It’s an odd position for former athletes to be in, to say, “Don’t hold it against him, because of me.” Anderson’s former teammates, though, are stepping up in an attempt to get him his due. “He tried his best to elevate his teammates. We just couldn’t answer his call,” said Bob Trumpy, former tight end and announcer. Others like Cris Collinsworth, Anthony Munoz, Isaac Curtis, Boomer Esiason, and Pete Johnson have stepped up to voice their support.
But what of those teammates? Here is a quick comparison of Ken Anderson’s career versus every current Hall of Famer that started at least eight seasons since the merger. It shows the average number of other offensive pro bowlers on the roster each year, and then the league-adjusted passer rating score for that quarterback’s career. (those league adjusted numbers are on a scale where 100 is league average, and a higher number is better).
Anderson played with fewer pro bowlers per year than any of them, but still was in the middle of the Hall of Fame group in career passing efficiency. The other twelve averaged 2.4 offensive pro bowl teammates for their career, exactly double Anderson.
I was able to talk to Ken Anderson about the current push by a variety of people to get him recognized by the Hall of Fame, his career, and his teammates. As advertised, he was as humble and friendly as rumored. “I never as a player sought the limelight,” Anderson said. “It’s flattering that people have taken an interest and worked very hard at it, but it almost makes me feel a little uncomfortable.”
Listening to Anderson, you are convinced that he had it as good as anyone, and he firmly believes that. “I have tremendous pride in my teammates, these guys were very good players in their own right, and we had success when we were together, players like the Trumpy’s in the early stages, like the Collinsworth’s in the later stages,” Anderson said. “What’s been nice, I’ve had a chance to be around them more frequently, not only were they good players, but great friends.”
Anderson had glowing things to say about the best left tackle of all-time, Anthony Munoz, of course. He also described Bob Trumpy as a prototype tight end like Rob Gronkowski or Tony Gonzalez today, with great size, who could run or be split out at wide receiver. He described wide receiver Isaac Curtis as Jerry Rice before there was Jerry Rice (“Isaac Curtis is as good a wide receiver as I’ve ever seen. You give me a choice of a lot of guys and I’m going to take Isaac every time”) before Curtis hurt a knee and was never quite the same. Of the duo of Isaac Curtis and Charlie Joiner, who played together for three years from 1973 to 1975, Anderson asked, “Were there two better than Isaac Curtis and Charlie Joiner on the same the field at the same time? I don’t think so.”
Lest you think those accolades are completely off base, Trumpy was 6’5″, and was a pro bowler in each of his first three years, and an all-pro just like Gronkowski in his second year in the league, recording multiple 80 yard touchdowns early in his career. All Isaac Curtis did in his first three years with Anderson at quarterback was lead the league in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Anderson would not trade his situation for any others. Yes, just like all quarterbacks, he did better when there were more elite teammates. His numbers dipped in the late 70’s when it was just Isaac Curtis, compared to before with Curtis/Joiner/Trumpy or later with Curtis/Collinsworth/Ross. We talked about yards per attempt and how the line has more influence on that, and he rattled off the names of his linemen in 1981 -Anthony Munoz, Max Montoya, Blair Bush, Mike Wilson and Dave Lapham – and said “it’s amazing that all of a sudden when the offensive line got good, I got good again.”
That’s not unusual, guys like Elway and Aikman were a lot better when they had Hall of Fame teammates. Steve Young looked a lot different in Tampa Bay than in San Francisco. Still, this is not a hypothetical case for Ken Anderson, and he doesn’t need his teammates to fall on the sword to justify his inclusion; his career was good enough for the Hall of Fame even if we don’t give him any advanced credit for playing with fewer pro bowlers. Compared to the other twelve on that list, Anderson was better than nine of them at league-adjusted interception rate, seven of them in both completion percentage and rushing yards per year, six of them in yards per attempt, and two of them in touchdown rate. Those are compared to the members of the Hall of Fame, not some run of the mill quarterbacks.
How did we get to an odd situation where a quarterback, the position most prominently scrutinized, is so underrated in this instance? It’s kind of like pitching in baseball, and I suppose Anderson is the Bert Blyleven of Pro Football’s Hall of Fame consideration. Like Blyleven, a combination of an analytical view of the past coupled with increasing popular support should result in his election soon.
