Game history

7 first NFL quarterbacks who changed the game

NFL quarterbacks before 1960 played by different rules than their modern counterparts, who play a much more steeply angled game to favor the offense. But these pre-1960 quarterbacks, all inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, stood out for their excellence and paved the way for today’s stars.

1. Benny Friedman (1927-1934)

Benny Friedman, circa 1931.

Notable achievements: He was a four-time All-Pro and modernized the forward pass in the NFL.

Friedman, who played for the Cleveland Bulldogs, Detroit Wolverines, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers during an eight-year NFL career, was instrumental in developing the movement for throw for sport. “He wrote books about throwing the football at a time when the football was very big and not easy to throw,” says Jon Kendle, director of football archives and information at Pro Football. Hall of Fame.

Quarterback mechanics that are taken for granted today evolved from Friedman’s innovations. He worked on strengthening his hand and forearm, developed a throwing motion that kept his arm close to his body and close to his ear, and even adjusted his grip to better suit football. ‘era.

Friedman was so influential that the Mara family, owners of the New York Giants, purchased his 1928 team, the Detroit Wolverines, primarily to acquire his rights. The move paid off for the Giants, as Friedman threw for 20 touchdowns in 1929, as many as the last seven league teams combined.

“He was the first ‘real’ quarterback in the NFL,” Kendle said.

READ MORE: 10 Extraordinary Pro Football Hall of Fame Classes

2. Sammy Baugh (1937-1952)

Washington's Sammy Baugh signing autographs for fans during a practice in the late 1940s.

Washington’s Sammy Baugh signing autographs for fans during a practice in the late 1940s.

Notable achievements: In 1943, he led the NFL in completions (133), clearance average (45.9) and interceptions (as a defensive back) with 11.

Baugh, who spent his entire NFL career with Washington, played on offensive, defensive and special teams, which was common at the time. In his rookie season in 1937, he threw for 335 yards – a remarkable number for the era – and three touchdowns in a 28-21 win over Chicago.

Baugh’s 1943 season was the most vivid example of his multi-faceted greatness. In a 42–20 victory over Detroit on November 14, 1943, he threw for four touchdowns and intercepted four, one of the greatest performances in league history.

“Baugh is something more than football’s greatest passer,” wrote Grantland Rice, then America’s most famous sports journalist, in 1943. “He is also football’s greatest kicker. He is also a runner top class and one of the greatest defensive backs in football, he also has the best pair of working hands in football, as fast as a rattlesnake strike.

3. Otto Graham (1946-1955)

Otto Graham

Cleveland’s Otto Graham ran for a touchdown against the Chicago Bears in that 1955 game.

Notable achievement: He led the Cleveland Browns to a championship game in each of his 10 seasons, a feat not even Tom Brady can match.

For Graham’s first four professional seasons, the Browns played in the All-America Football Conference, an upstart rival to the NFL. They won the AAFC championship four times and Graham led the league in passing yards in three of them.

After the AAFC closed after the 1949 season, Cleveland joined the NFL, where the wins kept coming; the Browns defeated the Los Angeles Rams to win the NFL championship in their first season, then lost three straight title games before ending Graham’s career with back-to-back championships.

In the final game of his career, Graham passed the Browns to a 38-14 win over the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL Championship Game in front of an NFL record 87,695 fan base at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. . He walked off the field to a thunderous ovation and richer with $3,508.21, the winning share of every player on the Browns’ title team.

4. Bobby Layne (1948-1962)

Quarterback Bobby Layne, shown playing for Pittsburgh in 1959, ended his career with the Steelers in 1962.

Quarterback Bobby Layne, shown playing for Pittsburgh in 1959, ended his career with the Steelers in 1962.

Notable achievement: He was the last quarterback to lead the Detroit Lions to a title, in 1957.

Layne, nicknamed “The Blonde Bomber”, began his career with the Chicago Bears before playing a year with the New York Bulldogs. Then he found a home with Detroit starting in 1950. Layne led the NFL in passing yards each of his first two seasons in Detroit, and his 26 touchdown passes topped the league in 1951. Although the stats of Layne weren’t as impressive in 1952 and 1953, the Lions won the NFL title both seasons.

