By now, you have undoubtedly realized that I have a fondness for older athletes who continue to play at a high level. You probably remember my posts on Jamie Moyer, Julio Franco, and Mike Mussina. The most recent was on Mussina who repaid the time I spent building his case for the Hall of Fame—just two more seasons with the Yankees would’ve done it—by retiring. That left a sour taste in my mouth so I’m back for another round. NFL fans may be too immersed in their fantasy football leagues to notice, but Kurt Warner is running away with the NFL MVP award. He is on pace to throw for 5,000 yards—a feat that has only been accomplished once in NFL history. He has the Arizona Cardinals four games over .500 for the first time ever. He leads the NFL in passer rating and it’s not even close. Through ten games, he has the highest single-season completion percentage in NFL history (71.9).
The “other” MVP candidates include Drew Brees, Clinton Portis and Adrian Peterson. No offense to those players but that list might as well read, “Larry, Moe, and Curly.” Warner’s season is so statistically superior to every other QB in the NFL that he is in a class of his own with respect to the MVP. Portis and Peterson have been the best runners in the league but their statistics aren’t historically significant. Plus, it’s unlikely that the Saints, Redskins, and Vikings will even make the playoffs. Not only are the Cardinals in line to make the playoffs, they will probably be the first team in the NFL to clinch a playoff spot.
Just a few years ago, few thought Warner even had a career left. It would have been difficult for anyone to predict that Warner would even be in the league five seasons after his miserable 2004 campaign with the Giants in which he was sacked 39 times and coughed-up 12 fumbles. He wasn’t even supposed to be the starting QB in Arizona this season. Matt Leinart—Arizona’s first round draft pick in 2006—was set to take over the “keys” to the franchise. Warner shocked everyone by winning the starting job and now he’s the best player in the NFL.
While Warner’s second “out-of-nowhere” act has been compelling, what’s even more fascinating is what this means for his legacy. If Warner wins the MVP this season, it will be his third. No player in the history of the four major sports has won three MVP awards and not been elected to the Hall of Fame. Warner won’t even come close to having the gaudy statistics that are usually a perquisite for the ‘Hall’. Entering 2008, Warner had only five seasons in which he threw for more than ten touchdowns tying him with Joey Harrington. That’s generally not even good enough for the “Hall of Average.” However, Warner has the second best QB rating (min. 1,500 attempts) and completion percentage in NFL history. He’s also first all-time in passing yards per game. Those feats would not have been good enough to offset Warner’s underwhelming career totals without the third MVP but they will nicely complement the MVPs on his Hall of Fame plaque.
It’s important to emphasize the dramatic impact that Warner’s lingering thumb issues have had on his productivity. By almost any measure, he was the best QB in the league from 1999-2001. While his thumb problem didn’t end his career, there is no question that it robbed him of the bulk of his “prime.” There is precedent for such a situation resulting in selection to the Hall of Fame. Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax, and Kirby Puckett were denied full careers. All three are MLB Hall of Famers. Bill Walton’s career actually clobbers Warner’s in brevity and yet he is a member of the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame. And, of course, I can’t forget Gale Sayers who is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite playing only 68 games. Warner has started 85.
Warner’s first time around the NFL block had all of the makings of a Hollywood movie. He went from a 25-year-old grocery store employee to an NFL MVP and a Super Bowl winner. His encore performance is good enough for an equally brilliant sequel. He will likely win the MVP—becoming the oldest NFL MVP in 50 years—and put the Cardinals in the playoffs cementing an improbable place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If someone had told you that four months ago, you probably would’ve said, “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Warner!” I’m just hoping Warner doesn’t pull a Mussina and retire before the end of the season. If that happens, be prepared for another one of these on Chris Chelios or Randy Couture.