Every time I look at historical passing numbers, Anderson figures prominently and continually serves as a reminder that narrative can sometimes be wrong. For example, one of my colleagues at Pro Football Reference, Neil Paine, whipped up a measure of best seasons by reverse-engineering Football Outsiders’ “Yards Above Replacement” to old individual box scores, and then ranking quarterbacks by their six best seasons.
No. 1 on the list? Kenneth Allan Anderson, just ahead of Johnny Unitas. While you may think that is crazy, I think it should also cause you to re-evaluate Ken Anderson. The interesting thing is this: Ken Anderson was selected as league MVP once, in 1981, the year that Cincinnati went to the Super Bowl. That actually shows up as his fourth highest-rated season. Don’t worry, though, Anderson would take his 1981 season over any other as well.
The problem is that Anderson was vastly under appreciated and should have won multiple MVP awards. 1982 was third on the list, when Anderson set the completion percentage record only recently surpassed by Drew Brees. In the ultimate Rodney Dangerfield moment, a kicker was selected MVP in the strike-shortened season. Dan Fouts probably should have been the MVP, and Anderson was right there as well, but a kicker? One of the most bizarre decisions in the history of sports awards.
Ahead of those two seasons, though, were two earlier ones in 1974 and 1975 where Anderson was snubbed by being selected for only one pro bowl, and in not winning a clear MVP award. If the veteran’s committee wants to give an honest look at Anderson’s career, they need to re-assess that 1975 season. For seasons since 1960, it ranks only behind Bert Jones in 1976, Dan Marino in 1984, Peyton Manning in 2004, Tom Brady in 2007, Ken Stabler in 1976, and Dan Fouts in 1982. All of those others were selected as MVP except Stabler (and he was correctly behind Jones that year).
It seems pretty clear to me that the voters got it emphatically wrong in 1975–especially when we consider production versus quality of teammates–and they probably went with reputation and the raw touchdown numbers. If they had not, Anderson is not still waiting on Canton.
It wasn’t that people that saw him didn’t notice. In 1975, in primetime on Monday Night Football, he lit up O.J. Simpson’s Bills to the tune of 447 passing yards and 34 offensive first downs. The year before, Anderson also averaged over 8.0 yards per attempt, but didn’t make the pro bowl. He had slightly better passing numbers than the MVP that year, Stabler, while also having 300 more rushing yards. He played a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ ferocious defense–against the team that would go on to win the Super Bowl–and went 20 for 22 for 227 yards and also made the game saving tackle after a late fumble by a teammate to preserve the win.
Here’s what Dave Fink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote after that game, and it is a testament to both great sports writing and the greatness of Anderson that has somehow been ignored over the years:
"If he were an escape artist, you could compare him to Houdini. If he were a hypnotist, you could compare him to Svengali. If he were a detective, you could compare him to Sherlock Holmes. But, all Ken Anderson is, was, or ever will be is a quarterback, and comparisons in the league are at best risky and even more subjective than grading a college English theme. Let it be said that the in the dank and dark that pervaded Riverfront Stadium, he was closer to perfection than any quarterback, you me or Amos Alonzo Stagg ever laid eyes upon."
Paul Brown, one of the legends of this game, told others after he first saw Anderson, “He’s our whole future. He’s out there throwing the football right now. Go out there, and see for yourself.” Bill Walsh, who developed the incorrectly named West Coast offense in Cincinnati, and later used practice videos of Anderson’s technique to teach all of his future quarterbacks, said that “Kenny was perfect, the way I see it. Before it’s over, Kenny will be on top.”
I asked Anderson what it would mean if the veteran’s committee selected him as one of its two candidates in a month. “It would be a tremendous honor,” he said. “When you start off as a kid, at least when I was a kid, and you go to Augustana College, something like this never crossed your mind. I guess, at this point in my life, you don’t get too wrapped up in it because it hasn’t happened. If it doesn’t happen, I’m still satisfied with what I think was a pretty good career.”
I agree, but think he will get in the Hall of Fame. Those of us promoting his cause are not trying to re-write history, but rather honor it by putting fresh eyes on a deserving player.
[photo via US Presswire]