The HOF case for Ken Anderson
One of the most successful passers in NFL history is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And in the eyes of
But history's snub may soon change, as Anderson enters Hall of Fame senior committee consideration this year, 25 years after his retirement.
There's been a groundswell of support for Anderson's Hall of Fame qualifications emanating from Bengals fans, as well as the quarterback's former teammates, including NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth and Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Munoz.
The groundswell has caused some senior committee voters to take a long, hard look at Anderson's impressive, Hall of Fame-worthy résumé.
"What we've been hearing lately from supporters of Ken Anderson ... has me, as well as some other Hall of Fame voters, rethinking Anderson as a Hall of Fame nominee," Dan Pompeii wrote recently on National Football Post.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts have long felt that Anderson was a Hall of Fame quarterback. In fact, we once named Anderson
If you're not on the "Anderson for Hall of Fame bandwagon" it's time to grab a sousaphone and hop on board. The former Cincinnati great belongs in Canton for three reasons:
1. Anderson boasts statistical achievements that stand the test of time and that stack up impressively against those of every single Hall of Fame quarterback.
2. Anderson had a major but largely unappreciated role in the evolution of the modern passing game, as the first quarterback to successfully execute the so-called "West Coast offense" while playing for Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Walsh.
3. Anderson was a winner who produced an incredible four MVP-caliber seasons in his overlooked career, while winning 53 percent of all his starts during Cincinnati's glory days. The bumbling Bengals have won just 39 percent of their games since he retired.
The easiest way to make the case for Anderson is to show you that his career production stacked up quite well against almost every one of the 23 modern-era quarterbacks already enshrined in Canton.
We conducted a number of different statistical studies. First, we compared how often Anderson, and the 23 modern Hall of Fame quarterbacks, led the NFL in various passing indicators. In other words, how often was each quarterback statistically the best in a given season?
What we found was a tremendous testament to Anderson's passing skills.
In other words, Anderson was one of the most efficient passers in the history of football, especially given the context of his time. More on that later.
Meanwhile, pay special attention to our two preferred measures of passing success: yards per attempt and passer rating. We like these indicators because they are functions of effectiveness and efficiency, respectively, and not functions of meaningless volume. Throwing the ball often does not make you a great quarterback. Throwing it well makes you a great quarterback.
And by these measures Anderson was easily a great, Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback.
No, we're not arguing Anderson is better than Marino and Montana. All we're saying is that Anderson clearly put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers over the course of his career.
Now let's look at Anderson's overall career numbers vs. those of all 23 modern era Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
Wow! Anderson's statistical résumé certainly stacks up nicely against the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Remember, this is not how Anderson stacks up against a random collection of quarterbacks. This is how his statistical résumé stacks up against the 23 greatest quarterbacks since World War II, those 23 already deemed worthy of immortality in Canton.
When marveling at Anderson's Hall of Fame-worthy stats, it pays to remember that he spent much of his career playing in the depths of the Dead Ball Era (1970-77), when scoring hit its post-war low and quarterbacking was harder than at any time in the past 60 years.
Anderson, for example, led the NFL with an incredible 95.7 passer rating in 1974. Modern football fans might scoff at that number by today's gaudy standards. But consider that the league-wide passer rating in 1974 was a miniscule 64.2, one of the lowest league-wide ratings of the last 50 years.
In other words, Anderson's 95.7 passer rating bested the league average in 1974 by nearly 50 percent.
You might look at Anderson's 1977 season (69.7 rating) and say, "wow, that guy wasn't so good." But consider that 1977 was the absolute bottom of the Dead Ball Era. The average team in 1977 scored just 17.2 PPG, the lowest scoring average the NFL has seen since 1942.
Naturally, scoring moves in lock-step with passing success. So it's no surprise to realize that it was extraordinarily difficult to pass the ball in 1977. In fact, the league-wide passer rating in 1977 was just 60.7, the most difficult year to pass the ball since 1956. So even with his humble 69.7 passer rating in his down year of 1977, Anderson was well ahead of the league average.
