Brad Oremland is a longtime commenter and a fellow football historian. Brad is also a senior NFL writer at Sports Central. There are few who have given as much thought to the history of quarterbacks and quarterback ranking systems as Brad has over the years. You may recall that in April, he gave us a sneak peak at some quarterback rankings. Today, we begin seeing the words behind those numbers, starting with the pre-modern era quarterbacks.
I’ve been studying NFL history throughout my adult life. It’s a journey that began the first time I watched my dad’s copy of NFL’s Greatest Hits on VHS, accelerating when I read Total Football II, and continuing when I began sportswriting over a decade ago.
Something I’ve never done is to publish my list of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Sparked by Adam Steele’s crowd-sourcing project here at Football Perspective, I’m finally stepping into the ring. But because I’ve done so much research over the years, this is not a simple list. Instead, I’ll present my choices as a series of articles, highlighting about 10 players per list, and counting down to number one.
I will acknowledge upfront: unless you’re a history buff, this first installment is likely to bore you. Check back with me in a week or two! Here, I’m covering quarterbacks who played the majority of their careers before 1946. That’s the date the Pro Football Hall of Fame uses for the Modern Era, and it’s a good cutoff for two reasons. One is the end of World War II and the return of players who served in the military. It’s difficult to take stats from, say, 1944 at face value, because many of the best players were overseas. The other is specialization. Prior to the late ’40s, everyone played offense, defense, and special teams. In 1943, Sammy Baugh famously led the league in passing (as a QB on offense), interceptions (as a safety on defense), and punting (on special teams). Players were evaluated on their overall performance, so it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether an all-pro was really a respected QB, or whether he was just a great kicker. This is particularly important for quarterbacks, who prior to the T formation were usually run-first tailbacks, and had little in common with modern QBs.
Thus, the pre-Modern QBs get a separate, unranked list. I have little doubt that Sammy Baugh was one of the 10 best quarterbacks in history, and Sid Luckman a pretty easy top 20. But rather than trying to compare them to recent players, they’re profiled here. We’ll look at 11 early QBs, in alphabetical order.
21,886 yards, 187 TD, 203 INT, 72.2 rating
It’s convenient that Baugh leads off alphabetically, because he was surely the best QB to play extensively before the Modern Era. Baugh’s stats are unimpressive in a modern context, but he retired with nearly every major passing record: completions, yards, touchdowns, and more. He quarterbacked two championship teams, and he was a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one of only two QBs in the inaugural HOF Class of 1963.
Slingin’ Sammy, they called him. Historians credit Baugh with an offensive revolution: passing as a non-desperation strategy. He led the NFL in passing yards four times and in passer rating six times. Baugh was the dominant passer of his generation, and he excelled both as a single-wing tailback (prior to 1944) and a T formation quarterback (afterwards). Unsurprisingly, Baugh made a smooth transition into the post-war Modern era; 1947-49 were among his best seasons. During that three-year stretch, Baugh passed for 2,000 yards more (7,440) than NFL runner-up Tommy Thompson (5,372), with the most touchdown passes (52 to Sid Luckman’s 48), and an 84.3 passer rating that would still be respectable today. He is the one QB from the ’30s and early ’40s whose skills were suited to modern football. Baugh was the greatest QB of his era, and probably among the top 10 of all time.
Baugh was also a decent runner, a good defensive back, and the best punter of his generation. Because of his value in every phase of the game, Baugh is commonly ranked as the greatest player in NFL history.
Portsmouth Spartans, 1931-32; Detroit Lions, 1934-38
1,507 yards, 11 TD, 26 INT, 40.3 rating
Earl “Dutch” Clark was a hero on the football field. He was a six-time all-pro in seven seasons, and he joined Baugh as the only signal-callers in the first Hall of Fame class. But he wasn’t a quarterback in any modern understanding of the word. Clark passed for about as many yards in his career as Kirk Cousins did in 2014. Clark was a good passer for his era, but at that time, QBs weren’t judged on their passing. Clark led the NFL in rushing touchdowns four times, and he had a famous 40-yard touchdown run in the 1935 NFL Championship Game.
