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.
Peyton Manning does, and Dan Marino did late in his career. But it is the exception and not the rule.
Trivia time: Which three teams from the AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950? (No fair looking this one up, that would be too easy.)
So true. I'm watching the Bucs-Falcons game right now, and a few minute ago Tampa QB Brad Johnson was blasted by an ATL defensive lineman a second after he released the ball (and threw an INT for a Falcon TD). I was a borderline late hit, but that didn't prevent the ultra-sensitive fella in the booth from claiming that the D-lineman should not only have been penalized for the hit, but he should've been tossed from the game.
That's because back then, professional football was comprised mostly of white players.
Akron Beacon Journal
Graham a champion in life
By Terry Pluto
He met me at the door, wearing a shirt that read: PAUL'S GUYS.
He had a huge smile, a warm handshake, and all day to tell stories.
That's what I remember about Otto Graham.
He was more than a Hall of Fame quarterback, the best in the history of the Browns.
He was a good man.
Graham died Wednesday at the age of 82 of heart problems. If Paul Brown was the man who invented the Cleveland Browns as most of us know them, it was Graham who made Brown perhaps the greatest coach in the history of pro football.
Graham and Brown were together for 10 years, four in the old All-American Football Conference and the next six in the NFL.
In all 10 of those years, they went to the title game.
Seven times, they won.
It's a record that might never be matched again.
But that's not what Graham talked about in Sarasota, Fla., that Sunday afternoon, when he invited me to his nice home in a modest neighborhood.
He talked about the fun he had as a football player.
He talked about the strong personality of Brown.
He talked about how autographs had become an industry.
``I never would believe you could charge for an autograph,'' he said.
``Do you?'' I asked.
``If you want me to sign it for yourself or your Uncle Harry, no problem,'' he said. ``I'll personalize it for you. But if you just want me to sign my name on 10 things and nothing else, then I know you'll sell it. So I expect a little something.''
That's classic Graham, sizing up a situation.
Always a good guy
He then talked about being the coach of the Washington Redskins from 1966-68, his record being 17-22-3.
``You've got to be part SOB to be a good NFL coach,'' he said. ``I was too nice of a guy. In one game, I had a rookie who dropped a punt. On the sidelines, I put my arm around him.''
``People booed,'' said Graham. ``I couldn't help it. I felt bad for the kid.''
Vince Lombardi replaced him.
``He could be an SOB,'' Graham said. ``Like Don Shula, Paul Brown, all of them.''
He was most comfortable coaching at the little Coast Guard Academy, where, for seven seasons, he could work with Cadets without having to worry about winning always being the bottom line.
The day I visited him, he had Graham, his pet black Labrador, at his side. He enjoyed taking walks and talking to strangers. He said that he never made more than $25,000 as a player and that he never was obsessed with money.
He was the kind of guy you'd have wanted as a neighbor, a person who believed you treated people just as you wanted to be treated.
I liked him very much.
Veteran Cleveland sportswriter Hal Lebovitz knew Graham well.
``He played the piano,'' Lebovitz said.
``I first saw him play pro basketball,'' he said.
It was in the old National Basketball League in the early 1940s, Lebovitz said. He said Graham was a gritty point guard for the Rochester Royals, where his teammates included Red Holzman and the forward-turned-actor Chuck Connors.
Lebovitz was an official in that league and, later, covered Graham with the Browns.
``He and Paul Brown would really butt heads,'' Lebovitz said. ``But after Otto became a coach himself, then he turned into Paul Brown's biggest fan.''
Graham told me that his teams won five consecutive titles with him calling the plays, then Brown decided he'd take over the offense.
``I didn't like it,'' Graham said. ``But he was Paul Brown, so I did it.''
``They had a big game with Detroit,'' Lebovitz said. ``The night before, several key players met with Otto at the old Pick Carter Hotel in Cleveland. They told him that he had to call the plays. Otto did, and they won.''
Graham discovered something that day.
``If I changed the play and it worked, I didn't hear anything,'' he said. `'If it didn't, I never heard the end of it.''
So he picked his spots.
Graham was a running back at Northwestern. Brown converted him to quarterback. Lebovitz said Graham credited former Browns assistant Blanton Collier with teaching him the nuances of the position.
How were his passes?
``Perfect spirals,'' Lebovitz said.
``I never saw him throw a really bad ball,'' Lebovitz said.
Or say a really unkind word.
Messages for Terry Pluto can be left at 330-996-3816 or firstname.lastname@example.org Sign up for Terry's free weekly e-mail newsletter at www.thebeaconjournal.com/newsletter/
In God We Trust......Semper Fi
To put that into perspective, can you imagine Tim Couch or Kelly Holcomb playing safety today?Tim actually might be able to, he's a very good athlete and is proven tough. He'd have to bulk up some though. Still, the point is made.
Graham or Montana was the best QB ever to play the game.
San Francisco 49ers
New York Yankees
The Browns defeated the Seahawks in the first AAFC Contest, 44-14. The Miami Seahawks folded after the end of the 1946 season. The franchise was transferred to the city of Baltimore following the season.
San Franciso 48ers
Los Angeles Dons
New York Yankees
Buffalo franchise modified their name to the "Bills." Baltimore Colts had been Miami Seahawks during the previous season. The Yankees and the Dodgers franchises both had affiliations with their baseball counterparts.
San Francisco 49ers
Los angeles Dons
New York Yankees
The Bills and Colts tied for first in the Eastern Division, with the Bills winning the playoff game. The Cleveland Browns went 14-0 in league play and won the championship game for a perfect season.
Automatic Otto was a class act all the way.
The Brooklyn and New York franchises merged, with the Yankees picking up nine Dodger players. Chicago changed the franchise name, picked up a few unclaimed Dodgers, and posted their best season result since 1946. The Colts were 1-11 in the final AAFC season, after finishing 2-12 in 1948 and 2-11-1 in 1947.
San Francisco, which had finished second to Cleveland in the Western Division the previous three seasons, finally got to play in post season. They defeated the Brooklyn-New York Yanks and played in the Championship game. The 49ers then lost to Cleveland 21-7. Thus ended the AAFC.
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