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Winning Is What Counts: Ken Stabler is an Interesting Comparison for Joe Flacco

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Ken Stabler recently passed away at the age of 69. While I knew virtually nothing about him before his death, I have read about him recently and thought Stabler and his Hall candidacy provided an interesting thought provoking topic. Peter King wrote about him in his Monday Morning Quarterback column this week.

While his career statistics are not all as impressive as others of his era like Joe Namath, he was a winner- like Ravens Quarterback Joe Flacco. With a career .662 winning pct, including .723 in his 7 years starting in Oakland. There are some curious similarities with Flacco. After serving as a backup QB his first 3 years in the league, Stabler became a starter in 1973. From 1973 until 1977, he made the playoffs every year and won a game, including a run for a Lombardi in 1976. That is where the similarities end though. Stabler won games the next few years, although his stats slipped steadily each year, and eventually he stopped winning games too.

Off the field, Stabler was the anti-Flacco. Here is a story from the above MMQB article which gives a picture into him:

I think of all the stories about Stabler I read over the weekend, this tale by John McClain about Stabler’s 1980 season in Houston was most stunning:

"In November, the Oilers went to New York to play the Jets at Shea Stadium. Stabler partied into the wee hours, blowing curfew and infuriating his coaches. Early Sunday morning, Stabler’s teammates saw him struggling to get out of a cab about the time they were preparing for the pregame meal. Hung over from his night on the town, Stabler was awful in the first half, throwing four interceptions—one returned for a touchdown—and the Oilers trailed 21-0 at halftime.

"In the dressing room at halftime, coach Bum Phillips was addressing his players, and some could hear Stabler throwing up in a bathroom area. Finally, Stabler emerged, sobered up and wiping his face with a towel. He told his teammates he was ready to go. Stabler threw four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, including one to Richard Caster to make it 28-28. The Oilers lost 31-28 in overtime, but there was another story for the Stabler legend. I once asked Stabler why it took so long for him to play after being drafted in the second round in 1968. He told me he’d been on the taxi squad, played in the Continental League, and lived in a hippie commune for his first two years."

Back to Stabler on the field, here are a few excerpts from the article about his hall of fame candidacy:

Argument: Nobody personified the Raiders more than the wild Stabler, and he led a great franchise to some of its greatest moments.

No question about it. He led the Raiders to the Super Bowl win in the 1976 season and had some great games when the stakes were highest. So shouldn’t the rollicking quarterback of this rebel football team be in the Hall? From 1973, when he took over the starting job, Stabler quarterbacked the Raiders to a 50-11-1 regular-season record over five years. That five-year stretch is easily his biggest argument for enshrinement, and if he ever gets in, I’d point to that and say, "You’ve got to be pretty good to win 50 out of 62."

Argument: If Joe Namath is in, Stabler should be in.

Here’s where stats get screwy and, to me, unimportant. Namath was a more prolific passer (197.6 passing yards per game, to Stabler’s 151.8) but not the winner Stabler was. (Namath: 62-63-4; Stabler: 96-49-1.) Each won one Super Bowl. But I’ve always thought Namath should be in because of his importance in football history

Both of those are similar to arguments we make every day about Flacco.

Here are some excerpts from letters in King's mailbag column in response to the Stabler piece:

STABLER ROSE TO THE OCCASION. Stabler wasn’t a statistics compiler but a man of moments, whose great plays transcended the mundane. He is the Lynn Swann of quarterbacks. And he did indeed call his own plays and proved himself a chess player on the field. He was the king of the comeback and made so many memorable plays in critical moments. The Raiders had an excellent running game and defense, but they rode him to victory always.

STABLER HAD GREAT STATS. I think by far the strongest Hall of Fame argument for Ken Stabler is his career winning percentage of 66 percent over an 11-year career as a starter. Stabler has the sixth-highest winning percentage in history. The five people above him are named Brady, Staubach, Manning, Montana and Bradshaw. The five QBs ranked right below him on this list are named Young, Unitas, Elway, Kelly and Favre. Clearly this list includes the greatest QBs of all time, and for Stabler to be right in the middle of this list puts him in the elite category and qualifies him for the Hall of Fame. He did not win all of those games by handing off to a great running back (Griese) or having a great defense behind him (Bradshaw). He is also one of the few (only?) quarterbacks to have winning records against the Steel Curtain, which was without question the greatest defense of all time over an extended period.

STABLER WAS AN ARTISTE. Looking at Kenny Stabler’s numbers and statistics is akin to looking at the Mona Lisa and judging it by the Pantone color charts that make up the masterpiece. He was a successful, dynamic quarterback who led his teams to victories. He was a clutch player who delivered time and time again when the game was on the line. He was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

All these are things that could also be said about Joe Flacco. The one thing Joe has done that Stabler was unable to do was win on the road in the playoffs. Stabler was 7-5 in the playoffs those first 5 years as a starter, but he was 1-3 on the road.

Stabler may not be in the Hall as of today, but I fully expect Flacco to be there when he hangs them up. R.I.P. Ken Stabler. Winning is what counts, and you did it the right way.