Clark was also a talented dropkicker, who led the NFL in scoring three times. The story about Clark which is told everywhere is that his eyesight was so weak he had trouble seeing his receivers. Clark was obviously a brilliant player, but he also represents why I’ve chosen to separate modern quarterbacks from their predecessors. How could I possibly compare Dutch Clark to John Elway or Aaron Rodgers?
New York Giants, 1934-41
3,817 yards, 37 TD, 44 INT, 58.1 rating
Quarterbacks throw much harder now than they did in the NFL’s early years. Part of what distinguished Sammy Baugh is that he was the first player to go out there and throw missiles. But even relative to his peers in the soft-tossing ’30s, Ed Danowski threw precise, floating touch passes. The Giants won the NFL’s Eastern Division in five of Danowski’s eight seasons, including two NFL titles, in 1934 and ’38. During his tenure, the Giants went 59-27-6 in the regular season. In 1935, Danowski led the NFL in most passing statistics, including completions, yards, TDs, and passer rating. But his most famous moment came a year earlier, as a rookie in the 1934 NFL Championship — better known as the Sneakers Game. On a field blanketed by ice, the Giants switched from cleats to sneakers for better footing. Danowski passed and ran for a touchdown in New York’s 30-13 victory.
Unlike many of his peers in the 1930s, Danowski was fairly one-dimensional. He was an okay runner and a pretty good punter, but he scored only 4 rushing TDs, he didn’t kick field goals, and he was not an impact player on defense.
Decatur Staleys, 1920; Chicago Cardinals, 1920-25; Chicago Bears, 1926-29
16 pass TD, 25 rush TD
Few stats were kept in the 1920s. John Driscoll was an effective passer and runner, but particularly distinguished himself as a kicker and punter. He led the NFL in field goals four times, and he successfully dropkicked a 50-yarder in 1924. Driscoll was small, even for the ’20s (5-11, 160), but he had mastered the art of dropkicking.
You sometimes hear old quarterbacks discussed as triple threats. Prior to 1950 or so, quarterback was a different position. We apply that term to Driscoll because he took the ball from center and directed the offense, but he was truly a run-pass-kick triple threat. In 1925, Driscoll’s Cardinals won the NFL Championship with a record of 11-2-1 — there’s a weird story to the championship, actually — and the Cardinals that season outscored their opponents by an average of 16-5. In this low-scoring environment, teams would sometimes punt, or dropkick a field goal attempt, before fourth down. Driscoll scored a lot of points on those dropkicks. He was enshrined in the PFHOF in 1965.
Cleveland Bulldogs, 1927; Detroit Wolverines, 1928; New York Giants, 1929-31; Brooklyn Dodgers, 1932-34
66 pass TD, 18 rush TD
It’s a shame we don’t have complete stats for Benny Friedman, because he was the one truly exceptional passer of the 1920s. It’s common to hear Sammy Baugh credited as the first great passer, but that’s probably not right. Baugh was a great passer, and his influence popularized passing as a legitimate offensive strategy. But Friedman, by all accounts, was a magnificent passer, without peer among his contemporaries.
Friedman was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005, more than 20 years after his death. At least three reasons contributed to the long wait. First, and most obviously, there were very limited passing statistics during his career. At a time when baseball, boxing, and college football ruled the sporting landscape, stats were among the few ways for players to make a mark that would be remembered. But they simply don’t exist for this period. Friedman’s HOF page reads, “Although official statistics were not kept, he is believed to have completed more than half his passes, at a time when 35 percent was considered a very good performance.” Friedman led the NFL in passing TDs four years in a row, and in rushing TDs once. But if we had more comprehensive stats, we could outline exactly far ahead of his contemporaries Benny was as a passer.
