Note: This piece was featured on the home page of Fox Sports NCAA Football as its "Blog of the Day" from January 12-15, 2010.
Ranking quarterbacks at BYU is a very difficult task. Of course, there is no set criteria or weighted point scale. Perhaps it is premature to assess Max Hall’s career, and we should let 5-10 years go by to add perspective to his achievements. In my opinion, Ty Detmer (1988-91) and Jim McMahon (1977-81) are the undisputed one and two, respectively, in the BYU quarterback hierarchy.
Critics will be quick to point out that Hall did not have a 4,000 yard passing season, he lost some big games in blowout fashion, he won only one conference championship, he did not take BYU to a BCS game, and he won less awards and accolades. I will address each of these individually.
No 4,000 yard passing season. Outside Detmer and McMahon, only Robbie Bosco (1985) and Steve Sarkisian (1996) passed for over 4,000 yards in a season, and in Sarkisian’s case it took him 14 games to do it. It is important to note that college football has evolved in the last 20 to 30 years, even at BYU. Across the nation, teams use more balanced pass-run attacks and throw shorter passes. The result is that from 1973 to 1991, BYU did not have a 1,000 yard rusher. BYU had a 1,000 yard rusher each of Hall’s three years as a starter. Therefore, although Hall did not pass for over 4,000 yards, I can’t justify penalizing him.
Lost some big games in blowout fashion. Hall has taken a lot of criticism for the stinging 32-7 and 38-7 losses to TCU in consecutive years, as well as the 48-24 loss to Utah in 2008 and the 54-28 loss to Florida State in 2009. The saying goes that time heals all wounds. How many of us remember that with Ty Detmer at the helm, BYU lost to Hawaii 56-14 and 59-28 in consecutive years? Or that Detmerthrew five interceptions in an ugly 32-16 loss to Oregon in 1990? And what about the 44-28 loss to Florida State or the 33-7 loss to Penn State in Detmer’s senior year? Keep in mind, TCU was a top 10 team in both 2008 and 2009. Utah finished undefeated and number 2 in the nation in 2008. Those Hawaii teams that Detmer lost to weren’t nationally ranked. That 1990 Oregon team did not play in the Rose Bowl. Should we give more weight to four losses, or 32 victories? Hall is not the first BYU great to suffer big losses and to play poorly in those losses.
One Conference Championship. Steve Young, Steve Sarkisian, Jim McMahon, Marc Wilson, Ty Detmer, and Robbie Bosco all won two or more conference championships. Brandon Doman, John Beck, Gifford Nielsen, Gary Sheide, John Walsh, Virgil Carter, Kevin Feterik, and Ryan Hancock all won one conference championship. Conference championships are important, but another change in college football in the last 20 years is that BYU plays much tougher conference opponents. As I just detailed, BYU’s only conference losses in the last three years came to top 10 teams. Most of these other quarterbacks never played a team ranked in the top 10.
No BCS busting. In this day and age, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) has added emphasis on winning all your games, which is another factor magnifying those aforementioned losses. This critique of Hall is a catch 22 situation. The BCS hype in 2008 was a result of Hall playing so well as a sophomore in 2007. If Hall didn’t lead BYU to its second consecutive 11-2 record and undefeated conference record, no one would have talked about the BCS. Hall was able to pick up where John Beck left off, rather than having the program go through a rebuilding phase. After the 2008 disappointment, the BCS expectations were tempered. Then Hall came out and played fabulously against number 3 Oklahoma. That stoked the flames on the BCS busting burner. Now, I am just as disappointed as anyone else that BYU did not go to a BCS game both of the last two years, but I don’t think we should make Hall a victim of his success. Hall was a huge part of our reason for expecting a BCS berth. I can accept blaming him for the 2008 loss to Utah, and possibly the 2009 loss to TCU. With the way the 2009 season went, BYU might have busted the BCS with an 11-1 record, but there is no way an 11-1 BYU would have made the BCS in 2008. At this point, though, I am not sure just how much to penalize Hall for this.
Less Awards and Accolades. While other BYU quarterbacks won the Davey O’Brien Award, the Heisman Trophy, and the Sammy Baugh Trophy, they won these awards with less competition. As I said already, college football has changed in the last 20 years. BYU was on the cutting edge of innovation and evolution in college football 30 years ago with the passing game. BYU quarterbacks were rewriting the NCAA record books. The yearly awards are a competition between contemporaries. When we rank the great BYU quarterbacks, none of them can be considered contemporaries since only one plays at a time. The talent at quarterback in college football is far and away better than it was in the early eighties and the early nineties. The media also plays a significant role in these awards. The way the media has portrayed teams and conferences as automatic or non-automatic qualifiers in the BCS has made it more difficult for a player from BYU to win these national awards and accolades. Nevertheless, Hall did rewrite the Mountain West Conference record book. He was the MWC player of the week more than any other player from 2007-2009, and he received national player of the week honors on multiple occasions from different national organizations.
