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Was this the best quarterback of his era?

Was this the best quarterback of his era?

There are a lot of great things about Football Perspective, but my favorite is the caliber of the commenters. The Football Perspective community is a great one, and has been going back to its days at the Pro-Foootball-Reference blog. In the recent Greatest QB of All Time, Wisdom of Crowds post, long-time commenters Kibbles and Brad O. got into a fascinating discussion in the comments about Norm Van Brocklin and Otto Graham.

I’ve decided to reproduce, unedited, their words here. Why? Well, for starters, I found the debate fascinating, but you may not have seen the whole thing buried in the comments. The Van Brocklin/Graham question is a great one, and any historian will enjoy reading their thoughts. I also present their words in an aspirational sense: the Football Perspective commenters are great, but these are the type of respectful, meaningful, and thought-out words that I hope breaks out more often.

I kicked things off by expressing a bit of disappointment that Van Brocklin finished only 25th in the Wisdom of Crowds poll.  He had a star-studded career, is the only quarterback to lead two different NFL teams to a title, and had some outstanding efficiency seasons.

From there, let’s hear from Kibbles.  Here was his response to my comment, in blue:

I had NVB 13th and Graham 15th on my list, so you’re preaching to the choir. If you separate out the AAFC numbers, Van Brocklin and Graham had pretty much identical passing stats. Graham had more championships and appearances, but Van Brocklin did it for two different teams.

For me, the difference is supporting cast. It’s not like Van Brocklin was playing with a bunch of nobodies, (check out Elroy Hirsch’s 1951 the next time you want your mind blown, and remember that Tom Fears also made the Hall of Fame, even if he seems like a borderline choice who did much of his damage before NVB really broke out). Still, thanks to Paul Brown, Otto Graham might as well have been playing a different sport from his contemporaries. When two guys are surrounded by Hall of Famers on offense, tiebreaker goes to the guy who also had arguably the most influential coach of all time prowling the sidelines. So, given NVB and Graham’s very similar stats, I find Van Brocklin’s ever so slightly more impressive.

In came Brad O., in brown:

I think you’ve taken a good idea a touch too far. The people who watched Graham and Van Brocklin had no doubt who was better. All-pro awards, 1950-55:

1950 — Johnny Lujack
1951 — Graham
1952 — Graham and Layne
1953 — Graham
1954 — Graham
1955 — Graham

They both had great stats during those years, so it’s hard to see that pushing the debate in either direction. But I believe Graham was greater from 1946-49 than NVB from 1956-60, and he clearly was a more accomplished postseason player. I don’t believe Dante Lavelli was as good as Crazy Legs Hirsch, or that the Browns had as many offensive weapons around Graham as Van Brocklin enjoyed in L.A. Van Brocklin won with two different teams, but so did Graham, really: the ’46 Browns and ’55 Browns shared only four players — Graham, Frank Gatski, Lou Groza, and Lavelli. It also bears mention that the Browns dynasty collapsed upon Graham’s retirement.

Paul Brown was the greatest coach of all time, but I believe you’ve deflected an unrealistic amount of credit from quarterback to coach. Brown himself said, “Otto Graham was the key to the whole team … He had total composure on the field, the ability to find whatever receiver was going to come open, and the arm and athletic ability to get the ball to him … Otto was my greatest player because he played the most important position, and he played it to perfection. He was the crux of how we got things done.” At his HOF induction in 1967, Brown chose Otto Graham to present him.

You’re right about Van Brocklin, but you’re underselling Graham.

What follows was the rest of their debate, with Kibbles in blue, and Brad O. in brown.

Or was Van Brocklin the top QB?

Or was Van Brocklin the top QB?

It’s possible I’m underselling Graham. My belief is that people tend to dramatically underrate the impact that quality coaching has on a quarterback’s performance. For instance, I know of several statistical formulas that rank Montana, Young, and Anderson as three of the top 10 QBs of all time. Which do you think is more likely, that Walsh worked with three quarterbacks for an extended period and those three guys just so happened to be three of the top 10 QBs in NFL history… or Bill Walsh’s offensive system was so amazing that it made good-to-great quarterbacks look like top-10 quarterbacks? Personally, I think that second explanation is more compelling.

Paul Brown might say that Otto Graham was the key to the whole team, but that doesn’t change the fact that thanks to Paul Brown the whole team was essentially playing a different sport. Paul Brown invented modern pass blocking concepts and the idea of a “pocket”. He invented the draw play. He brought structured practices and organizational depth charts and coaching assistants and film study. He was an organizational genius whose concepts are still in wide use today. I would say no coach has had a bigger impact on the game in modern NFL history.

Graham did win all of those All Pros over Van Brocklin when they were contemporaries, but it’s a bit of a squidgy comparison. In 1950, 1951, and 1952, Norm Van Brocklin actually platooned at the QB position with Bob Waterfield. That’d normally be a strike against Van Brocklin, but Waterfield was a Hall of Famer in his own right, too-  Van Brocklin made the pro bowl in each of those three seasons, and Waterfield made it as well in 1950 and 1951. If Steve Young had managed to platoon with Joe Montana, would that have been a negative for Young, or a positive? I’m not sure. Either way, it’s something of a unique situation.

That really only leaves 1953, 1954, and 1955 when both players were competing head-to-head for awards on an even playing field. Which is bad for Van Brocklin, because 1953 and 1955 were far and away Graham’s two best seasons in the NFL. Also in NVB’s favor is the fact that he essentially had nearly twice as many NFL games played (140 to 72) and NFL pass attempts (2895 to 1565). Graham had the AAFC, but again, if we’re counting what he did there, I really think we have to count what Moon did in the CFL, and what Jim Kelly did in the USFL. I think the quality of competition was equal or better.

