Every so often, a good player will appear on your television and one of the hired gums will say, "Now, there's a surefire, first-ballot Hall of Famer ..."
And you think to yourself, "Really? Surefire? No debate warranted or welcomed?"
And damned if you aren't right more often than not. You ruminate on it and you realize, the guy isn't a surefire Hall of Famer. He might be a Hall of Famer. But he isn't cutting the line and getting whisked in by the doorman.
Which brings us to a fascinating subplot in this weekend's NFC Championship game. Both Donovan McNabb and Kurt Warner are the kind of players announcers might label, "surefire first-ballot" guys. They are not. Their candidacies for Canton are very much in doubt. This weekend will mean a lot to their legacies.
In an informal poll of a dozen Pro Football Hall of Fame voters and one respected coach, I asked the question: "Knee-jerk reaction ... McNabb and Warner, Hall of Famers?"
On McNabb, five said "no." I also got two "not yet," a "maybe," and a "probably."
Warner's tally: three "yes," two "yes if he gets to a third Super Bowl," two "maybe" and two "no."
Again, these are knee-jerk responses submitted, as one voter said, "without research." The cases for each player will be more intensely discussed when they retire and again when they come up for induction five years after that. As one voter pointed out, aspects like leadership, impact to his team's overall success and how long they played at levels of brilliance will be discussed.
In McNabb's case, he's a surefire candidate for what NBC and Sports Illustrated analyst Peter King has called in the past the "Hall of Very Good."
That this will be his fifth NFC Championship appearance in eight seasons is testament to his talent and the consistently high level the Eagles have played at this decade. But the fact that Philadelphia is 1-3 in conference championship games under McNabb doesn't help him.
Nor does the fact that, in his one Super Bowl appearance against the Patriots in 2004, he played unevenly (30-of-51 for 357 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions including one in the red zone). The final six minutes of that game are an albatross for McNabb. Even though the drive ended with a touchdown that narrowed the final score to 24-21, the Eagles played with little urgency and teammates later said that McNabb was so out of it in the huddle, wide receiver Freddie Mitchell had to make a play call for him.
In the realm of individual honors, McNabb has never been the NFL MVP. He has been to five Pro Bowls, however, and has been one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks for most of the decade. He's thrown 194 regular-season touchdowns and 90 picks.
One player that came to mind when considering McNabb was Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, a 2002 inductee. He never won a Super Bowl. He went to four Pro Bowls. He threw 237 touchdowns and 175 picks over his career. McNabb compares favorably.
But Kelly made it to the Super Bowl four straight times, and winning four consecutive conference championships as opposed to going 1-3 (so far) is a huge trump card. Even if Kelly was terrible in three of those four Super Bowls.
Then there's Warner. While he hasn't had the sustained, continuous effectiveness McNabb has, he was - undeniably - the best player in the league in two different seasons. He was NFL MVP twice (1999 and 2001). He's a two-time All-Pro and a three-time Pro Bowler. And while he's 1-1 in Super Bowls, the Super Bowl he lost (XXXVI to New England), he engineered a game-tying comeback with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The blemish to his career is that it's got a whiff of Dale Murphy to it. Like Murphy, the Braves outfielder that won back-to-back National League MVPs, Warner's career hit a zenith then tapered. Since 2002, Warner's record as a starter is 22-36. He's thrown 84 touchdowns and 51 interceptions (30 and 14 this year).
King was asked about the candidacies of both men. He understands the exercise of handicapping such things but has grown to feel it's kind of an exercise in futility.
"I changed my opinion over the years about projecting while a career is going on," says King. "There are so many things we can't know yet. For Warner, it will be very important if he leads a second team to a Super Bowl. That would be an incredibly strong mark in his favor as going down in history.
"But the other quarterback to have taken two different teams to the Super Bowl is Craig Morton - not exactly an all-timer," King points out.
"Donovan is younger than Peyton Manning," King notes. "He might have six more years. To say he's in if he wins this weekend and gets to another Super Bowl after being in his fifth conference championship is premature. There's a good chance we won't be sitting in judgment of Donovan McNabb for 12 years. In 2021, how will I feel about the length and breadth of Donovan McNabb's career? Both men have things yet to do and legacies yet to be written."
Still, when it comes to specific chapters in those legacies, there's no doubt that pen will hit paper on Sunday.
- Tom E. Curran, NBCSports.com