The 1953 title was particularly impressive. In a 17-16 win over Cleveland, Layne’s late touchdown pass rallied the Lions from a 16-10 deficit. Wrote Detroit Free Press sports editor Lyall Smith: “Come the last minutes of it with the Lions in a six-point hole, and who was the player to team up with Layne for the big catches? Who is Jim Doran? He caught his first touchdown pass of the year on the spectacular 33-yard lift off the cold arm of a cool Texan named Layne.

Layne would win another title with the Lions, in 1957, although he did not play in any of the post-season games after starting most of the year. This is the last NFL title won by the Lions. Layne ended his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1962.

5. Sid Luckman (1939-1950)

Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman, circa 1940, at the Polo Grounds in New York.

Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman, circa 1940, at the Polo Grounds in New York.

Notable achievement: He was the first NFL quarterback to average more than 200 yards per game for an entire season.

Although passing quarterbacks like Baugh had played in the late 1930s and 1940s, the forward pass had yet to take root in a league dominated by running play. In 1943, Luckman changed that, averaging 219.4 yards per game per pass, nearly 40 yards more than the previous record.

Luckman, who would win four NFL championships with the Bears during his 12-year career, led the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns in 1943, 1945 and 1946, and in passing yards by game from 1943 to 1946. He was also the first quarterback to execute a complex offense that required him to use precise footwork and ball handling skills.

In a 56-7 victory over the New York Giants on November 14, 1943, Luckman played the greatest game for a quarterback in league history up to that time, throwing for 453 yards and seven affected. “One of the largest New York crowds to ever see a professional game – 56,591 – saw Sid fly over the Polo Grounds grill on his way to his record book rewrite job” , wrote the Associated Press about the game.

6. Norm Van Brocklin (1949-1960)

Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, shown in 1955, played 12 seasons in the NFL.

Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, shown in 1955, played 12 seasons in the NFL.

Notable achievements: He holds the NFL record for passing yards in a game (554). In 1960, while with the Philadelphia Eagles, he defeated the Green Bay Packers in the NFL title game – the only championship game Vince Lombardi lost as head coach of the NFL.

In his record-breaking passing game on Sept. 28, 1951, a 48-14 Los Angeles Rams victory over the New York Yanks, Van Brocklin spilled wealth. Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch caught nine passes for 173 yards and four touchdowns, Tom Fears had seven catches for 162 yards, and Verda “Vitamin” Smith caught two balls for 103 yards and a touchdown. Van Brocklin started in place of the injured Bob Waterfield.

“I’ve never seen a better display of passing in my life than Van’s last night,” Rams coach Joe Stydahar said, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

Van Brocklin was a two-time NFL champion, though despite his screaming numbers, he was only a first-team All-Pro once, in 1960 with the Philadelphia Eagles. Part of that is because he shared quarterback with Waterfield during his first four seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.

7. Bob Waterfield (1945-1952)

Bob Waterfield

Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield of the Los Angeles Rams, circa 1950.

Notable achievement: He glamorized the position.

Although Waterfield led the NFL in passing touchdowns twice, completion percentage once, and yards per completion three times, his career numbers weren’t exceptional. His greatest claim to fame was that he made the job glamorous.

After his rookie season in 1945, the defending NFL champion Rams moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles, where Waterfield had played college at UCLA. Heading west raised his profile even more. “Waterfield was one of the first star quarterbacks,” says Pro Football Hall of Fame historian Kendle. “He was married to [movie star] Jane Russell…and he helped usher in this era of the star quarterback in terms of personality and bravado. Russell was Waterfield’s girlfriend in high school.

In the Los Angeles Times, Waterfield’s name and photo appeared frequently on the company’s pages as well as in the sports section. “Bob is just as big a star in his profession,” said the Time reported in 1951, “as Jane is in hers”. Waterfield’s son Buck said in a 2019 interview: “My parents’ friends were people like Clark Gable and (NFL legend) Elroy Hirsch and both sides of the coin. We had Hollywood people in our house and NFL players in our house.