I don’t know. It’s a hard comparison, and I ultimately had the two very close to each other for a reason. Van Brocklin had an unconventional NFL career, but I think with all things considered he was as great as Otto Graham. Or perhaps even just a little bit greater. His efficiency stats were essentially identical, he presided over arguably the greatest offenses in history, and he won championships with two different teams, all without the help of arguably the greatest head coach the game has ever seen. Had the two quarterbacks had their places switched, who would have fared better? I think maybe Van Brocklin.

You’ve clearly given this issue some thought, and you deserve a detailed response, so I hope you won’t take offense that I’ve Fisked your comment.

re: Montana, Young, and Anderson — first of all, I would dispute your inclusion of Young, whose best seasons came under George Seifert. Certainly Young benefited from his time with Walsh, but I have a hard time crediting a guy who retired in early 1989 for what Young did from 1992-98.

There’s a similar case to be made regarding Anderson, who had two of his best seasons in the early ’80s. I also believe there’s a little bit of a straw man problem here. Ken Anderson didn’t make my top 25 or yours, so I’d rather not base our discussion on an assumption that he was a top-10 QB.

Furthermore, there’s a case to be made that Walsh scouted effectively to find the right players, and not simply that he developed their talent. I believe it’s a balance of the two.

You’re obviously correct that a coach can help his quarterback succeed, but I don’t believe the correlation is nearly as strong as you imply. Peyton Manning has had four head coaches. Johnny Unitas took three different HCs to NFL Championship Games. Sammy Baugh had eight head coaches, and so on. Most great QBs succeed with several coaches, and there are great coaches — including great offensive coaches, like Joe Gibbs — who never developed HOF-caliber QBs. Coaching is a factor, but probably not as large a factor as you’ve indicated.

You don’t need to talk up Paul Brown for me. I have written repeatedly (including in the comment you replied to, but apparently I need to repeat myself) that he was the greatest coach of all time. But I don’t believe you truly addressed my point; Brown said Graham was his greatest player (including Jim Brown), and the greatest dynasty in football history collapsed when Graham retired. Paul Brown never won a pro championship without Otto Graham. Again, I’m not trying to discredit Brown. But you’re not giving Graham enough credit. You also haven’t mentioned that Van Brocklin worked with Clark Shaughnessy and Sid Gillman.

re: the all-pro votes … obviously the platooning limited Van Brocklin’s opportunities, and you’re right that splitting time with Waterfield is nothing to be ashamed of. But Graham did play more in those seasons, and I rate players on what they did, not what they might have been. What if Young had supplanted Montana in ’88? I don’t want to rate anyone based on assumptions. If you’re going to imagine what Van Brocklin might have done without Waterfield, let’s imagine what Graham might have done without World War II. He never played in the pros until he was almost 25.

And it’s a cop-out to complain that ’53 and ’55 shouldn’t count because Graham was really good those years. That’s kind of the point. I also think you’re undervaluing Graham’s contributions in ’52: he was the Cleveland offense that year; the team was much more balanced in ’55. And it’s not just the all-pro votes; Graham was NFL MVP in ’51, ’53, and ’55, and I suspect he would have won in ’52 if any of the major organizations had named one. I have trouble dismissing a consensus in contemporary opinion. It’s obviously not the only factor, but surely it should be a factor.

I absolutely believe we should credit Moon and Kelly for what they did before coming to the NFL, but if you really think the quality of play in the early-80s CFL was as high (relative to the NFL) as the AAFC, you are crazy. That’s not a tenable position. I don’t believe there’s any question that Otto Graham was the best QB of the late ’40s. I suspect Graham was at least as good in his age 24-27 seasons as his age 31-33 seasons. Using NFL games and attempts is a canard; you can’t throw 1946-49 out the window if you’re doing an honest evaluation of Graham. Van Brocklin is not substantially ahead on service.

It is a hard comparison, and you speak to my line of thinking with the “had the two quarterbacks had their places switched” question. But Graham had comparable or (in my view) slightly better stats, he certainly was more highly regarded at the time, and his team achieved greater results. It’s disingenuous to credit Van Brocklin for two titles with two different teams, but not mention that Graham won seven championships, played in the league championship every year of his career, and generally performed really well in big games. Let’s not penalize him for staying in Cleveland.

You’ve obviously given this matter real consideration — I wish more people approached the all-time question with your thoroughness — but I think you’re underrating Graham at every turn.

Re: Steve Young- yes, it’s true that he received little playing time under Walsh himself, but Walsh was responsible for Young’s development, and to some extent I’m using “Bill Walsh” as metonymy for the entire Bill Walsh coaching system and offensive scheme. Which seems fair to me, because that’s how the rest of the world treats it. Witness: Mike Shanahan being considered part of the “Bill Walsh coaching tree” despite (a) never coaching under Bill Walsh, and (b) having a decade worth of coaching experience (including two years as a head coach) before he ever joined San Francisco.

Re: Ken Anderson- yes, some of his best years came after Walsh left, but see my last point. Also, it’s true that neither of us had him in our top 25, but that’s not my point. My point is this, and only this: revolutionary coaching causes a player’s statistical production to outpace his true talent level. He was a guy we agree was not a top-25 QB, and yet he still put up top-10 numbers because his offense was decades ahead of its time. Otto Graham’s offense was also decades ahead of its time, so I treat his statistics with skepticism.

Re: Walsh scouting effectively – this actually is an interesting demonstration of my point. Bill Walsh called Jake Plummer “the next Joe Montana”. Is this an example of poor scouting, based on how Plummer did in Arizona? Or an example of good scouting, based on how Plummer did in Denver? Personally, I think it reinforces the importance of coaching and the power of the West Coast Offense, properly implemented. Plummer had 4.37 ANY/A in Arizona. He had 6.32 ANY/A in Denver. I think Plummer is perhaps the biggest example of just how dependent a quarterback’s production really is on his situation.

Re: Manning, Unitas, Baugh- you’re absolutely right that they all succeeded with multiple coaches. Which is exactly why all three made my all-time top 10. I’m much more confident that those three were not a product of their scheme or coaching than I am about, say, Otto Graham.

