(Photo courtesy of the Oakland Raiders)
(Note: This story first appeared last August. We are re-running it due to the death of Ken Stabler, who succumbed to colon cancer Thursday at 69).
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
If one ever needed proof that statistics don’t tell the full story of an athlete’s worthiness for the Hall of Fame one need only look at the baffling case of Kenny Stabler.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame has named ten All-Decade teams dating back to the 1920s (including an all-time AFL team). Those teams include 25 quarterbacks. Three – Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady – are not yet eligible for enshrinement. Of the remaining 22 only two, Stabler and Cecil Isbell, failed to be inducted. Why?
In Isbell’s case, longevity seems the issue. He was named to the 1930s All-Decade team but played only five seasons for the Packers before retiring to become Purdue’s head coach. Fair enough, for protracted excellence is part of the requirement.
But what of Stabler, who played 14 1/2 years, was a four-time Pro Bowler, 1974 MVP, 1976 Player of the Year, Super Bowl winner and owner of an overall winning percentage of .657? During his 10 years in Oakland he led the Raiders to victory 71.9% of the time, including 19 fourth-quarter comebacks and 26 game-winning drives. Is that not a Hall-of=Fame quarterback?
Stabler has been passed over as a finalist three times while two of his peers, Bob Griese and Fran Tarkenton, were enshrined although neither was All-Decade. When one thinks of Griese one thinks of winning yet Stabler’s winning percentage exceeded Griese’s 61%. So did his playoff winning percentage. Few would argue Griese was a more dangerous or more accurate passer.
As for Tarkenton, he lasted 18 years and so his numbers are higher except in accuracy and winning. Stabler completed 59.8% of his throws – a high percentage in those days of throwing the ball deep downfield – to Tarkenton’s 57% (and Griese’s 56.2%) and he led his team to victory far more often. Tarkenton was 124-109-6 as a starter, a winning percentage of 52%. Stabler was 96-49-1, even going 16-12 with the aging Oilers and 11-11 with the lowly Saints. Add the playoffs and Stabler was 103-54-1 as a starter, an overall winning percentage of .656.
Stabler also lost several prime years, first to a college knee injury that kept him on injured reserve in 1968, his rookie season, after being forced to play two games for the Spokane Shockers of the semi-pro Continental League by Al Davis, who wanted to test that knee before putting Stabler on the payroll. Weary of backing up Daryle Lamonica, Stabler quit the next year but returned in 1970.
He started only two games between 1970-72, thus losing five prime years while languishing on the bench angrily until John Madden finally inserted him into a 1972 playoff game against Pittsburgh with the Raiders trailing with six minutes to go. As would become his trademark, Stabler led a comeback, scrambling for a 30-yard touchdown to give Oakland the lead only to lose on Franco Harris’ legendary “Immaculate Reception.”
The following year Oakland was 1-2 with Lamonica starting before Madden put Stabler in. He reeled off five straight victories and remained the starter for the next seven years before being traded to Houston after a contract dispute. He still became the fastest quarterback to win 100 games (100-50),nosing out Johnny Unitas, who held the record at 153. It has since been eclipsed by Terry Bradshaw (147), Joe Montana (139) and Brady (131). Three are Hall of Famers. Brady is sure to be the fourth. Only Stabler is on the outside looking in.
The major knock on him is that he threw more interceptions (222) than touchdowns (194) but Davis believed in the deep ball at all cost, understanding that at times you wouldn’t hit it. Stabler twice led the NFL in touchdown passes and was second a third. That was the gambling nature of the Raiders’ passing game. By comparison, Joe Namath completed only 50.1% of his passes, threw 220 interceptions, 173 TDs and was 62-63-4 as a starter. That didn’t seem to hurt his Hall of Fame credentials.
“There is no doubt in my mind Kenny Stabler was one of the best quarterbacks who ever lived,” says Namath, yet the most convincing endorsements come from the Steelers who opposed him in so many big games.
“Absolutely, no question, Kenny Stabler should be in the Hall of Fame,” Harris said.
“He’s definitely a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback,” added former Steelers’ defensive line coach and defensive coordinator George Perles. “He could make a receiver great because he could put the ball right in there. He was accurate.”
He was also a Hall of Famer, whether he gets to Canton or not.