An odd little debate recently erupted in the football world on the matter of whether the late Pat Tillman should be inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame. I most definitely do not want to besmirch Tillman's memory, and do not believe I am doing so, when I say I don't even see how this even is a debate. Election to the Hall of Fame is for the game's greatest players and nobody considered Tillman to be on that level when he left the game for the military. Nor is anybody arguing (I don't think) that Tillman would have become one of the all-time greats had he lived. So that settles it. Past Interference certainly does hope everybody long remembers Tillman's patriotism and sacrifice. Without question he deserved whatever military honors the military posthumously bestowed upon him. But the NFL doesn't give out those military honors, the U.S. goverment does. Sure I understand the thinking behind wanting to induct Pat Tillman; it would be a thank you and a show of respect for the man's service and sacrifice. But Tillman is not alone in deserving the respect of the NFL and its fans. Well over 1000 NFL players have served in the military at one time or another and, including Tillman, 26 of those men made the ultimate sacrifice. If Tillman is to be honored it would only be right to also honor the other 25 who fell. And maybe the league should indeed do something to commemorate all of them but it should be something other than induction to the Hall of Fame.
Past Interference does have a suggestion for the Hall of Fame though. If you're looking for a Hall of Famer there is somebody out there who both served his country with distinction in wartime and also played some brilliant football, somebody who despite all that has for some reason been kind of forgotten. (It was really hard finding out anything about this man beyond the basic historical details). When you're arguably the greatest quarterback in your longtime franchise's history you ought to be better remembered. There's only a few candidates for the title of "Greatest Quarterback in Philadelphia Eagles History" but if your number one criteria is winning then the title has to go to Tommy Thompson.
From 1947-1949, Thompson led the Eagles to three consecutive NFL championship game appearances and back-to-back titles. Including Thompson only 12 QB's have ever won back-to-back titles and they're ALL in the Hall of Fame...except for Thompson (and Tom Brady who will be inducted as soon as he's eligible) (see List 1 below). And, including Thompson, only 8 QB's have ever led their team to three or more consecutive title game appearances and they're ALL in the Hall of Fame...except for Thompson (see List 2). And, including Thompson, only 6 men have accomplished both of the above feats and they're ALL in the Hall of Fame...except for Thompson (see List 3). It can't be said those Eagles teams carried Thompson to the title game--he led the league in passer rating in '48 and '49 and was second in '47. Nor can it be said those were the only three good years of his career. Thompson ranked third in passer rating in 1941 and 1942.
Thompson's career passing numbers look like nothing special today of course. Drew Brees' total passing yardage for the past three seasons alone blow away Thompson's career passing yards. But you have to judge a player by what he does in his own era and Thompson was one of he best QB's of the 1940's. His numbers don't approach those of his Hall of Fame contemporaries Baugh and Luckman, but they're certainly comparable to another HOF contemporary, Bob Waterfield. Waterfield has a small advantage in yards and touchdowns but Thompson's career passer rating is a good five points higher. Both men quarterbacked their teams to two titles and while Waterfield made it to one more title game than Thompson, Thompson has the better postseason winning percentage. Thompson may not have been as versatile a player as Waterfield (who kicked and punted), and Thompson may not have shagged any movie stars, but he didn't share quarterbacking duties in any of his championship years either (like Waterfield did with Norm Van Brocklin).
The reason Thompson's passing numbers aren't bigger than Waterfield's has nothing to do with Thompson's play on the field. World War II was to blame. Thompson missed both the 1943 and 1944 seasons serving in the United States Army. And while fighting overseas he "received the Purple Heart when he was wounded while landing with the second wave at Normandy." He returned to the NFL in 1945 but played very little as the Eagles stayed with the guy holding down the fort in Thompson's absence, Roy Zimmerman. Thompson got his job back in '46 but only part-time; he played well but had to split time with Zimmerman. When the Eagles traded Zimmerman after the season and gave the full-time gig back to Thompson he rewarded them by leading the Eagles to what remains their greatest period of dominance in franchise history.
Had Thompson's career not been uninterrupted by military service, his career passing numbers would have far surpassed Waterfield's and there was also a good chance he would have thrown for more career yards than another Hall of Fame contemporary: Sid Luckman. If that had happened, then Thompson would almost surely have been elected to the Hall of Fame. And I submit to you that if Thompson would be in the Hall of Fame but for his military service, then he should be in the Hall of Fame regardless. He didn't play himself out of a job. He didn't get injured on the field. No, the man fought Nazis in combat. He got wounded at Normandy for crying out loud! He absolutely has to get credit for the yards he would have thrown for in those three years of football he lost in serving his country. And if you give him that richly deserved credit then he's a Hall of Famer. So vote him in already Veteran's Committee. Do the right thing.
1) Back-to-back Titles: Luckman, Thompson, Layne, Graham, Unitas, Starr, Griese, Bradshaw, Montana, Aikman, Elway, Brady
2) Three-or-more conecutive title game appearances: Luckman, Thompson, Layne, Graham, Starr, Tittle, Griese, Kelly
3) Both of the above: Luckman, Thompson, Layne, Graham, Starr, Griese