Re: Paul Brown – So he says Graham was his greatest player ever. That’s awesome. That’s a data point. John Madden says Ray Guy was the greatest punter of all time. Doesn’t make it true, but it’s a data point. I think Graham was absolutely the most integral piece of those dominant Cleveland teams, but does that mean he was a better quarterback than NVB? Not necessarily. Maybe those Cleveland teams would have been even better still if they’d had Van Brocklin, and Paul Brown would instead be claiming NVB was the greatest player he ever coached. So yeah, you keep repeating that statement, and I think it’s a data point, but I don’t find it nearly as dispositive as you seem to. Bill Belichick could say that Tom Brady is the greatest player he’s ever coached and I still wouldn’t think he’s better than Peyton Manning.

I also vehemently disagree with your claim that the Browns dynasty “collapsed” after Graham retired, unless by “collapsed” you mean “had one losing season in the next 18 years”, or “went 9-2-1 and made the championship game two years later, and then went 9-3 the year after that.” Sure, they weren’t winning multiple titles, but they were doing pretty well for a team that had lost so many Hall of Famers. Remember, in addition to Graham, you had Lavelli and Gatski retire in 1956, plus Motley retired in 1953. That’s FOUR Hall of Fame offensive players gone in a very short span.

Speaking of collapse, though, how did the Rams do after Van Brocklin left? Philly did fine, but they had this young guy named Sonny Jurgensen waiting in the wings, which probably helped.

I didn’t mention that NVB worked with Clark Shaughnessy and Sid Gillman, this is true. Of course, you failed to mention that NVB won a league MVP award under Buck Shaw. My point wasn’t that NVB never played in phenomenal circumstances – obviously those early ’50s Rams teams were tailor-made for huge offensive production. My point was that we saw NVB succeed outside of those situations, too, which makes me more convinced that NVB’s production was inherent to NVB himself, whereas I have far less assurance that Graham could have succeeded elsewhere. Again, it’s like Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. I’m sure Peyton could have succeeded on multiple teams for multiple coaches, because we’ve seen him do that. I’m not sure Tom Brady could have, because we haven’t. It’s possible Brady could have, but the fact that we never saw him do it hurts him in comparison to Manning.

I never complained that 1953 or 1955 shouldn’t count. I said that Graham was better than NVB when they played together, but that was essentially a 3-year window. We can’t play the “who was better when they were contemporaries” game, because “when they were contemporaries” basically represented such a tiny portion of their total careers. It was a three-year span. Graham was better during that three-year span, no doubt, but it was a three-year span.

You might not want to rate people on assumptions, but my original post rating quarterbacks started with the clarification that I was rating based on who I thought could “take his’n and beat your’n, then take your’n and beat his’n”. That’s naturally rating based on assumptions and counterfactuals. You’re welcome to rank some other way, but that’s how I ranked. If you want to say “any ranking system based on what players actually did and nothing more should value Graham over NVB”, I would heartily agree. Of course, I could argue that any such ranking system should probably include Ken Anderson in the top 25. Ultimately, I believe Adam said there were 80 sets of rankings, which means that there were 80 sets of assumptions and value judgments. Yours might not be mine, but given the parameters of the activity, mine were still valid.

Likewise, I absolutely *CAN* throw out AAFC production, just like I threw out CFL and USFL production. I did not consider production that came outside of the NFL (or AFL, and even there I substantially discounted early-AFL stuff because the league was a joke for its first few years). You seem to have a much higher opinion of the AAFC than I do. It’s possible that the early ’80s CFL was substantially worse than I thought, too, but the AAFC was atrocious aside from the Browns. Look how much Cleveland’s statistics declined when they merged. Look how much San Francisco declined when they merged. Look how few other AAFC players landed on an NFL roster after the league disbanded. It was a bad league with one great team. Otto Graham averaged 9.4 AY/A against the AAFC and 7.0 AY/A against the NFL. Graham had a rating of 99.1 against the AAFC and a rating of 78.1 against the NFL. I feel quite comfortable discounting his AAFC production just like I’d discount a player’s college production, or production in any other similarly inferior league.

Again, maybe I’m underrating Graham. I’m supremely open to that possibility, given that we’re talking about guys who played more than 50 years ago, (and I am not more than 50 years old). That’s okay though. It’s my opinion. I’ve given it a lot of thought. If opinions on Graham exist on a continuum, mine might be among the lowest, but personally I think it’s important to try to balance out those whose opinion on Graham is among the highest, (many of whom I guarantee have thought far less about this particular issue).

I think coaching is an underrated factor in player success. I think the AAFL was a joke league. I think “RINGZ BABY” is an uncompelling argument. For these reasons, I’m destined to be lower on Graham than consensus. And I’m okay with that.

Kibbles, it seems I may have offended you, and that wasn’t my intention. If so, I apologize.

I don’t want to get too sidetracked on the Bill Walsh issue, but I can’t agree about Steve Young or Ken Anderson. Young threw 170 passes for Walsh in 1987-88, and I don’t believe that and the WCO are what made him the NFL’s best QB in the mid-90s. The systems that show Anderson as a top-10 QB are bad systems. I’m willing to disagree on these issues, though, because I don’t think they’re central to our discussion, and surely we’d agree that Walsh is an exception, not the rule.

I think you’ve misunderstood me here: “Re: Paul Brown- So he says Graham was his greatest player ever. That’s awesome. That’s a data point. John Madden says Ray Guy was the greatest punter of all time.”

Madden was comparing Guy to all punters, ever, and [1] he’s biased for his guy, [2] punting is widely misunderstood. Brown was comparing Graham to his own players, the guys he coached. That carries stronger weight. But it’s also not the crux of my argument. You’re right, it’s a data point. I didn’t intend to imply that was the end of the discussion. But I don’t believe Paul Brown would agree with you that Graham was so much a product of the system.

