Otto Graham was signed by Paul Brown in 1946 to play for the Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference. Otto Graham was an enormous baby, weighing 14 pounds and 12 ounces when he was born on December 6, 1921 in Evanston, Illinois. (3) This was a sign of big things to come on the football field. He was about to take his place in history as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play professional football. He was ahead of his time as a passer, throwing for more touchdowns than interceptions, and as a field general, he led his team to 10 Championship Game’s in his 10 seasons.
Otto Graham Fires Six Touchdown Passes
The Cleveland Browns led by Otto Graham were angry after losing to the San Francisco 49ers a week earlier. Unfortunately for the Los Angeles Dons, the Browns struck with a vengeance and took out their anger against them. Otto Graham put on a passing clinic, completing 15 of 24 passes for 362 yards and six touchdowns.
Graham hurled five of his scoring passes in the first half, four of them to Dante Lavelli. The Browns scored in the first minute and 45 seconds of play when Graham tossed a 46 yard touchdown to Lavelli, capping an 80-yard drive. After the Dons tied it up at 7-7, the Browns scoring parade started. Graham threw a 42 yard touchdown to Dub Jones just before the first period ended. In the second quarter he connected with Dante Lavelli three times on touchdowns of 31, 67 and 2 yards. Graham then hit Mac Speedie on a 12 yard score after setting up the play with a 32-yard strike to Lavelli. Graham left the game in the 3rd quarter. The Browns won 61 to 14. (4)
Otto Graham Wins Four AAFC Championships
In the 1946 AAFC Championship Game, the Cleveland Browns beat the New York Yankees 14-9. Otto Graham completed 16-27 passes for 217 yards and a touchdown in the 4th quarter to put the Browns in the lead. He then intercepted a pass to end a New York rally.
In 1947, the Browns would once again face the Yankees in the AAFC Championship Game. This time, Otto Graham scored on a 1 yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter after a Marion Motley 51 yard run. The Browns won the game 14-3.
The 1948 AAFC Championship Game featured the Cleveland Browns vs. Buffalo Bills. Otto Graham threw one touchdown, but it was the Browns running game the lifted them to a 49-7 victory.
In 1949 and the last AAFC Championship Game before their merger with the NFL, Graham’s Cleveland Browns beat San Francisco 21-7.
Otto Graham and the Browns Enter the NFL
After the Cleveland Browns had dominated the AAFC, winning the title every year of the league’s existence, they embarked on a new challenge, the NFL. NFL executives bad-mouthed the AAFC nonstop for years. "The worst team in our league could beat the best team in theirs," said George Preston Marshall, the Washington Redskins' hyperbolic owner. (2)
They would open the season against the two-time NFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles led by future Hall of Fame running back Steve Van Buren. During the offseason, Eagles coach Earle “Greasy” Neale inquired rhetorically, “Who is there to beat us?” (2) The Eagles boasted a great defense and conventional wisdom said they would shut down the Cleveland Browns. However, the Eagles had never seen a team like the Cleveland Browns. “For four years, Coach Brown never said a word - he just kept putting that stuff on the bulletin board," Graham said. "We were so fired up; we would have played them anywhere anytime, for a keg of beer or a chocolate milkshake. It didn't matter." (2) Otto Graham and the Cleveland Browns humiliated the Philadelphia Eagles that night 35-10. “When we went into that game, I can assure you that no team in the entire history of the sport was as well prepared mentally as we were,” Graham said. “It was the highlight of my whole career.” (3) Graham completed 21 of 28 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns. He also added a touchdown on the ground. (6)
Otto Graham in NFL Championship Games
After the merger, the Cleveland Browns faced the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950 NFL Championship Game. The contest went back and forth, but Otto Graham was 22 of 33 for 298 yards and tossed 4 TD passes, the last with 4:35 to go in the 4th quarter. Then with only 2 minutes left on the clock, and the Browns trailing 28-27, Graham drove the Browns down the field to set up the game winning field goal by Lou “The Toe” Groza with 28 seconds remaining and gave the Browns an exciting 30-28 win.
