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The NFL’s Pending Hall of Fame Problem

Both Kurt Warner and LaDainian Tomlinson deserve their inductions, but the current era of inflated offenses has created an unforeseen problem for the league. If everyone is breaking records, then who goes to Canton?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to Inefficiency Week. Over the next five days, we’re going to take a look at what we lose when we get lost in the chase for efficiency. We’ll explore the ways it’s changing the games we love to watch. We’ll remember its failures across the pop culture spectrum. And we’ll report on what it’s doing to our lives — romantic, physical, and otherwise.

Let’s get this out of the way: The better the players are, the better football is.

Watch the old NFL championship games available on YouTube for just 30 seconds, and you’ll see why. The game was slow. When plays broke down, they really broke down; the quarterback would fall down or a pass would flop into the turf without any clear intended target. It was like everyone in the entire league was a part of one big Jets quarterback competition. In 1977, teams completed 13 passes per game; today, that number has nearly doubled.

However, when everyone is good compared to the past, it’s hard to know who’s currently great.

On Saturday, Kurt Warner and LaDainian Tomlinson will enter the Hall of Fame as players who built the bulk of their Hall case this century. There isn’t much debate about their merits as Hall of Famers, and there shouldn’t be: Tomlinson rewrote legitimate records and Kurt Warner took two moribund franchises and turned them into offensive dynamos and Super Bowl contenders. There are other sure-fire locks: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, for instance, made their name in this era, too. There’s also Ray Lewis and Randy Moss. Then comes that hard part: everyone else.

Efficiency is bad for the type of history usually employed to judge football players. Granted, counting stats are not the best way, either—there are dozens of ways that better measure player value—but records are just … fun. And they are probably going to get progressively less fun. At the moment, there are 10 players who average more yards per game than Jerry Rice, who’s universally considered the greatest receiver of all time. Mike Evans and Demaryius Thomas are top-level players, while Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Odell Beckham Jr. are even better. Yet while none of them scratch Rice’s dominance, the record books will eventually tell you otherwise.

For quarterbacks, the situation is even starker. On a per-game basis, Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck are on track to break Peyton Manning’s all-time-yardage record. Hell, Manning averaged just seven more yards per game than Kirk Cousins has. Eli Manning is eighth all time in passing yards, but he averages fewer yards per game than Blake Bortles and virtually the same as Ryan Tannehill. Jeff George led the NFL in passing yards 20 years ago; in 2016, 14 passers threw for more yards than George did that year. Joe Flacco is among them.

Meanwhile, the sack rate and the interception rate were both at all-time NFL lows last season. Passing has become so present and so productive that everything is either rising or falling in the wake of its increased prominence. None of this is the fault of defenses exactly: Quarterbacks are not necessarily better than ever, but this generation of passers does get rid of the ball quicker than their predecessors, which enables them to neutralize good pass rushers. They are also more likely to throw short and over the middle, two things that help avoid turnovers.

This doesn’t mean that every wide receiver and every quarterback is headed to the Hall of Fame while defensive backs and pass rushers will get totally shut out—but the balance is still likely to shift.

Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders has been trying to predict Hall of Fame classes since 2009. Contrary to popular opinion, he doesn’t think there are many deserving eligible players who aren’t currently in the Hall. However, he expects the lopsided nature of the league’s current statistical profile to unfairly favor quarterbacks and penalize defensive backs.

“Quarterbacks get rid of the ball so quickly. There’s so much dink and dunk and in garbage time now, and no one wants to throw picks,” Kacsmar said. “There won’t be many guys who get 45-50 career interceptions. It’s a big concern.”

Rick Gosselin, longtime NFL columnist and Hall of Fame voter, said every other position on defense will take a back seat to pass rusher, where some dominance can still at least still be quantified. “Everything is inflated and it’s doing to be difficult to figure out if it’s the ability of the player or the style being played,” Gosselin said.

Most of all, he’s worried about how the receiver’s value is being distorted by pass-happy offenses.

“It’s now going to be very tough to judge: Do I put Reggie Wayne with Lance Alworth? You bring up Drew Pearson, and he’s got 489 career catches. You bring him up in the [Hall of Fame voting] room and people are saying, ‘You’ve got Terrell Owens not in.’ You’ve got 1,000-catch guys--Isaac Bruce isn’t in, Hines Ward we haven’t even discussed as a finalist. It’s fantasy football. Everyone’s got stats.”

There’s been plenty of analysis of the explosion of offensive stats. In addition to the modern quarterback’s devotion to efficiency, today’s receivers are more sure-handed. Crackdowns on gray-area defensive penalties like illegal contact have also sent defenses into a more passive state. Everything is stacked against everyone outside of two positions.

For now, we sit back and watch the records fall. Drew Brees is about 6,000 yards short of Peyton Manning's all-time passing record, and as long as he plays two more full seasons, he’ll break it. He’s a worthy heir to the throne--a superstar passer who took advantage of the rules to throw for once-unthinkable amounts of yardage. There are nine 5,000-yard seasons in NFL history, and Brees threw five of them. Brees will set the record, and then the only question is whether it will stand for more than five minutes.