Browns, 1946-55: 105-17-4 (.849), 7 CS, 10 CS Appearances
Browns, 1950-55: 58-13-1 (.813), 3 CS, 6 CSA
Browns, 1956-62: 53-31-4 (.625), 0 CS, 1 CSA

The Browns were a +.800, year-in, year-out championship team with Otto Graham. Their worst record was 8-4 (.667). Their average following his retirement was 40 points lower, and they ceased to be a championship caliber team. Furthermore, they fell from 9-2-1 in Graham’s final season to 5-7, then rebounded when they added Jim Brown, arguably the greatest player in NFL history. So yes, I think it’s fair to say that the Browns dynasty collapsed upon Graham’s retirement. No one considers the 1957-62 Browns a dynasty.

The Browns won back-to-back titles without Motley; his greatest years were in the AAFC and in 1950. Lavelli was a fine player, but he absolutely would not make the Hall of Fame today. I get your point, that Graham wasn’t the only player Cleveland lost. It’s a valid point, but the ’57-58 Browns had 5 HOF players. The Browns in Graham’s era were a uniquely successful team, the greatest dynasty in the history of professional football. Immediately upon Graham’s retirement, they ceased to be that exceptional team. My interpretation is that Brown’s magic wasn’t enough in Graham’s absence.

As stated earlier, I agree with you about Van Brocklin; we rank him the same. It’s Graham we disagree upon. You don’t need to convince me Van Brocklin was great. He was.

re: rating methodology, of course yours is valid. But I don’t see how you can restore credit to Van Brocklin during the years he split time with Waterfield, and throw Graham’s AAFC years or Moon’s CFL years out the window entirely. As with Van Brocklin, they were obviously great QBs, but their NFL playing time was limited by unusual circumstances. It seems logically inconsistent to include one but not the other.

I’m not suggesting you take AAFC stats at face value (or CFL, USFL, etc) — just that we need to acknowledge what Graham did during his years in the league. He was the best QB in football in the late ’40s, and any evaluation that ignores that is inevitably wrong. Warren Moon was prevented from playing in the NFL until he was 28, but we know he was a good quarterback in the early ’80s. Jim Kelly was the best QB in the USFL. We don’t have to take his stats at face value to acknowledge he had two good seasons that aren’t included in his NFL record. Signing with Houston didn’t make Kelly a worse QB. It’s hard to compare players in other leagues, but it’s better to make an educated guess than to ignore those years entirely. Graham was the best QB of the late ’40s. Moon and Kelly were good players before they reached the NFL. Those aren’t radical ideas at all; indeed, they’re obvious. All I’m suggesting is that we acknowledge this.

Otto Graham was also the best QB of the early ’50s (great stats, all-pro every year); I don’t need a ringz argument to support him. At the same time, I think his team’s success and his own championship performances are a valid consideration that can only enhance his case. If you revise your position on Paul Brown’s importance to Graham’s success, and give Graham credit for being what we know he was in the late 1940s, I imagine we’d rate him nearly the same, just as we do for Van Brocklin.

I’m not offended, I’m just chatting. I don’t mind a little bit of healthy disagreement in the slightest.

You keep bringing up Graham’s championships, which I suppose is unavoidable in any discussion of Otto Graham and the Cleveland Browns. Here’s my big problem with that. From 1950 to 1957- an 8-year span- the average rank of the Cleveland Browns in points allowed was 1.25. The average rank in yards allowed was 2.00. These figures are unprecedented – I have never seen an 8-year run anywhere close to that. Any way you slice it, Otto Graham played with an absolutely dominant defense. And I’m sure Graham made their job easier, but they ranked 1st in points allowed and 2nd in yards allowed in each of the first two seasons after Graham retired, so it’s not like we can give him too much credit. Part of that was pace, of course – Cleveland ranked “only” 2.75, on average, in yards per play allowed. (Though that was partly skewed by the fact that they were playing with so many leads). On the other hand, during Graham’s 6 years in the NFL, the Browns ranked 2.83 in points scored and 4.5 in yards gained. Again, part of that is pace – they ranked 3.00 in yards per play. But the larger point is this: Graham played with one of the best sustained defenses the league has ever seen. By any measure, that defense deserved every bit as much credit- if not more- for those championships.

By comparison, NVB’s Rams defense ranked, on average, 7.5 in points allowed and 9.13 in yards allowed. His Eagles defenses ranked 8.33 in points allowed and 9.0 in yards allowed. While Graham’s defenses were consistently among the top 2 in the NFL, Van Brocklin’s were consistently below average. If you average points allowed and yards allowed together, Graham played with one defense in his NFL career that ranked lower than 1.5 – a 1953 unit that was 1st in points allowed and 6th in yards allowed, for an average of 3.5. At the same time, Van Brocklin played with only one defense in his entire career that ranked better than 6th by that simplistic method – also in 1953, when his defense ranked 4th in points allowed and 5th in yards allowed for an average of 4.5. So Van Brocklin’s best defense was worse than Graham’s worst defense. And Graham also played with the best coach of all time and even had the best placekicker of his generation. Sure, he made a lot of championship games, but I don’t find that to be a particularly dispositive distinction in this particular comparison.

I also think it’s crazy to suggest that the Browns dynasty “collapsed” after Graham retired. Words mean things, and “collapsed” means something other than what happened to the Cleveland Browns after Graham retired. In the decade following Graham’s retirement, the Cleveland Browns had ONE losing season, posting a cumulative record of 84-41-5 (65.8%). They made three championship games during that decade and won one of them. Maybe we don’t still count that as part of the dynasty any more, but I can think of 32 NFL fanbases who DESPERATELY HOPE their franchise “collapses” to the tune of a decade of 11-5 seasons, three championship berths, and one title. I mean, this is essentially identical to arguing that the New England Patriots “collapsed” after 2004. It just doesn’t make sense under any meaningful definition of the word.

I also like how you add the “Well, then they got Jim Brown, so that’s why they were good again”. By that definition, (we must evaluate the Browns after Graham, but we can’t include the Jim Brown era because he was also great), we’re stuck with a sample size of N = 1.