From 1951 to 1953, Graham once again led the Browns to the NFL Championship Game. Unfortunately they lost all three games, the first to the Los Angeles Rams 24-17, and the final two to Detroit 17-7 and 17-16. Graham only managed 1 TD pass in those three losses.
Otto Graham Goes Out on Top
In the 1954 NFL Championship Game, Otto Graham and the Cleveland Browns took out their revenge on the Detroit Lions who they had lost to the previous two seasons by drumming them 56-10. Graham completed 9-12 passes for 163 yards and 3 TD’s. He also added 3 more TD’s on the ground.
The 1955 NFL Championship Game was Graham’s final game. He went out on top when his Cleveland Browns thrashed the Los Angeles Rams by a score of 38-14. Otto Graham passed for 209 yards and a TD and ran for 2 more TD’s. Graham retired from the Cleveland Browns after the season.
Otto Graham Statistically
During his outstanding 10 year career, leading his team to 10 Championship Games and 7 victories, Otto Graham put up some amazing statistics for his era. In 126 professional games, Graham passed for 23584 yards 174 TD passes and only 135 INT’s. He also rushed for 882 yards and 44 TD’s. Graham was also the MVP of his league five times in 10 seasons. Also, Otto Graham was 109-17-4 in his brilliant career, an 82.5% winning percentage, the best of all time.
Otto Graham’s Legacy
So where does Otto Graham rank among the greatest quarterbacks of all-time? If winning is the judge, he would be number one. “Because he played in the early days of television, he didn't get the exposure of quarterbacks who played later on,” says Ron Wolf, a former Packers general manager and football historian. “But what he could do on the football field was absolutely incredible. He was the dominant player on what might have been the most dominant team in history.” (5)
Otto Graham could do it all. He was a tremendous athlete, able to make plays with both his arm and his legs. “What I loved was that we were a passing team in an era of the run,” Graham recalled. “I could throw hard if I had to, I could lay it up, I could drill the sideline pass. God-given ability. The rest was practice, practice, practice.” (3)
This is what legendary coach Paul Brown had to say about Graham. "Otto was my greatest player. He had the finest peripheral vision I had ever seen, and that is a big factor in a quarterback. He was a tremendous playmaker. He had unusual eye-and-hand coordination, and he was bigger and faster than you thought." (3) Paul Brown also coached Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, bestowing the honor of his greatest player on Otto Graham. Now that is high praise.
The question is often asked, if you had one game and you had to win it, what quarterback would you choose to lead your team. Most people would choose Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, John Elway, or Otto Graham. “If there was one game on the line that you had to win, I would pick Otto Graham,” said New Orleans Saints general manager Jim Finks. (3) Jim Finks is not alone. No quarterback before Otto Graham or since has led his team to the Championship Game every year of his career. He won the Championship 70% of the time.
When Otto Graham was asked about his playing days, he responded by saying, “One thing I could do as well as any quarterback was throw accurately. I threw the ball hard enough to get it in there and soft enough to catch it.” (1)
“All good quarterbacks possess four qualities: leadership, a pure ability to throw a football accurately, a deep knowledge of the game and techniques perfected through hard work,” Graham once said. “As for throwing ability, I never realized until I started coaching what a God-given talent I had. I was surprised that everyone couldn't do what I did.” (1)
Otto Graham is a quarterback for the ages. He could have played in any era and dominated his position. He is as good as or better than any quarterback that has every played the game of football. Let us never forget the great players of football’s past.
Otto Graham Hall of Fame
Otto Graham was indeed a legendary player. No other quarterback in the history of professional football ever led his team to 10 consecutive Championship Games. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965. Otto Graham died at the age of 82 on December 17, 2003.
By A. Goodin, 20Yardline.com
Otto Graham Biography Sources:
(1) Otto Graham, 82, Dies; Cleveland Dynasty's Quarterback (2003, December 18) The New York Times