Just winning a Super Bowl guarantees nothing — Charles Haley and his five rings are on the outside looking in, as is Fuzzy Thurston, winner of six NFL titles. The borderline cases are the ones most helped or hurt by that Lombardi Trophy (or lack thereof) on the resume, and that class of players seems to be among the largest growing segment each year. So today, I’m going to take a look at how winning the Super Bowl could impact the legacies of certain Ravens.
Ray Lewis is a first ballot Hall of Famer regardless of what happens in Super Bowl XLVII, although his status as the game’s best inside linebacker of all-time might be boosted with a second Lombardi. The Ravens have been on a magical “Ride with Ray” and he’s been the face of a defense that’s turned from average in the regular season to excellent in the playoffs.
Ed Reed is another obvious Hall of Famer, even though unlike Lewis he was not a member of the 2000 Ravens teams that won the Super Bowl. Still, considering Troy Polamalu has appeared in three and won two of these games, Reed’s resume will look slightly less glamorous if he never is able to win a Super Bowl. And while it isn’t particularly relevant here, but I’ll just note that from 2005 to 2007, Bob Sanders made them a “Big Three” at the position, when Sanders won both a Super Bowl and a Defensive Player of the Year award. All three have battled injuries, showing just how dangerous the safety position can be in the NFL.
Terrell Suggs feels like a future Hall of Famer, but pass rushers notoriously struggle to gain induction. A Super Bowl would certainly help his case, particularly if coupled with a sack or two. How hard is it for 3-4 outside linebackers? Kevin Greene is third all-time in official sacks but he’s yet to gain the vote. It took Rickey Jackson nine years to be inducted. If he doesn’t win a Super Bowl, could Suggs be remembered as this generation’s version of Leslie O’Neal? Suggs has that John Randle-esque mystique about him, which helps, but keep in mind: he’s only been named a first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press once in his career. A big game in Super Bowl XLVII may not be necessary, but it would stack the deck in his favor.
Haloti Ngata is an elite player who is just 28 years old. It probably helps him that many still think that he plays nose tackle, even though he’s lined up at end most of the time over the last couple of years.1 Ngata has made four straight Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro choice by the Associated Press in 2010 and 2011, but if the Ravens defense struggles after Lewis (and maybe Reed), Ngata could end up playing the last six or seven years of his career as a rarely mentioned and largely anonymous linemen on nondescript defenses. Ngata had a down year this season, although few noticed, and injuries could start to derail his career. As an interior lineman, it would certainly make his presenter’s case easier if he could point to “the ring.” The 3-4 defense simply hasn’t been around long enough to get a sense of how Ngata will be viewed: Curley Culp, the original star NT, is a senior’s nominee this year. Defensive tackle (or 3-4 end) is just a hard position to gain the needed notoriety to make the Hall: John Randle and Cortez Kennedy had great sack numbers but were different players than Ngata, while Randy White, Joe Greene, and Alan Page are in that inner circle in the Hall. If Ngata wins the Super Bowl, perhaps he will make it via the Dan Hampton route as a great player on an elite defense filled with great players.
Matt Birk is a six-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl ring would differentiate him from another Vikings center with six Pro Bowls who hasn’t cracked Canton. Losing out to Kevin Mawae and Olin Kreutz on the NFL All-Decade team of the 2000s will hurt, as will the failure to be selected even once by the AP as the first-team center. He’s retiring after the game, and while his odds are low, they’re close to zero if the Ravens lose on Sunday.
It probably strikes you as silly to discuss Joe Flacco as a Hall of Fame candidate, but you can’t ignore the fact that winning the Super Bowl does wonders for a quarterback’s candidacy. There are 30 quarterbacks who have won a Super Bowl:2 Twenty-one of those quarterbacks have been retired for at least five years or have no chance at the Hall (Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson), and 11 of them are in the Hall of Fame. On the other hand, of the 13 quarterbacks with just one Super Bowl, only four — Johnny Unitas, Steve Young, Len Dawson, and Joe Namath — are in the Hall. Namath and Len Dawson may not be Hall of Famers without that Super Bowl (ignoring whether or not they would have deserved to be), and it’s even possible that Young would have had to face an uphill battle (as he would be remembered as the ultimate choker).
