The signal caller has probably always been the most important player on the football team, even back when he didn't throw all that often. In fact, he may have been even more important in times gone by since he called his own plays. The first quarterback who famously did not was Otto Graham, derided despite his excellence by his peers for that very reason. Paul Brown didn't have helmet radio, so he used 'shuttling guards'.
Of course, since the Green Bay Packers began under Curly Lambeau to throw the ball a lot (for then), the importance of the quarterback was enhanced. Within a decade, the dominant pair of QBs, the Manning and Brady of their time if you will, were Sammy Baugh of the Redskins and Sid Luckman of the Bears. Both had offenses still heavily predicated on running, but they threw the ball routinely and were famous for it. Both also played safety when the bad guys had the ball. Baugh led the league in passing, punting and interceptions one year. The quarterback arguably never had more skills. The closest analogy in the postwar era was probably George Blanda, who also was a star place kicker.
With the passing of World War II football changed, and the air show became bigger. The Rams moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles and brought with them Bob Waterfield, a brilliant passer. Soon he was joined by arguably an even more brilliant talent, Norm Van Brocklin, who would lead the professional version of UCLA (which is what the Rams were, really) to incredible scoring totals in a league still baffled about how to defend their razzle-dazzle, bombs-away offense. In 1950 they averaged nearly 39 points per game, actually scoring 70 and 65 on consecutive weeks.
In another league Paul Brown was cultivating the team that actually foreshadowed modern football the most. His Browns, led by Otto Graham, won all 4 AAFC titles. When the league folded and they joined the NFL, they beat those 39-ppg Rams in the title game. They would win 3 NFL titles and play in the championship game their first 6 years in the league, all with Graham. Over his 10-year career in two leagues, he won 7 titles and reached the title game every season.
As the late 50s brought in widespread televising of games, the quarterbacks got more famous. That makes it hard to tell whether or not they got better. But the forward pass was bigger than ever, and the TV exposure turned Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Y.A. Tittle and many more into household names. By the end of the decade, the upstart AFL had the most famous of them all in Joe Namath.
The more recent decades most of us either remember, know someone who remembers or see enough highlight-edited history to recognize the figures as if we did know them.
And, of course, it always begs the grossly unsatisfactory question "who was the best?"
The best at what?
And that is the angle of this capsule summary. Nobody could do everything. What are some realistic categories that permit us to at least filter things down to a few per? I don't know, but I'll give it a try.
Here's a category that begs to be put into the old 11-man days, prior to the 50s. Paul Brown is generally credited with using more specialists and platooning. After he showed up, the age of Mr. Everything, the Sixty Minute Man, was coming to a close. We have two entries.
1. Sammy Baugh: There may have been tougher guys, but none who were huge stars. Baugh was a superstar who not only endured punishment few see anymore, but had to dish it out too on defense. And punt. Through it all, and he surely played hurt as a result, he threw the ball for as-yet-unseen yardage and led his team to titles.
2. Sid Luckman: Nobody was tougher than the Bears, and Luckman led the offensive blitz that hammered Baugh's Redskins 73-0 in the 1940 championship game. In fact, the Bears and Redskins would meet 4 times between 1937 and 1943, splitting the difference. In a telling moment from the 1943 title game, Sammy Baugh had to leave with, of all things, a concussion --- sustained while tackling Sid Luckman, of all people.
B. Most Revolutionary
This had to come in the 50s, when the game changed so much. Right? Maybe. But there were so many revolutions in football, you have to consider each one.
1. Sammy Baugh: The tough guy just happened to be the first quarterback to make passing an exact science and a truly major part of the offense, one that defenses had to plan for. Usually it was in vain. The rest is, of course, history. It worked.
2. Otto Graham: Besides winning at an unheard-of clip, Graham also had the once-dubious distinction of having his plays called from the sideline, something done almost without exception today.
3. Johnny Unitas: Once people saw his two championships in the late 50s on TV, courtesy of the opponent being the New York Giants (without whose presence the telecasts would have been less likely), his name became a household word. In two seasons, he had vaulted pro football to heights nearing those of college ball and become the symbol of football excellence. His name still evokes that image.
C. Most Talented
There's a tough one. Talented at what? Baugh could do everything. But we stick mostly to the talents that traditionally befit a quarterback. He still shows up.
1. Joe Namath: Controversial? You bet. He'll never be accused of being the hardest worker, the most polished, or the most successful. He will be accused of being a bum. But Namath was probably the most heralded talent of all time coming out of college, and his pilfering by the AFL for unheard-of money turned out to be a bargain. Never playing on a truly powerful team, he nevertheless led the Jets over the Colts in the biggest championship upset imaginable, establishing the AFL and earning himself the gratitude and respect of his AFL foes in so doing. You have to have seen him to believe any of this. It was said he could throw from goal line to goal line in practice. He came out of Alabama not just the nation's premiere passer but also its premiere scrambler, a talent that cost him both knees. Yet photos exist of him in a normal standing position throwing a perfect spiral over an onrushing Oilers defensive line --- with his feet a full 3 1/2 feet off the ground. And knee braces on both legs. Talent was his middle name.
