Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham dominated professional football ahead of the Super Bowl. From 1946 to 1955, “Automatic Otto” led the Browns to 10 straight championship games, a feat no other player in the sport can match. Starting every Browns game during that span, Graham has won seven titles, an all-time high for a professional quarterback through 2021 by Tom Brady.
Yet the player who helped lay the groundwork for the NFL before its explosion in popularity in the 1960s is often overlooked.
“He won at the highest level, however you cut him,” said Jon Kendle, director of football archives and information at the Professional Football Hall of Fame. “I think he compares extremely well to one of the great quarterbacks in history and to the great quarterbacks today.”
Under the guidance of Hall of Fame Coach Paul Brown, Cleveland deployed advanced preparation methods and schematic concepts. Among the many innovations of the legendary coach were a game movie and game manuals. But to lead the Browns’ powerful offense, Brown needed a talented quarterback like Graham.
“[Graham] helped glamorize the sport by winning championships and elevating the role of quarterback as the NFL entered the age of television, ”said former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2003.
How Otto Graham Became a Cleveland Brown
Having offered no college football scholarship, Graham played basketball at Northwestern. But Wildcats football coach Pappy Waldorf was so impressed with Graham’s play in an intramural football game that he invited him to join his team.
A one-wing fullback at Northwestern, the 6-foot-1 Graham impressed Brown as he led the Wildcats to two surprise wins over future leader Cleveland’s Ohio State teams. Shortly after coaching the Browns and then the NFL’s fledgling rival, All-America Football Conference, Brown drew Graham from the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League. In Graham’s only season in the NBL, the Royals won the title.
In 1946, the Graham-led Browns won their first AAFC championship by beating the New York Yankees, who led the archaic one-wing offense. Cleveland’s offense was unleashed in the top-tier AAFC, which included many former college stars and 15 future Professional Football Hall of Fame members, but failed to impress NFL bigwigs .
Powered by Graham, Cleveland compiled a 52-4-3 record in the ACAF, winning all four league titles. The Browns were undefeated in 1948, finishing 15-0 after a 49-7 victory in the championship game. Two days before the Browns won their fourth championship, however, the league disbanded. In December 1949, the NFL absorbed the Browns and two other AAFC franchises.
After Philadelphia won their second straight NFL title that season, Eagles coach Greasy Neale proclaimed his team to be the best assembled and asked, “Who is there to beat us?” Washington owner George Preston Marshall took it a step further, noting that the worst team in the NFL could beat the best team in the AAFC.
READ MORE: Dramatic NFL Championship Game Missed Most Nationwide
This backdrop gave the Browns of 1950 an opportunity for historical validation. In the season opener against the Eagles, dubbed the “Football World Series”, Cleveland beat Philadelphia 35-10. Graham had 346 yards, a staggering number at a time when prolific passing attacks were not the norm.
Three months later, the Browns beat the former Cleveland team, the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive powerhouse, for the championship. In the 30-28 win, Graham threw four touchdowns and drove a comeback in the fourth quarter. But this Christmas Eve classic was not televised nationally, limiting the lasting appeal of the Browns’ coronation. In the modern era of big professional sports (NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball), the Browns are the only team to join a league and win a title in its first season.
Display of what the Los Angeles Daily News Described as a “vengeful joy,” Cleveland conquered a league that didn’t care. In their first six seasons in the NFL, the Browns won 82% of their games and Graham played six title games – no other quarterback in league history has played more than four times. in a six-season championship game.
“Otto Graham is their team,” New York Giants coach Steve Owen said of the Browns in 1953. “Graham is the leader; he designs their attack downstream. He is strange in his passing and passing calls.
Otto Graham retires twice as champion
In 1951, the Browns lost to the Rams in a championship rematch. And, in 1953, a strong Detroit Lions team with seven future Hall of Fame members beat the Browns for a second straight year, bringing Cleveland’s losing streak to three. The losses put pressure on Graham. “Emotionally, I was so depressed for the past three years,” he later said. “I was the quarterback. I was the leader. It was all my fault.”
Shortly after a self-confessed “ugly” title game in 1953, a 17-16 Lions victory, Graham announced that he would retire after the 1954 season. The season that followed changed his trajectory from career.
The Browns exorcised their Lions demons in 1954, winning the second most lopsided championship game in NFL history – a 56-10 mash that included nine Detroit turnovers. In the rout, Graham pitched for three touchdowns and ran for three – the only player in league history to do so in a playoff game.
Until June 1955, Graham said he was done with football and would not “shoot a Ted Williams,” a reference to the Boston Red Sox star who came out of retirement that year. the. Instead, he introduced himself as “Otto Graham, man of confidence”. The 33-year-old passer was ready to venture into a then more lucrative field, but he left a door of return open, informing Brown he would not retire if Cleveland’s quarterback situation turned out. unsatisfactory. Brown came over to call and agreed to jack Graham’s salary up to $ 25,000, an NFL high.
The result: a third NFL MVP award, a seventh championship, and quarterback status that set a remarkable standard of excellence. After the Browns’ 38-14 win over Los Angeles in the 1955 championship game, Rams first-year coach Sid Gillman said Graham had “a perfect day.” The crowd in Los Angeles apparently agreed, sending him into retirement for good with a standing ovation.
Cleveland Browns decline after Otto Graham leaves
Brown’s innovations, which also included recruiting reports and full-time assistant coaches, helped Graham. But Graham, who died in 2003, was the clear best quarterback during a period in which the near-free reins got past rushers and secondaries made it harder for passers to do their jobs.
Graham’s accomplishments have eclipsed Hall of Fame contemporaries Norm Van Brocklin and Bobby Layne, also star quarterbacks. He won four All-Pro honors in their combined during his NFL career. During his 1953 MVP season, Graham topped his peers in completion percentage (64.7) and passing yards (10.6).
Graham, nicknamed “Automatic Otto” for his precision passing, ranks first in professional football in career yards per attempt at 9.0. The former running back’s 44 touchdowns were also the record for professional football quarterback for 61 years.
After Graham retired in 1956, the Browns declined sharply, finishing 5-7 and out of the playoffs. The last championship of the organization dates from 1964.
“The test of a quarterback is where his team ends,” said Brown, who died in 1991, long before Peyton Manning and Brady joined the NFL. “At this level, Otto Graham was the best of all time.”
READ MORE: The Freezer Bowl: The coldest game in NFL history