A second factor in Friedman’s relative lack of recognition is that his teams never won a championship. The Bulldogs and Wolverines went a combined 15-6-2 with Friedman, and Tim Mara bought the Wolverines in 1929 just to get Friedman for the Giants. New York went 13-1-1, but Green Bay went 12-0-1 and was awarded the title. The Packers did beat the Giants, 20-6, the week before Thanksgiving. The Giants went 13-4 the next year, but again lost the title to Green Bay. Friedman’s teams were always good, but never the best.
As a third consideration, Friedman’s HOF induction was probably delayed by his own personality. Friedman bragged about his own greatness in a way that turned people off. But he was right. Friedman was by far the best passer of his era, as well as a successful runner and kicker. He led the NFL in extra points in 1928 and ’29.
Green Bay Packers, 1930-40; New York Giants, 1944-45
8,041 yards, 81 TD, 106 INT, 50.1 rating
Don Hutson joined the Packers in 1935. Hutson was the greatest receiver before Jerry Rice, and some people will argue with you about the “before Jerry Rice” qualification. Herber and Hutson flourished together, but Herber was successful before ever meeting Don Hutson. He played on championship teams in 1930 and ’31 — although he only played three games in ’31 — and led the league in passing yards and TDs in both 1932 and ’34.
Herber’s greatest season was 1936. He passed for a record-high 1,239 yards, with 11 TDs, and he led the NFL in passer rating. Herber threw two TD passes, including a 48-yarder to Hutson, during Green Bay’s 21-6 victory in that season’s championship game. Herber was also the primary QB on the Packers’ 1939 championship team, making him a four-time champ in addition to his three passing titles.
Green Bay Packers, 1938-42
5,945 yards, 61 TD, 52 INT, 72.6 rating
Isbell picked up where Herber left off. The two split time in ’39 (Herber passed 139 times, Isbell 103), Isbell took about 2/3 of the work in ’40, and then Herber retired. Isbell never won a championship without Herber (he did throw a TD pass in the ’39 championship win), but the Packers went 24-7-2 during his three years as the full-time starting QB, roughly equivalent to 12-4 over 16 games.
Isbell was actually far more efficient than Herber, in every major stat. He was also a much better runner. However Isbell — unlike Herber — is not in the Hall of Fame, because of (1) speculation that his success was a product of throwing to Don Hutson, and (2) his very short career. Isbell led the NFL in passing yards, TDs, and rating in 1941 and ’42 … and then he retired to become a coach at Purdue.
Chicago Bears, 1939-50
14,686 yards, 137 TD, 132 INT, 75.0 rating
Sid Luckman was the Joe Montana or Tom Brady of the 1940s. Like Montana and Brady, he had great stats, but truly made his mark in the postseason. Luckman led the Bears to four championships, in 1940, ’41, ’43, and ’46. In the ’43 championship game, a victory over Sammy Baugh and Washington, Luckman passed for 286 yards and 5 touchdowns, rushed for another 64 yards, and the Bears won by 20 points. Altogether, Luckman was 5-1 as a starter in the postseason.
But Luckman’s reputation wasn’t built on rings alone. He was the first successful T formation passer, and he led the NFL in both passing yards and TDs in 1943, ’45, and ’46. Although Luckman was a standout runner in college, he was not a productive runner at the pro level. But he was a good defensive back and a pretty good punter. And other than Sammy Baugh, Luckman was the best passer of his era.
Chicago Bears, 1934-40
3,366 yards, 34 TD, 38 INT, 57.2 rating
Bernie Masterson is the player in this study about whom I know the least. I only included him because he ranked 70th in Chase’s all-time quarterback ratings last year. Masterson was an efficient downfield passer with a high average (8.2 yards per attempt, 21.6 per completion), and he played on three teams that reached the NFL title game. The Bears went 59-19-3 during Masterson’s years with the team. Masterson retired with -69 rushing yards (which includes sack yardage). Depending upon where you draw the line between quarterback and running back, there are a number of contemporary players who might rate ahead of Masterson.
