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Charlie Conerly and the Quarterbacks That Never Arrived

Back in the day, men were men and quarterbacks were Marlboro men.

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?

  1. Unless you count Butch Songin, who had 4,347 yards — but those all came in the AFL, beginning at age 36. []
  2. Combining the AAFL, AFL, and NFL together. []
  • sacramento gold miners

    Something like 350 universities suspended football during WW2, including schools like Florida, Oregon, and Stanford. And whether a person served or not, their life was impacted in some way by the war effort.

    Another huge difference between Conerly’s era and today, is the approach of college players toward the NFL. Few players were aiming for a career in pro football back then, the pay was small, and some players just tried the NFL for fun. If a player was married, he often needed to work in a more sustainable career. Even as recently as the 70s, many star NFL players had offseason jobs, preparing for life after football.

    • Yep, great point. Lujack, for example, left to go became an assistant coach at Notre Dame!

  • “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.”

    Not totally obscure, since he still holds a significant (though dubious) record, with 8 interceptions in one game.

    https://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/195009240crd.htm

    • Mark Growcott

      After throwing 8 INTs and losing 2 Fumbles against the Eagles, Hardy somewhat redeemed himself the following week and nearly made the record books again by throwing 6 TD Passes in a game against the Baltimore Colts (the defunct Colts who only lasted 1 season in the NFL) and a record-tying 7th TD Pass was dropped.

  • Richie

    “The NFL was a young man’s league back then”

    Does anybody else have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that some guy who played in 1951 was “young”?

    I know it’s true. But when I look at old pictures of guys playing back then, they all look like they are 40 years old.

  • Richie

    A couple observations:

    It looks like there is another somewhat down period from 1941-1944. That would fall in line with players who may have gone to the Vietnam war instead of playing football.

    I find it interesting that the chart seems to go the opposite way in so many years. It seems like year-to-year should be smoother. Most years have a QB that is taken at the top of the draft, so shouldn’t most years end up with QB’s who become useful NFL players? It would make sense if there were always large gaps between peaks. But this chart practically alternates.

    Would it be easy to post a list of the top x players born in each season, just to take a look at them to see if there are any kind of trends?

    • Yeah I could do that at some point. If I forget, just remind me.