Now, after that extensive analysis/defense of the negatives on Max Hall’s resume, we can focus our attention on what made Max Hall great. Hall should be remembered as a fierce competitor who was very accurate. He could thread the needle better than anyone I have ever seen. He was not overly gifted and talented, but what he lacked in physical ability he made up for with heart. Although he didn’t run frequently, he was mobile enough to rip off runs over 10 yards on occasion. Hall’s numbers speak for themselves. No one puts up those numbers without being legitimate.
Here are Hall’s individual career stats. (I have put where they rank all-time at BYU in parenthesis. I did not include quarterbacks who played less than two full seasons.)
Completions: 903 (2)
Attempts: 1,383 (3)
Completion Percentage: 65.3% (2)
Yards passing: 11,365 (2)
Interceptions: 40 (10)
Touchdowns: 94 (2)
TD to INT ratio: 2.35 (2)
Interception avoidance %: 2.89 (3)
Passer Rating: 150.97 (4)
What makes these numbers more impressive is that Hall needed to average only 1.4 more completions per game (56 total) to pass Detmer for most completions (Hall attempted 147 less passes than Detmer); Hall needed to average only 0.59 more completions per game (23 total) to eclipse Steve Sarkisian’s completion percentage record. Hall was only 0.12 behind McMahon for best TD to INT ratio. Although Hall is tenth in interceptions thrown, he came in third for interception avoidance, behind John Beck and Kevin Feterik, which shows that Hall’s higher number of interceptions thrown was a function of throwing the ball more than other quarterbacks, and not a function of inaccuracy or poor decision making.
If, for these statistical categories, a point system was used similar to the point system used in track meets to determine the team champion for the meet where the top eight finishers in each event are awarded points (first-10 points, second-9, third-8, fourth-7, fifth-6, sixth-5, seventh-3, and eighth-1), Max Hall would score more points than any other quarterback (68) with John Beck second (61) and Ty Detmer third (57). Despite not having a school record in any one career category, Hall has proven to be strong in all meaningful statistical categories.
Going strictly by numbers, it would be very hard to deny Hall the title of second best BYU quarterback ever behind Detmer. However, quarterbacks aren’t ranked simply by their numbers. They also need to win, and Max Hall was a winner. Over three years he led BYU to a 32-7 record. Few quarterbacks in all of college football won 32 games from 2007-2009. The 32 wins is three more wins than any other BYU quarterback, ever (Detmer, 29).
Hall’s winning percentage (0.821) is equal to Marc Wilson and higher than everyone else except Jim McMahon (0.893) and Robbie Bosco (0.889).
He had an incredibly short learning curve that produced an 11-2 record his first year as a starter, and that was after four years without playing since his final high school game. As a comparison, Steve Young was 8-4 his first year as a starter, Steve Sarkisian was 7-4, John Walsh was 6-6, Gary Sheide was 5-6, and John Beck was 4-6 his sophomore year even after starting a few games as a freshman. Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer, Gifford Nielsen, Robbie Bosco, and Brandon Doman had considerable playing time before their first full years as starters. Even then, only McMahon (12-1) and Bosco (13-0) had better records their first years as starters.
Max Hall was 2-1 against archrival Utah, identical to Jim McMahon and Marc Wilson. Beck, Walsh, Sarkisian, and Feterik had worse records against the Utes. Only Ty Detmer beat the Utes more than twice. In each of Hall’s victories against Utah, he made plays that are already considered classics in this bitter rivalry. His 49-yard pass to Austin Collie in 2007 is simply called “4thand 18”; his overtime touchdown pass to Andrew George in 2009 is on the same level as Beck’s pass to Jonny Harline to win the 2006 game.
Ever since Marc Wilson led BYU to the upset of nationally ranked Texas A&M in 1979, a BYU quarterback’s position on the totem pole is influenced by his signature win. Max Hall’s signature win came against number 3 Oklahoma in 2009. It was the first game played in the new Dallas Cowboys stadium, and Oklahoma had Sam Bradford, the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner, on its roster. Robbie Bosco equaled Hall’s accomplishment by beating the number 3 Pitt Panthers (1984), and only Ty Detmer beat a higher ranked opponent than Hall by beating number 1 ranked Miami (1990). Hall also beat number 18 Oregon State in his final game, a bowl game. In fact, Max Hall won two bowl games. Jim McMahon is the only other BYU quarterback to win two bowl games.