Anyway, what it really boils down to for me is that Otto Graham was one of a handful of offensive Hall of Famers on a team with a better defense than offense coached by the greatest coach of all time. He never led his unit to the heights of the NVB Rams’ offenses. He made a lot of championship games, but see the first sentence of this paragraph again. His NFL averages were also essentially identical to NVB’s. I suspect that Otto Graham was no better of a QB from 1946-1949 than he was from 1950-1955, so if the Browns had been in the NFL, that would still likely remain the case. (If anything, I think that if Graham had spent his entire career in the NFL, his averages would have been worse than NVB’s.)

Given all of that, I think NVB was maybe a slightly better quarterback.

Good, I’m glad we’re on the same page.

I think you’ve misunderstood why I “keep bringing up Graham’s championships”. It’s part of my argument that Cleveland was substantially less successful following his retirement, which in turn is part of my argument that Graham may have played a larger role in the team’s success, and Paul Brown a smaller one, than you had previously believed.

When I say that the Browns dynasty collapsed, you’re focusing on the word “collapsed”, and I’m focusing on the word “dynasty”. If I re-phrase it, that the Browns were way less successful following Graham’s retirement, perhaps we could avoid any semantic disagreement. The stats are clear:

Browns, 1946-55: 105-17-4 (.849), 7 CS, 10 CS Appearances
Browns, 1950-55: 58-13-1 (.813), 3 CS, 6 CSA
Browns, 1956-62: 53-31-4 (.625), 0 CS, 1 CSA

I’ve used 1962 as the cutoff date, since that’s when Paul Brown was fired. As I understand it, you believe that Graham’s success was largely a function of Brown’s genius, and that belief is one of — if not the — main reasons you rate Graham lower than usual. I’ve presented objective evidence (Cleveland much more successful with Graham) and subjective evidence (Brown called Graham “my greatest player”, “the key to the whole team”, “the crux of how we got things done”) to support my position — that Graham was probably more critical to the team’s success than you had thought. The team’s results without Graham support Brown’s statements.

re: Jim Brown … Cleveland went 5-7 in the first season following Graham’s retirement, then rebounded when they added Jim Brown the following year. It seems almost certain that the team’s misfortunes would have been longer and worse had Brown not joined the team. This is not a critical element of my argument, but I think it’s obviously true.

You raise a good point about the greatness of the Browns’ defense, except that we’re getting
caught in a tangent. When I refer to Cleveland’s team success, it’s the success during the Graham Era as contrasted with the lesser success following his retirement — again, this is addressing your belief that Graham’s accomplishments were largely a product of Paul Brown’s coaching. The defense was still great in the late ’50s, but the team stopped winning championships. You note that Graham “never led his unit to the heights of the NVB Rams’ offenses”, but the Rams’ historic offensive seasons occurred while Van Brocklin was a part-time player, with Bob Waterfield. Van Brocklin’s stats in those seasons are terrific, but so are Waterfield’s, and he didn’t make the top 25. Also — and this is one of the hardest things to sort out (in various eras) — Graham’s offense in 1950-51 didn’t need to do as much as the Rams’. It might be a bit like comparing the Saints’ offense in the Drew Brees era to Brady/Manning/Rodgers. Beyond Van Brocklin’s personal performance, I’m disinclined to regard the 1950-51 Ram offenses as an important data point in this discussion, though I could potentially be persuaded otherwise.

My evaluation of Graham is based on his excellent stats and a consensus in contemporary opinion. Beyond his outstanding numbers and impressive collection of awards and honors, Graham is also — from the standpoint of team results — the most successful individual player in history; that reinforces my belief in Graham, but does not form the basis for it. I consider team success in my evaluation of QBs, but it is not a major factor in my rankings (for this project, I rated Brady 8th, Aikman outside the top 25). I do think it’s to Graham’s credit that he generally played at a very high level in the team’s most important games. His impressive postseason performances don’t show up in the regular-season stats, but they’re certainly a mark in his favor.

I think it’s great you’re beating the drum for Van Brocklin; if you look at my original response to Chase, I was pretty horrified at Van Brocklin’s relative lack of respect in the voting on this project. But I believe if you re-consider your evaluation of Graham, he comes off even better than Van Brocklin.

Well, after all that, I’m not sure I have figured out which way I fall in this debate.  But I do know I’m appreciative to Kibbles and Brad O. for their great discussion.

  • I had been wondering for years who appreciate was, and now I know! 😉 (If that was confusing, there is a mistake in that last sentence–“I’m appreciate to.”)

    I always find Graham interesting, because I think there is a credible argument that he is the greatest quarterback of all time, and yet there is also a credible argument that he’s “just” Terry Bradshaw. (The latter argument is a bit harder to make, and it’s clearly not at all what Kibbles is arguing above, but it’s an argument that wouldn’t get Rule 11 sanctions.)

    However, I don’t know that I’ve ever really thought enough about how to properly rate Van Brocklin. I had him at 15 in my post for the WOC list, and I’m not sure I would move him now, but there’s more to think about with him than I had realized.

    • Fixed!

      Of the RINGZ crew, I think you’ve got Montana and Brady at the top, Bradshaw at the bottom, and then Graham and Starr in the middle. Not sure why, but that seems to be where the public has landed.

      • sacramento gold miners

        We’re all at a big disadvantage not having seen Graham or NVB live, and there isn’t much game film of these players. Even with all the research and studying in the world, it’s extremely difficult to make a decision in this case.

  • Bryan Frye

    I tend to believe that Graham was the better quarterback, but that the difference is not nearly as great as history has made out. Graham put up comparable numbers to NVB when he played against NFL defenses. I think Graham was great on his AAFC days too, but I can’t overlook the low quality of defenses he faced. Had he faced his own defense and succeeded, that would have been different (but really, how hard was it to pass against a bunch of white cornerbacks).

