You probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Charlie Conerly. If you do, it’s probably in the context of his legacy as a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, the man who won a record four TD/INT crowns, or as the best quarterback from Ole Miss to lead the Giants to a title.
But here’s something you probably didn’t know about Conerly: he was the oldest quarterback in the NFL… for eight years. Sammy Baugh retired after the 1952 season at the age of 38; after Baugh, the oldest two quarterbacks in the NFL were Bob Waterfield and Frankie Albert, each 32, and both of them retired after the season, too. That left a pair of 31-year-olds as the elder statements of the NFL arms race: Otto Graham, born in December 1921, and Conerly, born in September 1921.
So in 1953, a 32 years old Conerly was the oldest quarterback in the NFL, thanks to a three month edge over Graham. The NFL was a young man’s league back then, at least at quarterback: no other starter was in his 30s, and only one other regular starter was older than 27. The gap would only grow over time. Graham retired in 1955; in 1956, Conerly was 35, and the next oldest quarterbacks were all 30 years old: Bobby Layne, Y.A. Tittle, Norm Van Brocklin, George Ratterman, and Harry Gilmer. In 1960, the oldest four QBs in the league were Conerly at 39, and Van Brocklin, Layne, and Tittle at 34 (yes, no 36-year-old quarterback magically appeared). In ’61, the three oldest quarterbacks in the NFL were Conerly at 40, and Tittle and Layne at 35; by then, Van Brocklin was coaching the Vikings. Conerly retired after the 1961 season.
So why was there the huge gap between Conerly/Graham and the NVB/Layne/Tittle group? Much of that gap was an artifact of World War II. Graham and Conerly were born in 1921. Tittle, Van Brocklin, and Layne were all born in 1926. So where were the quarterbacks who were born in ’23 and ’24? Those missing men were 18 or 19 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and 20 or 21 years old during D-Day. Young men born from 1922 to 1925 were more likely to be fighting Nazis (and our world forever thanks them for that) than attending passing academies.
Conerly himself was a veteran, so he wasn’t too old to be part of the war effort. He received a scholarship to Ole Miss in 1941, but left to serve as a Marine in short order. Despite no college football experience, he was drafted by Washington in the 13th round (that’s some pretty good 1945-era scouting) in 1945 while he was in Iwo Jima. Conerly then played two more seasons at Mississippi (including one as the SEC Player of the Year) before joining New York in 1948.
In 1920, Albert and Waterfield were born. In ’21, Graham and Conerly were born. The career passing leader among players born in 1922? That’s RB-WR-QB Charley Trippi with 2,547 yards. The career passing leader born in 1923? The obscure Jim Hardy with 5,690 and a 4-9 career record was the only player with 3,000 passing yards. 1924? It’s another random name from history: Fred Enke, who went 3-6 and had just over 4,000 yards.1 1925 gave us just one legitimate quarterback: Johnny Lujack, whose collegiate career was also impacted by World War II and who still threw for only 6,295 yards. Then, in ’26, we get three Hall of Fame passers. In ’27, we got George Blanda and Frank Tripucka.
We think of Graham, Tittle, Van Brocklin, and Layne as all-time great quarterbacks, with Conerly not far behind them. But while you may mentally adjust Don Hutson’s career (or at least his 1942 season) for World War II, you probably don’t do that for these passers. But consider: Graham was a first-team All-Pro quarterback in ’53, ’54, and ’55 at the ages of 32, 33, and 34 years. Was that partially because there weren’t any good 27, 28, or 29 year old passers around then? And did Tittle, Van Brocklin, and Layne benefit from those missing quarterbacks, too?
I calculated the percentage of league-wide2 passing yards produced by each quarterback in each season since 1932. Graham, for example, typically had between 7% and 11% of all passing yards due to smaller league size, while modern starting passers would typically get around 3% or 4% of total passing yards. But that difference doesn’t matter much, because I don’t care about the percentage of passing yards Graham had. I care about is the percentage of total passing yards by all players born in say, 1921, accumulated throughout their career. If you add the percentage of league-wide passing yards produced by Graham in each year to get Graham’s career total, and then do the same for all passers born in 1921, and then for all passers born in all years, well, now you’re getting something.
I don’t know what to call this metric, so there’s no label on the Y-Axis. But the graph below shows birth year on the X-Axis, and the aggregate percentage of passing yards gained over the course of players’ careers born in that year on the Y-Axis. I think you know what I mean. The point isn’t the number, but the relative size: 1921 is a relatively normal year thanks to Graham and Conerly — but then you get a huge gap until 1926, which stands out as the most oversized year on the graph.
In case you’re wondering about some of the low numbers in modern times…. Well, 1978 only gave us David Garrard, Joey Harrington, and Sage Rosenfels. And 1974 only provided Jake Plummer, Charlie Batch and Danny Wuerffel.
But allow me to transition from Sage Rosenfels back to World War II. In isolation, the lack of a top quarterback being born in 1922, 1923, 1924, or 1925 isn’t that weird. What’s unusual isn’t just one really low year on the chart, but that it occurs for four straight years. And we have a pretty obvious explanation for it, too. This chart is pretty random, and I think that makes some sense: it’s hard to have a few down or up years in a row, because the entire chart is based on percentage of passing yards gained. But it appears that World War II was so large in scope that it broke that rule.
What do you think?