Kurt Warner belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he belongs there in his first year of eligibility.
I felt this fairly deeply from the eye test alone -- watching the length and breadth of his career, with its meteoric heights. Having conducted a comparative analysis between Warner and every other quarterback of his era, I feel it now more strongly than ever. The totality of his career, though somewhat brief given his retirement announcement last Friday, demands he be placed with the greats in the game. He was, unquestionably, one of the most proficient quarterbacks between the years 1999-2009. And, he is arguably the best postseason quarterback to play in the modern era of football, period.
That alone is a powerful package of data.
When one considers the man's conduct on and off the field, his professionalism, his dedication to craft and family, his profound impact on two previously moribund franchises and his shocking ascent (an undrafted journeyman into his late 20s, juggling part-time jobs in civilian life while keeping his football dream alive in the Arena League and NFL Europe) makes him all the more worthy.
Let's get the obvious out of the way. He was the fulcrum for "The Greatest Show on Turf" in St. Louis, getting his chance to start when Trent Green suffered a season-ending injury in a preseason game in 1999, and being a part of one of the most dominant offenses in NFL history. He would win two MVP awards, won Super Bowl XXXIV with the Rams (which he was the game's MVP), lost one Super Bowl two years later on a game-ending field goal, and then succumbed to injuries (concussions, hand problems).
Many thought he was done at that point.
Warner revitalized his career, again, in Arizona, where the Cardinals, essentially without any prior playoff pedigree, made a shocking run to the Super Bowl last season and won the highest-scoring game in NFL postseason history a few weeks back, with Warner the primary reason why. That run came to an end when New Orleans knocked Warner from the game in the divisional round and effectively brought his career to a close.
Warner was the fastest in NFL history to 10,000 yards passing, tied for the fastest to 30,000 yards passing and threw at least 100 touchdowns for two different teams.
Yes, injuries, and Warner's late arrival to the NFL, robbed him of some prime years. But, in many ways, all the time he missed serves only to make his accomplishments that much more noteworthy. There is no filler in this list of accomplishments, no excess fat to pad the numbers and skew his status.
Consider: From 2002-2004 Warner made just 16 starts, which obviously limited his ability to put up cumulative passing numbers (yards, completions, touchdowns, etc). From 2002-2006, Warner made just 31 starts in a five-season span where a total of 80 starts was possible. Still, during his 11-seasons in the league, the only quarterback who can rival him, statistically, is Peyton Manning (and Manning is superior). That's it. Warner was best of breed during his career, and playing a position so integral to overall team success, his Hall of Fame credentials cannot be denied.
I broke down some key measures for quarterback play between 1999-2009, looking at yards, completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns, first-down percentage, passes over 25 yards, and, obviously, passer rating, the closest thing we have to a collective representation of a quarterback's totality. There are only two players who rank in the top five in each one of those categories during that span -- Manning and Warner. Even despite missing as much time as he did, Warner is right there.
Completion percentage: Chad Pennington is tops in this time frame, with a 66.1 percentage, but Warner and Manning are tied for second at 65.6. Given the scope of 11 seasons, that a virtual dead-heat.
Passing yards: Warner ranks fourth with 32,305. Manning is first with 46,389, Brett Favre is second with 42,526 yards and Donovan McNabb is third with 32,873. But, it should be noted, Favre and Manning each appeared in 176 games in this span, and McNabb appeared in 148. Warner played in just 123, or, the equivalent of roughly 3½ seasons fewer than Manning and Favre.
Passing yards per game: Warner and Manning are once again almost identical. Between 1999-2009, Manning averaged 263.6 yards per game, and Warner averaged 262.6.
Yards per attempt: Warner ranks third in this category, with 7.96 yards per attempt. The only passers better than him, Tony Romo (8.10) and Ben Roethlisberger (8.01), have played 36 or more fewer games. Manning, obviously attempting nearly 2,000 more passes than Warner, maintained a stellar 7.79 average in this category.
Touchdowns: Warner ranks fifth with 208 touchdowns. He trails Manning (340), Favre (284), Tom Brady (225) and McNabb (216). However, in terms of touchdowns per game (we cannot overlook the smaller sample size Warner has compared to most of his contemporaries), only Manning and Brady rank higher. Manning averaged 1.93 touchdowns per game, Brady averaged 1.74 and Warner averaged 1.69.
Passer rating: Warner ranks fourth, with a 93.8 rating. Only Manning (97.5), Philip Rivers (95.8) and Romo (95.6) rank higher, and it must be pointed out, Rivers played 55 fewer games than Warner and Romo 40 fewer; they were each active in just six of these 11 seasons, and it remains to be seen whether they maintain this threshold over a longer timeframe. (Favre, by contrast, ranks 16th in overall passer rating in this time span).
For measure, Warner ranks fifth in first-down percentage and fourth in passes of 25 yards or more. When you combine regular season and postseason games between 1999-2009, Manning has a 96.5 rating and Warner is second at 94.8. Once again, Manning and Warner.
And it is in the postseason where Warner was often most brilliant. Among all quarterbacks who have played in more than five playoff games since 1950, only Bart Starr has a higher passer rating than Warner. Starr has a lifetime 104.8 rating in the playoffs. Warner's is 102.8.
Of all quarterbacks with at least 100 playoff attempts, only Jeff Hostetler has a higher yards per attempt, 8.99 compared to 8.63 for Warner (and Warner has attempted 462 postseason passes to just 115 for Hostetler).
In all-time playoff touchdowns, Joe Montana is first with 45, Favre is second with 44, Dan Marino is third with 32, and Warner is fourth with 31. However, Warner did it in just 13 games. In the history of the game, for all quarterbacks to have attempted 50 or more playoff throws, Warner is by far the all-time leader in touchdowns per game. Warner averaged 2.4 per game, compared to 1.96 for Montana and 1.83 for Favre.
Warner also has the second-best all-time touchdown to interception ratio in postseason history. Starr is first with an astounding 15-3 ratio (5-1), while Warner is second at 31-14 (2.2-1).
In the statistical ledger, he is already keeping company with football gods. Certainly, had it not taken Warner from 1994 to 1999 to establish himself in the league, and had he been able to start more games, the case would be all the more compelling. But that's not who Warner was. He was more like a Gale Sayers or Sandy Koufax than a Marino or Nolan Ryan.
Regardless, this journey has but one final destination. Kurt Warner, quite literally, has gone from stocking shelves at the Hy-Vee grocery in Cedar Falls, Iowa just to keep his football dream alive, to the precipice of immortality in Canton, Ohio. Five years from now, that's precisely where he should be.