Yesterday, the 2011 induction class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame was announced. Today, the Packers and Steelers will play in Super Bowl XLV. At stake is the Lombardi trophy, a championship ring, and a slice of greatness. With a spectacular performance—or even a single spectacular play—any of the 90 men active for this game has the chance to write his name in the history books. Whether it’s an also-ran like David Tyree, or a young veteran like Santonio Holmes, or a superstar like Peyton Manning, the Super Bowl provides a direct path to football immortality.
The Hall of Fame, though, is football immortality, literally. Once a player’s bust is enshrined, it’s not ever coming out—and future generations, whether they know that player as a legend or don’t know him at all, will be see that bust and know that he was great. Not just good, not just very good, but great . . . right?
When players are on the cusp of induction, we often hear the phrase “It’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Very Good.” Usually, we hear it immediately before someone says a consistently good, but never dominant, player shouldn’t be in the Hall. There’s something that bugs me about that phrase, though: the semantic difference between a “very good player” and a “Hall of Famer” isn’t greatness . . . it’s fame. It may not be the Hall of Very Good, but it’s not the Hall of Great, either.
On Saturday evening, my tweep @derylgarland linked me to a brand-spanking-new football blog, “Outside the Hashes.” The author, Monte McNair, wrote an awesome piece called “The Championship Myth” where he discusses the tenuous link between playoff game boxscores and a player’s relative worth:
People tend to react to an outcome retroactively as if it were a certainty, when we live in a world of probabilities. Brady started his postseason career a perfect 10-0, but is just 4-5 in his last 9 games. Did he instantly turn from a clutch performer into a middling playoff QB? No, it is much more likely that Brady was simply the recipient of some good luck early on (think the Tuck Rule game) and the victim of bad luck more recently (two words: Helmet Catch).
Those of you who’ve been reading for a while know that this is a big thing with me. All season long, the Lions were playing much better than their record would indicate, they just weren’t catching the breaks, just weren’t closing the deal. They weren’t playing dramatically better at the end of the season, but the breaks started going their way. Was there some element of “learning how to win?” Possibly, but given the massive injuries the Lions suffered to critical areas, I doubt that “learning how to win” turned them from 4th-quarter stooges to ice-blooded assassins in the span of a single season.Likewise, Peyton Manning has demonstrated that he is an elite quarterback over the past 13 seasons. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he is one of the best in the game—and by the time he’s finished, he’ll be considered one of the best ever. Yet, over the past two seasons—despite having won a Super Bowl with this Colts team not long ago—we’re hearing mutters about Peyton’s inability to get it done when it counts. As McNair wrote:
I have already touched on how randomness alone can affect an outcome. Now we see how tangible factors such as teammates, coaches, and opponents are also responsible for the final result of a game. Just two weeks ago, Peyton Manning led the Colts down the field for a field goal to take the lead. Had that lead held, he would have received a disproportionate amount of credit for “willing” his team to victory, despite the fact that his line blocked, his receivers caught passes, and Adam Vinatieri made a field goal from over 50 yards out. Of course, Antonio Cromartie returned the ensuing kickoff near midfield and the Jets ended up pulling out the victory. Manning didn’t even step on the field, yet went from hero to goat in under a minute. The answer, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.
The narrative of Super Bowl XLV has already been framed: a battle of two great young quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger is playing for redemption, playing to win his first Super Bowl MVP award in three tries. Aaron Rodgers, playing Luke Skywalker to Brett Favre’s Anakin, is trying to become a Jedi master in his own right. Whoever hoists the Lombardi Trophy will climb further up the historical quarterback ranks. In reality, this game is more about two of the NFL’s best defenses, which team’s pass rush can more often hit home, and which team’s secondary can more effectively neutralize the opponents’ receiving threats.
This is not to take away from the quarterbacks—they really are two of the best in the game, and these games will indeed play a significant role in how we, the fans remember their careers. Depending on how things play out, this game could be the first bullet point on their Hall of Fame resume, or a major blow to their Canton hopes.
But no matter what happens, let’s not discount what either Rodgers or Roethlisberger has done this season. They’ve both had outstanding statistical years, despite both being asked to carry their offense almost singlehandedly. They’re already two of the best quarterbacks in the business, and—knock on wood—they each have much more football left to play. For them, today could be the day when they secure their their place amongst the most famous quarterbacks of all time . . . but we can already see that they’re great.