    • Kibbles

      This is completely off-topic, but I think the dominance of black cornerbacks in today’s NFL is far more sociology than biology. I think passing against white cornerbacks was probably easier because by excluding blacks, you’re excluding a huge pool of talent… but I’d imagine the best white cornerbacks of the day were comparable (after era-adjustment) to the best black cornerbacks of today.

      • Bryan Frye

        I cannot pretend to know with epistemic certainty the absolute truth in this argument. However, I am still inclined to disagree about the overall quality even if I agree with you on the sociological aspect. I don’t know when cornerback became a “black” position, but it seems like the position has been dominated by black athletes ever since the league was reasonably integrated. Assuming 1960 is a fair point to say the NFL was integrated (less Washington), there have been 16 Hall of Fame corners in the integrated era. Wehrli and LeBeau are the only white guys. You can throw in Butler if you want to move the line back a few years and call it 3/17.

        If you look at All Pro selections in that timeframe, there have been 87 different players to make AP1 at cornerback. Ten of them were white. Nolan Cromwell was the last white AP1 cornerback in 1982.

        Again, I’m not saying sociology doesn’t play a role, because it clearly does. I’m just saying that as soon as the league was reasonably desegregated, black dudes have dominated the cornerback position.

  • eastgate

    Astonishingly good discussion!

    I’d be interested in knowing a bit about Kibbles’ and Brad’s backgrounds. They know a lot about early football, clearly! I’d love to know how. (I’m interested for its own sake, and also because I’m searching for a better way to be a better fan, which I suppose means I’m searching for the Roger Angell of football. Or something!)

    Questions like this one seem especially perplexing in light of baseball. I never saw Ted Williams and scarcely saw Willy Mays, but I’ve got a reasonable idea how to go about comparing them, and also a reasonable idea of what they did in light of what people considered possible. But I’ve got no real idea how to approach 1950s football — or even 1990s football!

    • Bryan Frye

      I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I want to know about the NFL before I started watching (the majority of NFL history), I study the crap out of it. For instance, when I wanted to know more about the first year of the AAFC-NFL merger (1950), I first went to Pro Football Reference and studied everything I could from a stats perspective (individual/team passing, rushing, receiving, etc.; total offense, total defense, point differentials, Pythagorean wins, SRS; ranks and relative performance in the aforementioned categories). Then I looked up everything I could about awards/honors to try to get a feel for public/media perception in 1950. Then I read everything I could from guys like Dr. Z or Pro Football Researchers Association, who tend to have a broad scope of the game. I also read modern stuff from guys like Chase Stuart to Kerry Byrne. It doesn’t matter if I agree with writers or not, as long as it gives me a more holistic understanding of both the game and other people’s views of the game.

      Also, don’t be afraid to be wrong or appear stupid. A lot of guys seem to pretend to know things they clearly don’t know just so they won’t appear ignorant. Personally, I think admitting to ignorance is often one of the best ways to learn and grow.

      For football that is currently happening, all of the above is great too, but nothing beats just watching the game.

      • Also awesome: old newspapers and the Sports Illustrated Vault. Awards give a sense of then-current perception, but it’s less nuanced than the view accounts like that will give you. Plus, it’s interesting looking at how journalism and writing have changed and not changed over time. I’m still fascinated at how similar the themes and arguments are from SI in 1972 compared to now, especially with how different newspapers look now than they did then.

        • Bryan Frye

          Amen to that. I read a bunch of old newspaper articles for the Follis piece I did last week, and I definitely feel like it made me a better fan. One of the weirdest shifts I have seen in football writing (and I can’t pinpoint the date of the shift) is the current practice of lambasting any athlete who makes a mistake – on or off the field. If older journalism turned men into gods, modern journalism turns gods into men.

    • Kibbles

      I was born in 1984 and was only peripherally aware of the NFL until the late ’90s. In the early 2000s, I got into fantasy football, and so I’d say my knowledge from about 2002 onwards could be considered “first-hand”. I write about fantasy football for a big site now, and a lot of my process is based on historical modeling. As a result, I do a lot of historical queries, and since I’m naturally a curious guy, I find myself chasing down the rabbit trails that pop up. For instance, I might see that Odell Beckham had an amazing rookie season, so I’ll look at other WRs who had amazing seasons early in their career, which might pop up John Jefferson, which will cause me to go down a rabbit trail trying to figure out how a guy whose career started out so amazingly wound up falling off so precipitously. So that’s a big part of it- just digging through history on PFR and Wikipedia and the various other sites trying to get a better understanding of the current game in that historical context. There are some amazing querier tools on PFR now that make looking things up a cinch.

      Another big part of it is just engaging with other people who know a lot, like my discussion with Brad O. here. I think many people wouldn’t really see the point in engaging in a debate on a week-old post on a lightly-trafficed website. They’d rather shout into the vortex at a site like PFT. I didn’t really expect anyone to see it. But for me, discussions like that are their own reward. Brad O. is a really smart guy who knows a lot of things that I don’t know, and engaging with people like that is a good way to learn things.

      Really, the key is just surrounding yourself with passionate people. I write about fantasy football because I’m passionate about football and I have a burning desire to understand it. Fantasy football is the avenue I use to explore that. I chat a lot with Bryan Frye, who isn’t into fantasy football, but who is also extremely passionate about the sport, consumed with a desire to understand it better. Chase is exactly the same way. Guys like Mike Tanier and Brian Burke. These are guys who are far more consumed with the desire to understand than with the desire to be right. That’s rare on the internet, where being right is pretty much enshrined as the foremost goal of all participants in any discussion. (See: http://xkcd.com/386/)

      So that’s pretty much it for me. Engage with smart people who are passionate about understanding, avoid people who are passionate instead about being right, (no matter how smart they might be). Twitter’s an invaluable tool for the democratization of knowledge and thought. If you’re on, I could give you a short-list of guys I consider must follows for someone seeking to gain a deeper understanding of what’s going on on the field.

