First in a series on NFC North players whose career trajectory puts them on a path to consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Every summer, the Pro Football Hall of Fame welcomes a new class of elite achievers behind its sacred walls. Some were destined for the honor from the moment they entered the NFL. Others blossomed later in their careers, and a few benefited from adjusted judgments over time.
No matter the parameters, I want to use this slow(er) time of the year to consider the nascent candidacies of our most prominent NFC North players. We could easily generate a list of a half-dozen or so players who deserve inclusion in this discussion. I have some thoughts, but your nominations are welcome (via the mailbag.) We'll start, however, with a player who has opened his career with a performance that rivals any put forth by the most recent inductees at his position.
In his first three years as a starter, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has played at a Hall of Fame pace. He is nowhere close to achieving the career milestones that would qualify him for enshrinement, but that is a function of time and not performance.
In researching this topic, I isolated Rodgers' combined production during the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons. I then compared it to the first three full-time seasons of the past seven quarterbacks to enter the Hall of Fame. (Pro-football-reference.com has an excellent database for this kind of exercise.)
Rodgers started 47 of a possible 48 games over this period, more than every Hall of Famer we compared him to. That alone gave him the opportunity for better raw production. It's also fair to point out that Rodgers spent the first three seasons of his career in development on the sideline, a luxury none of the other quarterbacks received. But no matter how you look at it, Rodgers threw for more yards in his first three seasons as a starter than any of the past seven quarterbacks who have been enshrined.
Also consider that Rodgers threw for more touchdowns than all but Dan Marino, had a better completion percentage and passer rating than all but Steve Young, and tied Young for the fewest number of interceptions. Rodgers and Joe Montana were the only quarterbacks in this group to win a Super Bowl during one of his first three years as a starter.
In some cases, it was difficult to find perfect apples-to-apples comparisons. I skipped Young's tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and in the USFL, instead using the first three seasons after he replaced Montana as the San Francisco 49ers' starter. Young was 30 years old at the time and seven years removed from his entrance into pro football. I also skipped Montana's mostly inactive first season with the 49ers, but his sample size was still limited to 32 starts because of the 1982 NFL players strike.
Many of you will rightfully note the NFL's recent shift toward passing offenses and suggest that Rodgers' raw production is in part a product of his era. Fair point. To address it, I looked at three contemporaries whose advanced careers make them near-locks for election. In the second chart, you'll see how Rodgers' first three years stack up against the same span for Brett Favre, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. As you can see, the start of Rodgers' career compares favorably to each player:
Let's be clear here. Just about every quarterback on this list improved in a substantive way over the course of his career. The rest maintained an extraordinary level of consistency over a decade or more. Rodgers already has the highest passer rating in the history of the NFL for quarterbacks with at least 1,000 attempts. It's unreasonable to expect a significant surge in his raw numbers, and so a comparison after six years might look a little different.
While we're mentioning caveats, it's only fair to point out that some of the other quarterbacks -- especially Troy Aikman, John Elway and Peyton Manning -- opened their careers on struggling and/or rebuilding teams. Rodgers, on the other hand, took over a team that had advanced to the NFC Championship Game the season before.
These permutations shouldn't detract from what Rodgers has done, however. His early career deserves to be placed among those who ultimately proved to be among the best ever. Whether he continues on to Canton will be a function of his health and continued elite play for perhaps another five to seven years. That isn't an afterthought. Put another way, Rodgers probably needs to put together two more three-year stretches like the one he has just finished to put himself in strong position for the Hall of Fame.
Of all the careers I looked at, Young's might provide the best parallel. Like Rodgers, Young got a later start. In essence, Young put together seven elite seasons as the 49ers starter, playing until he was 38 to get to that point. He was on three Super Bowl championship teams but the starter on just one.
Obviously, there are differences between Young's history and Rodgers. But we know this: Rodgers has put himself on the path to Canton, and if you want to see how he can complete that journey, take a look at Young's history.
We'll continue taking a look at other NFC North players in a similar position as the summer continues.
The floor is yours.