For a little perspective, the league-wide passer rating in 2010 was 82.2. But Anderson was putting up modern-looking numbers (four passer ratings above 90) at a time when the average passer was posting a passer rating in the mid-60s.
Anderson in other words was, statistically speaking, 10 or 20 years ahead of his time.
The so-called "West Coast offense" is widely considered one of the great evolutions in the history of football. The West Coast offense stretched defenses horizontally as well as vertically. It emphasized shorter, higher-percentage, lower-risk passes over the daring, high-risk, high-reward deep-ball attack that defined the passing game in the 1950s, 1960s, and then into the 1970s.
Statistically speaking, the West Coast offense did little to change average yards per pass attempt, and it reduced quite dramatically the relatively useless indicator of yards per completion.
But the West Coast offense did produce higher completion percentages, higher passer ratings and better TD-to-INT ratios -- the latter two in particular are critical indicators of team-wide success throughout all of NFL history, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts have proven many times.
The offense rose to fame, and earned the name "West Coast offense," when coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana rode it to three Super Bowl titles together in San Francisco. The franchise added two more West Coast offense-fueled championships under head coach George Seifert.
Yes, the offense rose to fame in San Francisco. But the offense proved its worth in Cincinnati, where Walsh was an assistant from 1968-75 and offensive coordinator from 1971-75.
It was there in Cincinnati that Ken Anderson became the first quarterback to successfully execute and prove the viability of what we now call the West Coast offense.
NFL Films has produced a number of nice segments on the history of the West Coast offense, naming it "one of the top 10 things that changed the game." And they do give credit where credit is due:
"The seeds of the west coast offense were planted by Bill Walsh in Cincinnati to create a passing game that was an extension of the running game," said Chuck Ludwig of the Dayton Daily News on NFL Films.
"To call it the West Coast offense is almost funny, because the plays were the same (that we ran in Cincinnati)," said former Bengals lineman Dave Lapham. "The 'Midwest offense' might be a better moniker for it."
Reporter Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com says, more specifically, "It should be called the 8th Street Viaduct offense," a reference to the location of the team's practice field for much of its history.
Students of pigskin pathology here at Cold, Hard Football Facts find it very easy to spot the statistical DNA of the West Coast offense when you compare Anderson's career numbers to those of the quarterbacks most closely associated with it: Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Montana retired in 1994 with what was then the highest passer rating in NFL history (92.3). Young surpassed Montana, and he, too, retired (in 1999) with what was then the highest passer rating in NFL history (96.8). Both played their entire careers in the quarterback-friendly Live Ball Era (1978-present).
Anderson never topped the career passer rating list. But he was very high on the list for his time. When he left football in 1986, having played in both the Dead Ball (1970-77) and Live Ball Eras, only Hall of Famers Sonny Jurgensen, Len Dawson and Roger Staubach had retired with higher career passer ratings.
Before 1978, anything better than 1 TD for every 1 INT over the course of a career was quite an accomplishment. Several old-time quarterbacks entered the Hall of Fame with more INTs than TDs.
Then West Coast offense changed the risk-reward relationship in the passing game.
Young retired with the best TD-INT ratio in history (2.2 to 1). He has since been surpassed by current quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers (2.7 to 1), Tom Brady (2.5 to 1) and Philip Rivers (2.3 to 1).
Montana's TD-INT ratio is also among the highest in history (1.96 to 1).
Anderson boasts a very-impressive-for-his-era TD-INT ratio of 1.23 to 1 and was the only quarterback in the Dead Ball Era to consistently throw more TDs than INTs.
