Whenever there’s a debate involving the top NFL quarterbacks of all time, Cleveland’s Otto Graham somehow gets excluded.
Yes, he'll be mentioned. But, no, you almost never find his name among the top five, and, sorry, but there's something wrong with that picture. Because Otto Graham had no peer.
Of course, don't tell that to anyone ranking the game's best ever. You know the saying, “Gone but not forgotten?” Doesn’t apply to Otto Graham.
Because he’s both.
At least he was until the Cleveland Browns came to the rescue this summer, with owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam announcing plans to erect an Otto Graham statue outside the Browns’ stadium – with an unveiling scheduled for the Browns’ Centennial Weekend of Sept. 6-8.
“As we celebrate the NFL’s 100th season,” said Jimmy Haslam, “we are honored to pay tribute to Otto Graham with this timeless sculpture that will properly recognize him not only as one of the Browns’ top players but also as one of pro football’s all-time greatest quarterbacks.”
And there it is: One of pro football’s all-time greatest quarterbacks.
Now, somebody please wake up the NFL “listomaniacs.” It’s time to re-arrange the furniture.
The Browns understood, and don’t ask me why it took this long for them to figure it out. Otto Graham was one of the two most important players in the history of that franchise, and the other (Jim Brown) has a sculpture of himself outside the stadium.
Now he has company.
And he should. Because all Otto Graham did was make the Cleveland Browns pro football’s most formidable franchise for 10 years – first with the All-America Football Conference; then with the NFL. You want to talk dynasties? In 10 years, four with the AAFC and six with the NFL, the Browns went to 10 championship games, winning seven.
Graham was more than the quarterback on those teams. He was the catalyst, and he was extraordinary – producing the NFL’s highest winning percentage ever (the only quarterback with a score higher than Tom Brady), winning five league MVPs (three in the NFL, two in the AAFC), two NFL passing titles and a ticket to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
There was nothing he couldn’t do. He produced a passer rating of 112.6 in 1946, a mark that stood until Joe Montana surpassed it in 1989. He led the Browns to a perfect season in 1948 (14-0). In his 10-year career he was voted all-league in all but one season. He never missed a start in the NFL, and he was its passing leader and MVP in 1955 – his last as a pro and one where he had to be talked out of retirement.
“Otto Graham,” Don Shula said in “NFL Century,” a must-read book by former Hall-of-Fame executive director Joe Horrigan, “was my hero of all heroes.”
Understood. What’s so difficult to fathom, however, is how or why his legacy has been forgotten by today’s “listophiles,” so eager to please their readers that they line up a slew of modern-era quarterbacks ahead of Graham.
One list had Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Dan Marino in front of him. Another had Brett Favre, Rodgers and Marino ahead of Graham. Graham won seven league championships. Favre, Brees, Rodgers and Marino combined for three.
But don’t stop there. Almost every list today has Peyton Manning ahead of Graham, too. He won two league titles.
Maybe it’s because we’re inundated by so many video highlights of today’s players that we not only know that Odell Beckham made a spectacular catch when it happens; we’ve seen slow-motion replays of it dozens of times over … and over … and over … by that evening.
But it’s more than that. We live in a sports era where analytics can trump success, allowing a Felix Hernandez to win the 2010 Cy Young award because a league-leading ERA was deemed more significant than a 13-12 record.
Stat geeks are dazzled by the touchdowns, yards and completion percentages that quarterbacks like Manning, Favre, Brees, Rodgers and Marino produced. So are fantasy-football addicts.
But Otto Graham never threw for 3,000 yards, had 20 or more touchdowns only three times and produced a 174-135 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio for his career. And so the Number Police isn’t interested, isn't impressed or both -- forgetting that Graham played in an entirely different era.
“I see some of these coaches who want to brag about where their teams rank in team stats,” former San Francisco 49ers’ offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick once told me. “But the only number that matters is the one under the letter ‘W.’ That’s why we play this game.”
Otto Graham was one of the game’s winningest quarterbacks, going 57-13-1 during the regular season in the NFL (an 80.3 winning percentage) and 9-3 in the playoffs (NFL and AAFC combined) … and next time you compile your list of greatest NFL quarterbacks, remember that.
Then remember Otto Graham. The Cleveland Browns have and hallelujah. It’s about time.
Follow on Twitter @ClarkJudgeTOF