Thursday, March 27, 2008

Not The Greatest Quarterback of All-Time: Part Six: Sammy Baugh; Otto Graham

Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham. The two greatest quarterbacks from the pre-1960’s NFL. Ok, how am I supposed to fairly rank these guys? Either Slingin’ Sam or Automatic Otto may well be the greatest QB of all-time, but how could we possibly know? The only person around who ever saw Baugh play was Baugh himself. At 94, he’s pretty much outlived all of his fans. There’s hardly any existing film clips of either guy either. What we do know is that when each man was active, he was the most accurate passer the league had ever seen. I’m no expert in old-timey football so let me just jot down a few of the problems you'd have with listing Baugh or Graham as the top QB of all-time.

If anyone wants to say Sammy Baugh was the greatest player of all-time I’m not going argue with them. Besides his brilliant quarterback play, the man holds several NFL punting records and once picked off 11 passes in a season as a defensive back. Let me just make two points. First, addressing only passing here, note that while his passing stats were incredible compared to his contemporaries it must be pointed out that a lot of teams weren’t even using what we would today call quarterbacks. Teams used tailbacks who would throw or run. For years Baugh himself was a tailback in the double wing formation though he threw more than everyone else as the short passing game developed. The T-formation began to take over in the 1940’s. The game was still in the primitive stages before WWII and not every club was playing the same offensive game that Baugh and the Redskins were.

Second, let’s face it, the competition back in Baugh’s day wasn’t anything like it is now. In the first place, the NFL was strictly minor league. The game had no hold at all on the popular imagination; baseball, college football, and boxing were the defining sports of Baugh’s era. The best athletes of that time almost certainly weren’t playing professional football. And that’s before recognizing that African-American players weren’t welcome in the NFL until 1946 at the earliest. And several of Baugh’s best seasons, including his very best (1945), happened during WWII when much of the NFL’s already shaky talent base wore Army uniforms rather than football ones. As dominant as Baugh was, in a much weaker league with many fewer teams than today, you might expect a player that dominant to win more than “just” two championships. To elevate Baugh to the very top, he’d have to have been in the title game practically every single year. Too many other QB’s since his time have won more. Based on what others have written about Baugh’s skills and style of play I’m quite sure if he was in his prime today he’d be one of the best QB’s in football. But I just don’t have enough to justify putting him at the very top of the list.

Speaking of playing in the title game practically every year, there is one quarterback who did exactly that: Otto Graham. In his ten-year career Graham played for the title every single year, winning seven times in all! If a QB’s greatness is defined by winning, than without a doubt Graham is the best. But let’s look closer at exactly what Graham won. His first four titles came while he played in the All-American Football Conference, not the National Football League. The Cleveland Browns won that league in every one of its four seasons while dropping just four games in all. One could not call the AAFC a well-balanced league. In his six NFL seasons, Graham played in the title game each year and won three times. Very impressive but that’s still only six seasons. And I’m not quite sure just how tough it was getting to those title games. It looks like the only other really good teams from 1950-1955 were the Rams and the Lions, and one or the other of those teams was always Graham’s opponent in his six NFL title games.

Graham also had an edge that no modern-day QB could. Paul Brown built that Cleveland Browns team outside the existing NFL structure. Meaning, he could assemble an all-star team of the best talent not in the NFL, which he did. And Brown, arguably the most innovative figure in NFL history, ran a more sophisticated and advanced offense than anyone had ever seen. The Browns were the first team to use playbooks and game films and to perfect timed passing routes. Graham executed Paul Brown’s offense to perfection but if he played today those structural advantages would not exist. Like Baugh, I’m sure he’d be great in any era but in the end you just can’t put a guy at the top who played in the NFL for only six seasons.

Not The Greatest Quarterback Of All-Time: The Series

Tom Brady
Brett Favre
John Elway
Dan Marino
Johnny Unitas
Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham
Joe Montana
Bart Starr

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