; .824) and Bart Starr (9-1; .900)boast better postseason records than Warner.

Warner is also gearing up for his third Super Bowl start. The list of quarterbacks who have started more is short: John Elway, Terry Bradshaw, Jim Kelly, Montana and Brady.
Hopefully, come that first Sunday in February, Kurt can lead to the Cardinals to a Super Bowl victory, effectively shutting the door on any further debate over his HOF credentials. In my book, he's already there. He's just writing the last chapter to his story. The story of the NFL, as told by Canton, would be incomplete without it.