Making a difference
One final area of analysis of BYU quarterbacks is where they took the BYU football program. From Gary Sheide to Robbie Bosco, each quarterback took the program to new heights. Sheide won BYU’s second conference championship in 1974 (1965 was first). BYU earned its first national ranking, and earned its first bowl berth. Gifford Nielsen was the first All-American quarterback and first 3,000 yard passer. Marc Wilson used the previously mentioned Texas A&M upset to springboard BYU to its first perfect regular season. Jim McMahon shattered the record books and brought home BYU’s first bowl victory. Steve Young won his last 11 games as a starter, which landed BYU in the top 10 for the first time at season’s end. Robbie Bosco won a national championship. In 1990, Ty Detmer brought home the program’s first, and only, Heisman Trophy. In 1996, Steve Sarkisian guided BYU to the most wins in a single season in NCAA history (14), to BYU’s first January bowl game (Cotton), and to its highest national ranking (5) since the national championship.
Hall started his BYU career in 2007. The year before, John Beck led BYU out of football mediocrity to its first winning record and first conference championship since 2001. Hall had to help continue BYU’s return to glory. Three years later, the return is complete. What did he do that has never been done? BYU has won 10 or more games each year that Hall started to now have the first four-year span of double digit wins in the program’s history. BYU finished the season ranked number 12 in both major polls (should have been higher, but that is another impact of the BCS). This was the highest end-of-the-year ranking for BYU since 1996. While Hall did not take BYU back to the pinnacle (a BCS berth and/or National Championship), the program has done many things in the last four years that it has not done for a long time (see my soon to be posted 2009 season recap for those accomplishments).
Where Hall ranks
I think we are ready to decide where Hall ranks. As I stated from the outset, the best Hall could rank is number 3. The numbers that Ty Detmer and Jim McMahon posted were so much better than anyone before them (and for a long time after as well), plus the Heisman Trophy and the first bowl win put them well out of reach of Hall. I put Steve Young, John Beck, Steve Sarkisian, and Robbie Bosco as Hall’s prime competition for the number 3 spot.
Steve Young left BYU and had a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, but these rankings are for quarterback play at BYU. Young did have a fantastic senior year, and his speed added another dimension to his game that no BYU quarterback has replicated, but Young’s junior year weighs him down too much for him to get the number 3 spot. He threw just as many touchdowns as interceptions (18) as a junior, and the team sputtered to an 8-4 record.
John Beck posted big career numbers that are similar to Hall’s, but Beck played in four more games than Hall. Beck’s 2006 team was probably better than any of Hall’s teams, but that was Beck’s only winning season. Hall had three winning seasons and no losing seasons.
Steve Sarkisian was a junior college transfer, so his numbers were limited to having only two years of eligibility (not that he would have started over John Walsh in 1994 anyways). Nevertheless, “Sark” had the monster game against Texas A&M in the 1996 Pigskin Classic, and capped that 14-1 season with the Cotton Bowl win. Sark even bests Hall in completion percentage and pass efficiency. Just like Steve Young, Sark’s junior year hurts him. The team was 7-4, it lost to Air Force for the first time since Young’s junior year, and it failed to receive a bowl bid, snapping a string of 17 consecutive years with a bowl bid. Interestingly, Hall’s stats for his first two years are nearly identical to Sark’s stats. In a close decision, I put Hall ahead of Sarkisian. Hall’s complete body of work is slightly better.
That leaves only Robbie Bosco. Bosco is tough to beat. Bosco is the one quarterback that I feel comfortable in saying that if he had been able to start three years, like Hall, he would have matched or bettered Hall’s statistics in almost every category, including career wins (Bosco won 24 games in two years, and probably would have won at least 8 if he started in 1983). In fact, Bosco probably would replace McMahon in the top two and could even give Detmer a fight for number one if Bosco had started as a sophomore. While I can’t separate Bosco and Hall very well using statistics, I can by overall results. In the end, as a team goes, so goes the greatness of a quarterback. As a junior in 1984, Bosco quarterbacked BYU to the National Championship. He capped the year with a gutsy performance in the Holiday Bowl, leading a fourth quarter comeback while playing with an injured knee, ankle, and rib. The National Championship puts Bosco above Hall.
Max Hall ranks number 4 all-time in the BYU quarterback hierarchy behind 1-Ty Detmer, 2-Jim McMahon, and 3-Robbie Bosco.
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