    • I’m older than Kibbles, but my approach is similar. Football is a complicated game, and there’s so much that doesn’t show up in the stats, so for players I didn’t see live, I’m very interested in contemporary accounts: what peers thought of them, what writers said about them, how many honors were voted to them, etc. Something Kibbles didn’t mention, that’s huge for me, is NFL Films.

      I can look at a list of Hall of Famers, and find that (for example) Bobby Layne was a great player. But I want to know what made him great. You know that Ted Williams was a left-handed batter, a brilliant hitter with unparalleled command of the strike zone. He hit for average and power, but he pulled everything, and was one of the first players who commonly faced a defensive shift. He wasn’t a bad fielder precisely, but he didn’t care about playing defense. You know that Willie Mays was a graceful center fielder, a right-handed power hitter, an aggressive baserunner, etc. You can’t really compare those players without understanding some of what made them great, and that’s even more true in football, where we don’t have anything as comprehensive or precise as wOBA and WAR. I’m not comfortable rating players I don’t understand. So for someone like Layne, I need to know that he was an unparalleled leader, a great athlete who ran effectively, that he didn’t always put his hands on the laces, that he threw hard and the ball got there quickly, but his passes were wobbly. I need to understand his situation in context (How good a coach was Buddy Parker? What’s the deal with Cloyce Box?). NFL Films is a tremendous resource for those things, and not just from game clips. One possible difference between Kibbles and myself is that I’m most interested in primary sources.

      That said, I do a ton of stat-based research. I’ve designed formulae for the offensive glory positions, to help me better evaluate them. Once you’ve discovered a model that reflects things you know to be true, you can use it to learn things you didn’t know yet: sorting out marginal differences, or identifying under-appreciated players. Kibbles wrote about “chasing down the rabbit trails”, and I do that, too. When I stumble onto a topic I don’t know much about, I pour myself into it: I get really excited about learning new things. And sometimes, topic A leads to an even more interesting topic B. It’s what keeps the game fun for me.

      I’m a columnist for Sports Central; actually, I’m a little late to posting this because I was writing my own article about underrated QBs in the crowd-sourcing exercise. My interests run parallel to Chase’s; I cover the NFL’s present, but always with an eye to the past. I’ve been studying this sport throughout my adult life. Discussions like the one with Kibbles help me understand my own ideas, and Chase and I have had some pretty spirited discussions the past. Finding smart people who disagree with you is a critical way to test your own ideas and see if they hold up. I don’t know if you were looking for methodology or biography or something in between, but that’s where I’m coming from.

      • Kibbles

        By the way, great call on McNabb. He was probably the most painful player for me to leave off my final 25, because he was the perfect embodiment of my “take his’n and beat your’n, then take your’n and beat his’n” philosophy. People really don’t have a clue how atrocious his supporting cast was. His all-time leading receiver was Brian Westbrook. Second place went to Todd Pinkston. I believe Terrell Owens came in 3rd, despite only playing 20 games together. McNabb’s passing stats during that 20-game span, by the way, are virtually indistinguishable from Peyton Manning’s career averages. TD%, INT%, Y/A, AY/A, ANY/A, YPG, etc pretty much all either on the nose or even better. Also, I know “fantasy points” isn’t a real stat, but insofar as it synthesizes all of the different ways in which a player produces on a football field… Donovan McNabb led all quarterbacks in fantasy points per game a whopping THREE times. Peyton Manning has only managed the feat twice.

        Last offseason, I participated in an “All Time Fantasy Mock”, where we pretended that every player in NFL history was a 21-year-old rookie today and would wind up on a totally random team in a totally random situation, and we could draft anyone to build a fantasy team. I had McNabb pretty obscenely high on my rankings, just because he’s one of the few guys who I felt comfortable saying “you know what, I really don’t care where this guy lands, he’s going to be a star”.

        • Yep — http://www.footballperspective.com/the-top-quarterbacks-and-the-receivers-they-threw-it-to/ — although it looks like Chad Lewis slightly edged Owens for 3rd place.

        • 700Level

          As an Eagles fan who watched every single game of his career I can confidently say that McNabb does not belong on any list of top 25 QBs. The fact that anyone can think he should be is an example of why analytics doesn’t work as well for football as it does for baseball.

          • Kibbles

            You know, I believe Mike Tanier- someone who has watched an Eagles game or two in his day- had something to say about the disdain typical Eagles fans held for Donovan McNabb: http://www.footballoutsiders.com/walkthrough/2010/walkthrough-mcnabb-deniers

            I live in Dallas, so I hear from a lot of Cowboy fans who have watched every single game of Romo’s career. Most of them would tell me he doesn’t belong anywhere near a top-25 list. And yet there Romo was, appearing on 20 ballots in the Wisdom of Crowds voting. (Which, incidentally, was 20 more ballots than McNabb appeared on.)

            Here’s what I know: I know that I watched a fair few Eagles games, myself. When Donovan McNabb was throwing to James Thrash and Todd Pinkston, he looked like an average passer with electric running ability who was keeping a mediocre offense afloat. I know exactly what that looks like, because I grew up a Broncos fan, and I saw John Elway do that for over a decade.

            And then when Donovan McNabb got a receiver- a real, bona fide, NFL wide receiver- he looked like an All Pro. An MVP. A Hall of Famer. I know what that looks like, too, because I saw what happened to John Elway when he got Shannon Sharpe, Rod Smith, and Ed McCaffrey.

            I’m not saying McNabb is on the level of Elway. Elway was my #2 ranked quarterback, IIRC. McNabb did not make my top 25. In fact, McNabb didn’t make *ANYONE’S* top 25. I did briefly flirt with the idea of including him. I did lament the fact that I couldn’t really expound on how underrated he was. But he certainly was no John Elway.

            I’m just saying, as a Broncos fan, I’ve seen just how much of an impact a real supporting cast can have on how someone looks as a passer. And when McNabb had a real supporting cast, he absolutely looked the part. No question.