In fact, playing at the very depths of the Dead Ball Era from 1971 to 1977, Anderson never threw more INTs than TDs -- an extraordinarily rare if not unique accomplishment. Compare that accomplishment to Hall of Fame contemporary Dan Fouts. The Chargers quarterback played five Dead Ball Era seasons (1973-77) and threw more INTs than TDs every single year
• Fouts threw 34 TD and 57 INT in the Dead Ball Era
• Anderson threw an incredible 99 TDs to just 69 INTs in the Dead Ball Era.
Playing in the same Dead Ball Era as Hall of Famer Fouts, Anderson was a far superior passer by any measure.
Hall of Fame contemporary Fouts did not become the statistical machine we remember until the rule changes of 1978 spawned the Live Ball Era. Anderson, for his part, was putting up Live Ball Era-style passer ratings and TD-INT ratios in the depths of the Dead Ball Era.
Most importantly, though, Anderson made a critical contribution to the history of the game by pioneering the so-called West Coast offense. It's a sizable feather in his Hall of Fame-caliber cap.
The Walsh and Anderson partnership ended in 1975, after the offensive coordinator's rocky relationship with old school Paul Brown came to an end.
As you probably now, Walsh landed the Niners head coaching job in 1979, where he began to tutor young quarterback Joe Montana in the finer arts of his offensive system. And he taught Montana this system by showing him game film of Anderson in action.
The big knock against Ken Anderson is that he didn't win -- or specifically, didn't win Super Bowls.
Fair enough. Quarterback is the most important position in sports. And teams that earn multiple Super Bowls almost always do so because they get consistently great play at quarterback.
But the fact of the matter is that Anderson did win -- and a he did it with an organization that has consistently lost with other players at quarterback. Consider these Cold, Hard Football Facts:
• The Bengals won 37.5 percent of their games before Anderson became quarterback (19-32-1).
• The Bengals won 52.9 percent of their games with Anderson at quarterback (91-81-0).
• The Bengals have won just 38.8 percent of their games since Anderson retired (148-234-1).
Clearly, the expansion organization struggled badly before Anderson arrived on the scene. And clearly, it's struggled badly as an established organization after Anderson departed the scene.
In fact, the Anderson Years were easily the "glory days" of the Bengals franchise. Anderson was Cincinnati's No. 1 quarterback for 13 years (1972-84).
• The Bengals enjoyed 7 winning seasons in 13 years with Anderson at quarterback.
• The Bengals have enjoyed just 6 winning seasons in 30 years with other players at quarterback.
• The Bengals won 10 or more games four times in 13 years with Anderson at quarterback.
• The Bengals have won 10 or more games just three times in 30 years with other players at quarterback.
• The Bengals reached the playoffs four times in 13 years with Anderson at quarterback
• The Bengals have reached the playoffs five times in 30 years with other players at quarterback
And Anderson won consistently despite a complete lack of stability around him.
Anderson played under five different coaches in Cincinnati -- Paul Brown, Bill Johnson, Homer Rice, Forrest Gregg and Sam Wyche. One thing remained the same: the Bengals were consistent winners as long as they had Anderson at quarterback.
Five different men have coached in Cincinnati since Anderson retired: Wyche, David Shula, Bruce Coslet, Dick LeBeau and Marvin Lewis. One thing has remained the same: the Bengals have been consistent losers since Anderson last played quarterback.
The Bengals won when Anderson played quarterback because, as noted above, he was consistently the most effective and efficient passer in football.
His passing skills did lead to MVP honors once -- in his AFC championship season of 1981. But Anderson might have won a Peyton Manning-esque four MVP awards had voters taken a closer look at his record.
Ken Stabler, for example, earned MVP honors in 1974. Here's how the two QBs stacked up that season:
Stabler: 178 of 310 (57.4%), 2,469 yards, 8.0 YPA, 26 TD, 12 INT, 94.9 rating
Fran Tarkenton, meanwhile, earned MVP honors in 1975. Here's how the two QBs stacked up that season:
Tarkenton: 273 of 425 (64.2%), 2,994 yards, 7.0 YPA, 25 TD, 13 INT, 91.8 rating
We're not arguing Anderson necessarily deserved MVP honors ahead of either Stabler or Tarkenton. The Raiders and Vikings enjoyed more team success than the Bengals both years -- and quarterbacks usually benefit.