2. Sammy Baugh: That man again. What else do you do with a guy who could pass, defend the pass and kick --- all at league-best level? The passing part was in a class all its own in his day.
3. Norm Van Brocklin: The Dutchman took the league by storm in the 50s, winning a couple of championships as bookends to a career dotted with monstrous passing totals, even for today, in an era when offensive linemen couldn't even extend their arms and receivers could be bounced around anywhere until the ball was airborne.
4. Peyton Manning: He doesn't throw many perfect spirals. He isn't mobile. He always has great protection and an all-star receiving corps. But his accuracy and brillliant reading of defenses have generated ball movement unseen before he showed up.
D. The Winner:
You'd think the stats would take care of this, but they really don't do it completely.
1. Bart Starr: He was never considered the best in the league even in his best years, but he sure won at a clip no one else could match then. Yes, the Packers were really good and had a great coach. But Starr, perhaps the ultimate system quarterback, managed it all perfectly and threw well too. He appeared in a full six NFL championship games in 8 seasons and won 5.
2. Otto Graham: So why isn't Graham, who won 7 titles in 10 seasons and played in every title game, the winner here? Technicality, perhaps --- his first 4 title games (and titles) came in the AAFC.
3. Tom Brady: 7 AFC title games, 5 Super Bowl appearances, 3 rings, and an unmatched W/L and divisional record push Brady past rivals who have won 1 more Bowl.
4. Joe Montana: 4 for 4 in Super Bowls, Joe was heralded as the best of all time for a while. He wasn't. He had mediocre seasons. But he sure came up big a lot, making the Niners the dynasty of the 80s.
5. Sid Luckman: His Bears were a tad better than Baugh's Redskins over his tenure, and if not for the advent of World War II likely would have won at least one more title with him. Another sports casualty of that monstrous conflict, unnoticed among all the actual casualties.
6. Terry Bradshaw: It's almost uncanny how little credit Bradshaw gets for leading the Steelers to 4 rings in the 70s in 4 tries, a la Montana. They said he was dumb. He wasn't that dumb.
7. Peyton Manning: Huge W/L, lots of division titles, a couple of SBs and a ring make him a winner along with his other accolades.
E. Best Field General:
Things like helmet radios, hand signals and even shuttling guards take away from some deserving moderns in this category.
1. Johnny Unitas: Maybe he's not the most deft playcaller in history, but he sure called his own plays without any help whatsoever. He won a lot of games. And he's the prototype. No one has a more inspirational name at the position since he played. He earned it with leadership and excellence.
2. Peyton Manning: The quintessential signal-caller and audible expert might pass his Colt predecessor except for a curse he didn't ask for --- his helmet and its radio. And somehow, even his name doesn't ring 'leadership' like Unitas. Maybe it's just the phonetics.
3. Tom Brady: Just barely behind his heralded contemporary Peyton Manning, Brady has become just as adept at reading defenses and changing plays --- and generally with far less talented support. In the new millenium, nobody has come close to these two eternal rivals.
F. Most Inspirational Leader:
That's easy to understand, totally subjective to pick. Then again, all of this is subjective more or less. That's what makes it fun. Who wants to crunch numbers? What is this, the BCS?
1. Johnny Unitas: There are bigger winners and more precise passers. Nobody ever was more inspirational or more of a leader. Maybe Sammy Baugh. We have to leave him out of something, don't we?
2. Bart Starr: You can bet that when the pressure was on, and it was for these guys more than for almost anybody else, they felt comfortable knowing who was behind center and won more because of it. His do-or-die sneak in the Ice Bowl is the stuff of legend.
3. Tom Brady: Has anyone ever taken over the reins of a floundering former contender from an all-pro quarterback and turned them into an overnight dynasty? This guy did it. You could say Peyton Manning too, but he's always been surrounded by an all-star offense. Brady hasn't.
4. Joe Montana: Like Starr, he inspired confidence in his talented teammates that things were never hopeless. And 4 times, they truly weren't.
G. Mr. Clutch:
Is there a difference between this and the last category? Not huge, but opportunity only knocks enough times for a few.
1. Joe Montana: No, he didn't win every year, and he had his failures too, but never in the biggest game. That's his calling card.
2. Bart Starr: If not for the fact that Starr's teams ran the ball far more than throwing it, he might be on top.
3. Tom Brady: For a while it looked like Brady was headed for shoo-in status in this category. Then the realities of the salary-cap era hit. The earlier guys were practically guaranteed a more consistent roster over a longer time. That helps.
4. Otto Graham: In one of the original pass-oriented offenses, a quarterback who wins at the clip of 3-for-6 championship games in the NFL and 4-for-4 in the AAFC (not chopped liver by the way) has to be clutch.
5. Bobby Layne: Graham would have won a couple more titles if not for the Lions, led by this guy. He beat the dynastic Browns (once after Graham left) 3 times in 4 tries. Since the day he left Detroit they haven't won at all.
6. Terry Bradshaw: If not for the fact that he was a cog in a stacked team with an unbeatable defense, he might rank higher. Then again, without that he might not rank at all.