Skip to comments.Graham's greatness is easy to see (R.I.P. Otto Graham)
Posted on 12/20/2003 9:33:24 AM PST by Chi-townChief
Otto Graham never bragged or boasted. Like most athletes of the 1940s and 1950s he did not shag, shake or shimmy when he performed one of his football miracles.
The great quarterback, who died Wednesday, actually downplayed his passing ability. He often said that current NFL defenses are much more difficult to pass against than those of his time.
That probably is true, but it also is true that quarterbacks had less protection from the rules in Graham's era. If a rusher so much as touches a quarterback after he has released the football today, he is penalized for roughing.
It was not like that when Graham played.
Many times a rusher would take three steps after "Automatic" Otto released the ball and crash into him. That was allowed then, on the theory that the rusher could not stop his own momentum.
On one occasion in the All-America Football Conference, Graham was knocked cold on the other side of the field from the Browns bench. A trainer accompanied him as he walked groggily around the end zone, right in front of our 25-cent student-ticket seats in the bleachers, heading for the Cleveland bench as play continued. He soon went back into the action. He never missed a game in 10 years.
Americans, hardened by the Depression and World War II, were tougher then.
There was less posing and primping. The Cleveland coach, Paul Brown, had assembled a team with six future Hall of Famers - Graham, Marion Motley, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Bill Willis and Frank Gatski - for his first practice in 1946.
Although Graham was his highest-paid player, Brown made sure he would keep his head small enough to fit in his hat. In an early scrimmage, Willis crashed into center Mike Scarry and knocked him back into Graham, who fell down.
Brown wanted to know what happened. "Scarry stepped on my toe," Graham said.
Brown called the whole team to attention and said, "From now on, I don't want anybody to step on Otto's toe."
For those who never saw Graham play, he had the relaxed posture and walk of a natural athlete. In his first season, he not only played quarterback but doubled at safety, making tackles. Free substitution had not yet come into the rule book.
To put that into perspective, can you imagine Tim Couch or Kelly Holcomb playing safety today?
No holds barred
Graham constantly was looking to throw deep. Interceptions did not seem to be as much of a concern in those days. As a result, you seldom saw the quarterback making the dink-and-dunk passes that are so prevalent now.
There were only 29,751 of us at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on the bitterly cold afternoon of Christmas Eve 1950 to watch the Browns play the Los Angeles Rams for the NFL championship in their first season in the league. It became Graham's most remembered game.
The Browns were losing, 28-20, with eight minutes to go. We were worried but we knew Graham would come through, as he always did. He did not let us down.
He began hitting his passes on the Z-out pattern the Browns had made famous. A 6-foot-high mound of snow surrounded the field, a residue from Cleveland's record snowfall that year. Graham kept hitting Rex Bumgardner, who would catch the ball and crash into the snow. Suddenly it was 28-27.
With 1:50 to go, Graham took over on his own 32 for the final push. He and Bumgardner again made key connections, and Groza won it with a 16-yard field goal.
Cleveland fans had become so used to winning that they were shocked when the Rams beat the Browns, 24-17, for the 1951 NFL title. They had 8-4 and 11-1 seasons the next two years, but lost close championship games to Detroit both times.
Graham hit his bottom in the 1953 title clash, completing only 2 of 15 passes. But he rebounded and had two of his best years in 1954 and 1955 as the Browns won the crown both times.
During the last 10 years or so, when working on Browns historical articles, I frequently phoned Graham at his retirement home in Sarasota, Fla.
It was like talking to somebody from the old neighborhood. He was as uninhibited as he was making those long passes.
About two years ago, it was said he had Alzheimer's disease. I couldn't believe it. He always sounded fine on the phone. The next time I phoned him he said, "You know, I've got Alzheimer's."
I tried to cheer him up, saying, "Come on. You sound great. What makes you think you've got Alzheimer's?"
"I'm not always like this," he said. "It comes and goes."
That was the last conversation I had with Cleveland's greatest football player. He led the team to 114 wins and 20 losses in 10 years while winning seven league championships. Nobody else ever did that. Maybe he was the greatest, period.
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:
Hard to argue with that.
Maybe, but there are a few catches. Four of the seven league championships were in the All America Football Conference, an independent league which competed with the NFL. The reason that league failed was that Paul Brown easily out-recruited all the other AAFC teams and grabbed all the available talent. The Browns hardly ever lost in AAFC competition, even in the regular season. They won the title in all four years of its existence. (But, when the league went under, the Forty-Niners and Colts joined the Browns in making the transition into the NFL.)
Another point is that Brown minutely scripted the Browns team, even to calling the offensive plays in that pre-tech era by shuttling the offensive guards on every play. Although no NFL quarterback calls his own plays now, it was almost unheard of in the 50s for there to be any other arrangement. Part of the legendary aspect of the careers of Unitas and Starr, for instance, is that they were good playcallers. Although Graham actually had to read defenses and occasionally audible, he never got much credit for the brainy side of the Browns offense because of Brown's overshadowing figure.
I was there.
Thanks for the walk down memory lane.I forgot how Brown and I think Tom Landry may used the shuffle, to get plays in.
A class act, Graham, may he rest in piece.
Every coach knew the trick of sending the play in with a player. Lombardi did it repeatedly in the Western Conference playoff game with Detroit which occupies the spotlight in his book Run to Daylight. "Let's hit them with our quick screen, Paul!" (To Paul Hornung.)
Brown, however, was control-freak enough to try to do it every play of every game. Well, it was his system and he made it work. He also invented the "Taxi Squad," which really was a Taxicab company. Can you imagine getting into a cab and finding one of today's NFL players at the wheel?
In WVA the Jim Brown/Sam Huff matchups drew the most interest, but Otto Graham and Lou Groza were my favs until Brown came along.
My dad told me to become a place kicker like Groza since you could make a living and not get hit a lot. I didn't follow his advice and joined the offensive line in the pits.
Calvin Griffith, owner of the Senators, assured a sportswriter that the Senators were staying in Washington "so long as I'm alive." Within the year, that reporter was typing, "Acting posthumously, Calvin Griffith moved the Senators to Minnesota yesterday."
Today you have 'situational substitutions' and 'scripted plays' -- a tacit admission that the defense controls today's game. Every good offense relies on a high degree of deception. If a play works, many times you won't see it again until much later in the game. Even the best teams aren't able to man-handle a weaker team. Divisional opponents often split the season series unless one of the teams is the basement dweller and the other is among the League's elite.
Bottom line: it's a vastly different game since the early '60s.