But think of a counterfactual history of the NFL: Ken Anderson would be a shoe-in for the Hall with a Super Bowl ring, and my guess is Boomer Esiason and Daryle Lamonica (their numbers are better than you think) would have had excellent chances had their teams won Super Bowls XXIII and II, respectively. Among non-eligible players, Kurt Warner would stand on shakier ground had the Rams lost to the Titans, while Donovan McNabb would be in much better shape had he managed to win a Super Bowl. For Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees, the Super Bowl rings won’t matter, but for Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and (at least, for now) Aaron Rodgers, the ring is a big bullet on the resume.
It’s worth remembering that it’s far too early to write the book on Joe Flacco’s career. The table below shows Flacco, the nine quarterbacks that entered the league after the AFL-NFL merger and the eight quarterbacks with rings that are either active or have retired in the last three years. The table below shows how many games they had started after 5 years, their passing stats through five years, and their career NY/A and ANY/A averages after year five. The final two columns show their NY/A and ANY/A relative to league average.
After year five, Aaron Rodgers had only been a starter for two years, Steve Young had only started 9 games for the 49ers, and Dan Fouts had barely begun building his Hall of Fame career. Terry Bradshaw won his first Super Bowl in year five, and had been a worse quarterback than Flacco up to that point in his career. Eli Manning and Flacco have had similar starts to their careers, too. Meanwhile, Warren Moon, John Elway,3 Troy Aikman, and Drew Brees weren’t playing at Hall of Fame levels at this stage of their careers, either.
Flacco has a long way to go towards building a Hall of Fame career, and even winning on Sunday won’t separate him from players like Mark Rypien, Jim McMahon, Doug Williams, Joe Theismann, and Phil Simms. But it’s worth remembering that Flacco is still pretty young, and who knows what winning the Super Bowl could do for him.
Ray Rice has a long way to go before he can be considered a Hall of Famer, but a Super Bowl ring would perhaps change the perception of him. It’s only going to get harder for running backs to make it into the Hall of Fame now that we seem to be exiting the era of the workhorse back. Still, Rice has at least a chance of being remembered as the second best running back of his generation. He’s not Adrian Peterson, but a Super Bowl ring would help separate him from Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles, and Arian Foster, among others. On the other hand, running backs aren’t really blamed for failing to win a Super Bowl or credited for winning one, although I’d argue that Jerome Bettis is the type of borderline case that is fortunate to have won a Lombardi trophy.
Torrey Smith is too young to legitimately consider, but Anquan Boldin is at least worth mentioning. If he managed to win the Super Bowl MVP, he might have a Hines Ward-esque case as one of the top possession receivers in the NFL for a decade. Boldin’s had a fascinating career. He started off as a star on a terrible team and he’s produced fantastic numbers in losing efforts. Two years ago, Boldin ranked #1 in career receptions per game, and he still ranks 4th in that metric after the 2012 season. He’s also 11th in career receiving yards per game. At 32, it doesn’t feel like Boldin has much left, making a big Super Bowl even more important for him. He’s only 37th in career receiving yards (and 75th in career touchdown catches), and has only made three Pro Bowls (with no All-Pro selections). But Boldin remains a very long-shot at this point — even if he’s now part of an obscure trivia question — especially considering the current backlog at the position. His best chance would be a monster (and memorable) effort on Sunday against the 49ers.
After five years, it’s probably too early to really grade a coach, but John Harbaugh has had an outstanding start to his career. He’s been incredible in the playoffs, bolstering an otherwise strong resume. Including the playoffs, the Ravens have 62 wins since 2008, the second most in the league, and they would tie New England with a win on Sunday. Baltimore has won 54 regular season games over the last five years, placing them third behind the Patriots and Falcons. He ranks 20th in career winning percentage by a coach in his first five seasons. Harbaugh would be essentially where Mike Tomlin was this time last year, minus one AFC Championship.
- Update: According to Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus, Ngata has spent the following percentage of his snaps playing at end/tackle: 21%/76% (2008); 13%/85% (2009), 39%/60% (2010), 40%/58% (2011), and 72%/27% (2012). [↩]
- Obviously most teams roster two or three quarterbacks, so many more quarterbacks have “won” a Super Bowl. But I limited this to the one quarterback for each team that won the actual Super Bowl. With the exception of the 1970 Colts — where both Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall deserve credit (and since Morrall arguably gets screwed in ’72 by this method, I’m not inclined to screw him again) — I only chose one quarterback for each team. [↩]
- Elway probably shouldn’t be included in this group, but I’ll save my Elway profile for the off-season. [↩]