Brooklyn Dodgers, 1937-1941; Boston Yanks, 1945; New York Yankees, 1946
4,698 yards, 30 TD, 50 INT, 53.1 rating
Ace Parker was the last great quarterback who wasn’t a great passer, a ’30s-style player with enough talent to succeed into the mid-1940s. Parker was NFL MVP in 1940. He threw 10 TD passes that year, second-most in the league, with 2 rush TDs and 2 receiving TDs. On special teams and defense, he led the league in extra points, interceptions (6), interception return yards (146), and INT return TDs (1). He was also the Dodgers’ punter, with a 38.3 average on 49 attempts. Parker was not a good quarterback in the modern understanding of the term, but he was a dynamic all-around player who contributed in every phase of the game. Parker was not fast, but he rushed for over 1,000 yards, far more than contemporaries like Baugh (325) and Luckman (-239).
Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams, 1945-52
11,849 yards, 97 TD, 128 INT, 55.0 rating
This is a strange case. Waterfield played mostly in the Modern Era. But he was a multi-dimensional threat who also contributed on defense and special teams. Compared to modern QBs, he wouldn’t make my top 40. He might sneak into the top 50, but it would be touch-and-go, and I don’t want to rate a player of Waterfield’s stature — a Hall of Famer — so low. Instead, I’m including him in the unranked listing here.
I don’t particularly want to argue that Waterfield was overrated, but it’s easy to see why he would have been. Waterfield was the Rams’ star when they were the only NFL team on the West Coast, and he married a movie star (Jane Russell). He made a big first impression in 1945, but never quite replicated the success of that amazing rookie year, when he led the Rams to their first-ever championship. Waterfield also had a very short career, eight seasons.
Bob Waterfield was a good punter, a very good defensive back, and an excellent placekicker. As a passer, he’s difficult to evaluate. His best seasons were 1945 and ’51. But there’s a problem with those two great years. In 1945, Waterfield was facing wartime competition. Sammy Baugh had a 109.9 passer rating that season, and set a record for completion percentage (70.3%) that lasted nearly four decades. The following season, with the war over, Baugh’s passer rating was 54.2. Waterfield was a great player in ’45, but (1) his stats were inflated by the lower-level competition, and (2) a lot of his value was on defense (6 INT) and special teams (40.6 punting average, led NFL in extra points).
In Waterfield’s other great season, 1951, he might have been the second-best QB on his own team. The Rams were an offensive powerhouse in the early ’50s, featuring two Hall of Fame receivers (Tom Fears and Crazy Legs Hirsch) in their primes, plus the Bull Elephant Backfield with Dan Towler, Tank Younger, and Dick Hoerner. Waterfield was actually a part-time player, platooning with Norm Van Brocklin. Sharing time with Van Brocklin is nothing to be ashamed of, and both QBs produced exceptional stats. But it’s plausible that Waterfield’s success was a product more of the system and the talent on the field than Waterfield himself. The Rams won the title game that year, with Van Brocklin throwing the team’s only touchdown pass, a game-winning 73-yarder to Fears in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps Waterfield’s most remarkable skill as a passer was his ability to avoid sacks: his sack yardage is among the very best all-time, maybe even top of the list if we had complete data. Unfortunately, Van Brocklin’s rate is nearly as good, again raising questions about whether this was a special talent of Waterfield’s, or simply a product of the Rams’ offensive system.
It’s hard to separate Waterfield’s reputation as an excellent all-around player from his accomplishments on offense, and it’s difficult to evaluate his stats in a unique offensive environment, especially over such a short career. He was obviously a good quarterback, but beyond that, I can’t rate him and pretend to be confident that he’s ranked correctly. Let’s simply acknowledge that he was a valuable player in an era when QBs did more than just throw passes.
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Next Tuesday, we’ll begin examining the 101 best quarterbacks of the modern era.