June 25, 2000
Moon Over Canton? By Ric Sweeney
When you think of the great ones, they no doubt conjure specific, frozen in time, chills up the back of your neck moments: Joe Montana’s game-winning touchdown toss to Dwight Clark; John Elway’s 98-yard drive in hostile Cleveland Stadium; Earl Campbell outrunning the Miami defense 81 yards to put a final stake in the Dolphins’ heart, and to earn a permanent spot in ours…
Now try to come up with one for Warren Moon. I’ll give you a second…
That lack of a moment is what separates Moon from the great ones. Think about it: Moon won more than Campbell, boasts gaudier stats than Campbell and stayed with the Oilers longer. Yet Campbell, not Moon, is the most beloved player in team history.
It seems, despite his many successes, that failure, perceived or otherwise, is what defined Warren Moon. Not the stuff of legends, but is it even a fair assessment?
Moon came to the NFL, via the CFL, amid a slew of hoopla. He was a coveted free agent who finally chose Houston over hometown Seattle when Bud Adams made him the highest paid player in football. He was ineffective from the outset. He made horrible reads and even worse decisions, throwing 59 interceptions and only 40 touchdowns in his first three seasons. He was booed relentlessly, and, inevitably, his race became an issue. He should be a wide receiver, they said, he wasn’t smart enough to play quarterback. It was quiet at first, but grew louder as the losses mounted…
Amazingly, Moon persevered. In 1987 (with the help of replacement players), Moon guided the Oilers to their first playoff appearance in eight years. They would eventually lose to Elway and the Broncos in the second round, but it was supposed to be only the beginning, a mere taste of the bigger and better things awaiting a talented team. Instead, it became the status quo. For whatever reason, Moon was unable to lead the Oilers past the NFL’s second round. Sometimes, it was his fault; other times, he sat on the sidelines helpless while the rest of the team collapsed around him. He would never win a Super Bowl; never play in a championship game, never have his moment. He was labeled a choker, a loser, and now that he’s set to retire at season’s end, he’ll never again have the chance to rectify that image.
Warren Moon was never quite able to get over the hump.
And it may ultimately keep him from his rightful place in Canton, Ohio; the place where football’s immortals go to rest. Yes, he built quite a statistical resume, but his doubters claim he was merely a product of a terrific offensive system, that he underachieved with sky’s-the-limit talent. He was, after all, 3-6 in nine career Oiler playoff games. Seems the Hall of Fame will be yet one more hump he’ll invariably fail to scale. But should he?
I’m not the biggest Moon supporter around, but there’s a precedent for inducting stat-hungry, championship-less quarterbacks into the Hall of Fame. Take Dan Fouts. The Hall of Fame did in 1993. See if this sounds familiar: Fouts rang up gaudy stats while playing in a quarterback-friendly offense, the run-and-shoot of its day, "Air Coryell." He played on teams loaded with Pro Bowl talent, but walked on Super Bowl turf only as a member of the media, never as a player. Still, he was inducted, on stats alone, and those stats pale in comparison to Moon’s:
Player Yards TD Pro Bowls Fouts 43,040 254 6 Moon 49,117 290 9
Further, Moon has nine 3,000+ yard seasons and four 4,000+ yard seasons (second most in NFL history). He is ranked in the top five all-time in completions, attempts, yards and touchdown passes. And he, along with Fouts, is one of only four players with 40,000+ career passing yards. The others are Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton and sure thing Dan Marino. Elite company indeed.
And these numbers don’t even include Moon’s record-shattering CFL seasons. As a professional football player, Moon’s numbers look like this:
Comp. Att. Yards TD TD 5,738 9,828 73,333 463 40
Ultimately, the shrine in Canton is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, not the NFL Hall of Fame. And while Moon’s Canadian numbers should by no means define his candidacy, by the same token, they should not be discounted either. Five Grey Cup championships and seven consecutive playoff appearances in the NFL says that Moon was more than a loser.
But there was more to Warren Moon than just stats and playoff chokes. Hard to believe, in the age of Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith, that Moon, despite holding Pac-10 Player of the Year and Rose Bowl MVP honors, went undrafted in 1978. A 6’3", 212 pound quarterback slipped through 12 rounds of the NFL draft because he was black. He thought he could make it as a quarterback, the NFL wanted him playing receiver or cornerback. Moon headed north.
You could argue that Doug Williams did more for black athletes, winning a Super Bowl in 1987. But Williams enjoyed just a moment in the sun. He was not an appreciably great quarterback prior to his Super Bowl victory, and he wasn’t a great one afterwards either. In fact, you could say that Moon’s continued excellence helped legitimize Williams. A black quarterback winning the big prize could not be dismissed as a fluke if Moon and, to a lesser extent, Randall Cunningham, were enjoying prosperous careers. McNair, et al, owe their livelihoods to Warren Moon, who blazed the path for them to follow. I don’t recall too many white quarterbacks thanking Dan Fouts for his many contributions to their cause.
Warren Moon deserves to get over the hump this time. He deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Ric Sweeney officially swore to never cheer for the Oilers again a record 8 times in his career as a fan. Bud Adams finally called his bluff in 1996. And Ric hasn’t cheered a day since. Warren Moon Home