Bernie Kosar was recently named the Cleveland Browns best quarterback in the past fifty-years, but he is definitely not the best Browns quarterback of all-time.
Otto Graham is still the greatest Cleveland Browns quarterback of all time, although Bernie Kosar was recently honored as the best Browns quarterback since 1967 in an excellent article by Ali Bhanpuri of NFL.com.
No complaints about Bernie…he was definitely a franchise quarterback and led the Browns to the AFC Title game three years in a row. He played the game with guts, intelligence, gusto and skill. In fact, a bit of personal trivia: the first time I recall hearing the term “franchise quarterback” was from talk radio host Pete Franklin of WWWE in Cleveland talking about Bernie Kosar. “This kid is a FRANCHISE quarterback” he informed his loyal listeners. And he was right.
Kosar, Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack comprised a dream backfield for the Browns in the late 1980s under head coach Marty Schottenheimer. Their Super Bowl dreams were destroyed in epic playoff matchups against John Elway and the Denver Broncos. Then after Kosar, Gary Danielson and Mike Pagel were injured in 1988, fourth string quarterback Don Strock was unable to advance in the playoffs, so Art Modell decided to fire Schottenheimer and the team fell apart shortly thereafter. But that is another story.
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Although Kosar never won a Super Bowl ring with the Browns, he received one from the Dallas Cowboys in 1993.
So while celebrating the greatness of Kosar, it is also true that by excluding the great players prior to 1967, the view of Cleveland football is distorted. Any discussion of great Cleveland quarterbacks has to include Otto Graham. It is like talking about the best right fielders for the New York Yankees and leaving Babe Ruth out of the discussion. Certainly we can decide to limit the discussion to the last fifty years if you insist, but we all know that Paul O’Neil is not the greatest Yankee right fielder of all time, it was Babe Ruth.
Truly, it is sacrilegious to omit Graham from the discussion. It is fair to say that Kosar was the best franchise quarterback of the past fifty years (with some dissension from the fans of Brian Sipe), but in the same breath it should still be acknowledged that Graham was one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Franchise quarterback? Graham, guided by his innovative coach Paul Brown, put the entire game of football on his back, and ushered in the passing age. The comparison to Ruth is very apt. Prior to Ruth, baseball was a game of sacrifice hits, drag bunting and stolen bases. After Ruth, baseball was about knocking the ball out of the park. Prior to Graham, football was three yards and a cloud of dust, with the forward pass used as an act of desperation when the team was behind. Graham made football into an aerial game.
Graham’s path to greatness had a few curves and bends. First of all, he served his country in the Coast Guard in World War II, which delayed his athletic career for a few years. He joined the Browns as a 24-year-old defensive back and kick returner and was converted to quarterback by Brown. The rookie took over the starting quarterback position and led the Browns to the All-America Football Conference championship. As every Browns fan knows, the All-America Conference was a rival league which self-destructed by trying to outspend the NFL on player salaries. The two leagues merged in 1950, and the Browns won the NFL championship their first year.
Graham was a five-time Pro Bowler, four-time first team All-Pro, one-time second-team All-Pro, three-time NFL MVP, two-time NFL passing yards leader, two-time passing rating leader and also led the NFL in touchdowns once. He was a four-time champion of the All-American Conference, two-time AAFC MVP, and three-time All-AAFC. For good measure, he was selected to the NFL’s 1950’s All-Decade Team and to the NFL 75th Anniversary Team. No one will ever wear number 14 for the Cleveland Browns again because of his accomplishments.
The other day I wrote an article about why people hate Baker Mayfield. Well, they hated Otto Graham, too. It was more than disgruntled Steeler fans. The NFL establishment was understandably a bit upset at the upstart Browns and the AAFC. They cost the old school owners a lot of money by jacking up the pay scale for players, which ranged from pathetic to low at that time. Then they had a nerve to destroy the then NFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles in their first NFL game in 1950, and were further brazen enough to win the NFL Championship in their first year. And then there was this Graham kid chucking the football all over the ball-yard. The Old Guard was upset at this new style of play. Mainly they were upset at getting beat but would not admit it.
It is kind of crazy to talk about anyone else as a franchise quarterback. If for whatever reason it is necessary to limit the conversation to the past fifty years, that is okay, but we still know who the best Cleveland Browns franchise quarterback was.