Everybody loves a winner, and in the 1990s no one knew how to win like the Dallas Cowboys. America’s team was led on their run of dominance by a triumvirate of then future Hall of Famers – Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and Troy Aikman. The first two, Smith and Irvin, are unquestionably one-of-a-kind players that deserve their status as NFL icons. But Aikman? That’s a different story.
Aikman does not deserve the hallowed status of Hall of Famer because although he won games as a starter, he often wasn’t the best player on the field or even his own team. I am reminded of a scene from the end of Rocky 3 when Apollo Creed tells Rocky Balboa, “You fight great, but I’m a great fighter.” There is indeed a difference. At times Troy Aikman could play football great, but he was not a great football player. His sometimes mediocre stats are evidence of that. Aikman’s completion percentage (61.5 percent) and passer rating (81.6) do not exactly set the world on fire. Add to that the fact that he had a winning percentage just above .500 and his legend is diminished further. If the stats are just so-so, it is fair to be asking the question, “Why is Troy Aikman in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?”
At first glance, Troy Aikman’s career is marked by numerous accomplishments, not the least of which is three Super Bowl wins. He was selected to six consecutive Pro Bowls from 1991 to 1996 and won Super Bowl MVP honors in 1992. These accolades alone would lead one to believe that Aikman deserves his spot in the Hall of Fame, but each and every one of these accolades was dependent on the surrounding cast which made it all possible. Instead of Aikman making the cast better, the cast made Aikman.
It is only logical that a quarterback would be successful provided he is surrounded by great talent. Certainly there was no one more talented in the backfield during the early 1990s than Emmitt Smith. He broke nearly ever rushing record there was in route to his position as the all-time rushing leader in NFL history. It is because of Smith’s overwhelming success that Aikman was also able to succeed. The Cowboys ground game opened up huge opportunities for the passing game. As Emmitt Smith ran wild in Big D, opposing defenses had to game plan for how to deal with a seemingly unstoppable rushing attack, and Aikman reaped the benefits.
Aikman was also assisted by throwing to an elite reliever in Michael Irvin, ”The Playmaker.” Irvin, a five time Pro Bowler himself, helped make Aikman look good. With 750 career receptions for 11,904 yards and 65 receiving scores, Irvin still ranks in the upper echelon of receivers today. In the same way Smith improved Aikman’s effectiveness, Irvin helped Aikman to lead the Cowboys to win after win. But Smith and Irvin have something that Aikman doesn’t have – statistical dominance.
The major knock on Irvin’s legacy is the fact that even surrounded by great players in Dallas he quite frankly failed to post mind blowing stats. Looking back on his career, Aikman’s best years draw comparison to players like Joe Montana, Drew Brees, and Steve McNair, but stopping the comparison there would not tell the whole story. Looking at Aikman’s career as a whole, there are plenty of less flattering comparisons to players like Mark Brunell, Donovan McNabb, and Joe Namath. All talented players, no doubt, but certainly not the greatest QBs of all time (Namath’s case is so shaky that Loyal Homer has chosen to question his Hall credentials).
Simply being on a winning team does not necessarily prove to be a direct representation of greatness. Aikman was a capable signal caller who managed games effectively, but crediting him as the driving force behind the Cowboys’ dynasty of the early 1990s is a bit farfetched. Had Aikman played for another team he probably would not have three Super Bowl rings, without which he might not have entered the Hall of Fame discussion at all. His sometimes pedestrian numbers undermine his Hall of Fame worthiness.