But just remember that, in both seasons, Anderson boasted more yards, a better average per attempt, fewer INTs and a higher passer rating than the league MVP. He also topped Stabler and Tarkenton in rushing yards each year.
The ultimate MVP indignity came in the strike-shortened season of 1982. Anderson topped the NFL in completions (218) and passer rating (95.3), while setting an NFL record by completing 70.55 percent of his passes. He led the Bengals to a 7-2 record, the second best mark in the NFL that year (Redskins, Raiders both 8-1).
What did Anderson earn for all these accomplishments? He was bypassed in the MVP voting by Washington's straight-ahead kicker Mark Moseley -- the first and only time a kicking specialist earned MVP honors.
Moseley, to his credit, connected on 20 of 21 field goals while setting what was then a record for consecutive field goals (23). Both numbers were incredible for the time and by the standards of old-school straight-ahead kickers.
Regardless, Anderson was the top passer in football in 1982 while setting an accuracy record for one of the league's best teams. And yet the NFL's defending league MVP was passed over for consecutive honors in favor of a field goal kicker.
We've already seen that Ken Anderson that he was a pioneer of the "West Coast offense." Yet clearly, he did not win as often as the players most often associated with the style of play: Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Montana and Young are both bona-fide first-ballot Hall of Famers. You could argue Montana is the greatest quarterback of all time. He's certainly the greatest Super Bowl quarterback of all time. And Young, for his part, as noted above, retired as the most efficient quarterback in the history of football.
But both Montana and Young enjoyed incredible advantages on the field that Anderson simply did not have.
Namely, both enjoyed the benefits of playing alongside the longest-lasting defensive dynasty in the history of football.
Bill Walsh's genius in San Francisco was not that he changed football with the West Coast offense, after first proving its merits with Anderson in Cincinnati. Walsh's genius in San Francisco is that he changed football with the West Coast offense while putting in place a defensive system that consistently produced, under three different coaches, the league's stingiest defenses.
San Francisco's record streak of nearly two decades of defensive dominance is the great untold story of Walsh's genius and the San Francisco dynasty -- which we discussed in great detail here a couple years ago.
In the 17 seasons from 1981 to 1997 -- basically, the length and breadth of the entire 49ers dynasty -- San Francisco never surrendered more than 300 points in a season. It's an unbelievable streak of defensive success that spanned three coaches (Walsh, George Seifert, Steve Mariucci). The 49ers dynasty:
• Fielded a Top 8 scoring defense in 15 of those 17 seasons
Basically, Montana and Young won with near record proficiency because their Hall of Fame passing skills were consistently paired with one of the league's stingiest defenses.
Anderson enjoyed NO such benefit in Cincinnati. In fact, he won despite his consistently porous defenses in Cincinnati. The Bengals:
• Fielded a Top 8 scoring defense in 4 of Andersons' 13 seasons as the No. 1 QB
Anderson's best defense ranked No. 5 in scoring -- and that came in 1972, his first year as a fulltime starter.
One can only wonder how many championships the Bengals would have won if Anderson's Hall of Fame passing production in the pioneering West Coast offense were paired with a defense that consistently ranked among the stingiest in football. History tells us it would have been several.
Of course, we'll never know, really.
But we do know several things: We know that Anderson put up passing numbers that stand the test of time. We know that Anderson was a pigskin pioneer who proved the merits of the so-called West Coast offense a decade before it came into vogue. We know that Anderson won with an organization that's floundered without him. We know that Anderson consistently produced MVP-caliber seasons in both the Dead Ball and Live Ball Eras.
And we know that it adds up to a Canton-worthy career -- one that deserves a long hard look from Hall of Fame voters.