            That’s not analytics. I’m not really an analytics guy. Neither is Brad O., the guy who first brought up McNabb’s name. That’s just a simple recognition of the importance of supporting cast when it comes to how history will remember you.

          • Richie

            I believe this is straw man argument. Nobody used analytics to put McNabb in their top 25, so why are you trying to discount analytics? I don’t think there are any analytics that would put McNabb in the top 25.

            McNabb was a fine QB. Probably 26-50 best QB of all time. Lots of current NFL teams would love to have a QB of McNabb ‘s caliber.

  • Preston

    Great discussion. Otto Graham is 3rd in my GOAT QB list. IMO, he’s the best pre-70s QB and the player who has stood out from his era the most. Paul Brown might the greatest coach ever but his legacy wouldn’t be cemented without Graham. Van Brocklin doesn’t stand a chance. 7 championships in 10 years, the highest winning percentage amongst any QB, and the highest Y/C ever. ( In an era where defenders could hold receivers, passing rules weren’t like today, hits were harder) Otto Graham had unbelievable stats for his time. A 112 QB rate, 64 % completion percentage, and had higher Y/C and TD rates than Peyton. I honestly think Graham could function in today’s league.

    • Bryan Frye

      It seems a bit disingenuous to cite the great defenses of the era and ignore the dearth of black cornerbacks. Also, I think it’s more fair to say 3 championships in 6 years, which is still really incredible.

    • Kibbles

      Graham doesn’t have the highest Y/C ever. He ranks 3rd. Looking just at his NFL numbers, he averaged 15.5 y/c for his career. NVB ranks 5th with 15.2. Notably, you cite his era as if that makes his Y/C total more impressive, but in reality it makes it less. Otto Graham played in the highest Y/C era in NFL history. 9 of the top 10 players in NFL history in career yards per completion were active during the ’50s. (The lone exception was Daryle Lamonica).

      Outside of that, I don’t see any compelling reason why we should privilege Y/C among QB stats. To me, it seems more of a descriptive stat than a value stat. Is a guy with 15.0 y/c and a 50% comp% better than a guy with 10.0 y/c and a 75% comp%? Both average 7.5 yards per attempt, and YPA is pretty much the gold standard of simple passing statistics, at least in terms of correlations to things that actually matter, (wins and future performance).

      Also, that 112 QB rating came against the AAFC. I keep going on and on about why Graham’s AAFC stats shouldn’t count. It wasn’t the NFL. It was a 2nd-tier league with one unbelievable team (whose statistics were therefore insane because they were so much better than everyone else). Otto’s passer rating against the AAFC was 99.1. His passer rating against the NFL was 78.2. His AAFC stats should not be considered in a “greatest NFL QB of all time” debate, any more than Doug Flutie’s 6,000 yard passing season in the CFL should be considered.

      If you place Graham and Van Brocklin on a level playing field- playing for NFL teams against other NFL teams- their stats are remarkably similar. Chase did an AAFC adjustment for Graham’s stats in the last round of the GQBOAT series, and depending what system he used, Graham checked in anywhere between 11 and 13, while NVB checked in… anywhere between 11 and 13. http://www.footballperspective.com/the-greatest-qb-of-all-time-v-part-iii-adjusted-dropbacks/

      So, again, when the statistical profiles are so close, I tend to defer to the guy who put up those similar statistics in tougher circumstances.

      • Just in the last few years, I’ve gotten interested in yds/comp as a degree-of-difficulty metric. I realized that many QBs whose statistical profiles don’t sync with my impressions of them are Y/C outliers. It’s possible that I systematically underrate horizontal passing and idealize downfield throwers, but I don’t believe that’s the case.

        The guys with low Y/C are the ones who will get you four yards on 3rd-and-7, or who don’t know what to do when they face a really good defense that takes away the short throw. The high Y/C guys are the ones who throw an interception 40 yards downfield on 3rd-and-long, the low Y/C guys are the ones who throw an interception on a screen pass and watch the CB return it to the end zone. Over-generalizing, of course. Over the last 10 NFL seasons, there are 17 QBs with at least 3,000 pass attempts. Here they are, ranked by Y/C:

        1. A.Rodgers, 12.5
        2. B.Roethlisberger, 12.3
        3. T.Romo, 12.1
        4. P.Rivers, 12.1
        5. E.Manning, 12.0
        6. M.Schaub, 11.9
        7. T.Brady, 11.9
        8. M.Stafford, 11.8
        9. P.Manning, 11.6
        10. J.Cutler, 11.6
        11. C.Palmer, 11.6
        12. J.Flacco, 11.5
        13. D.Brees, 11.4
        14. M.Ryan, 11.2
        15. M.Hasselbeck, 11.1
        16. B.Favre, 11.1
        17. A.Smith, 11.0

        Obviously, Y/C correlates strongly with last names beginning in R. This isn’t an ordered list of great QBs, but the names at the top are (in general) stronger than the names at the bottom. Alex Smith has done a nice job avoiding negative plays the last few years, and he’s made some plays with his feet, but his arm just is not a weapon. I believe high-efficiency, high-Y/C demonstrates skill, while high-efficiency, low-Y/C represents system. If there are two players with equivalent passer rating, yards/att, etc.,
        but there’s a big gap in Y/C, the higher Y/C will be the better player
        more often than not.

        Also, looking at the data above, I should have used 2,500 as a cut-off, so I could include Orton [11.2], Fitzpatrick [11.0], and Jason Campbell [11.0].

        All that said, I agree that Y/C is a non-factor in the Graham/Van Brocklin debate.

        • Kibbles

          The problem is that the correlation between Y/C and Y/A is obviously non-zero (because Y/C is one of the component factors of Y/A), and we all know that Y/A (or, alternately, one of its adjusted forms) is the best simple measure of passing quality. So it makes sense that a Y/C list would also correlate quite strongly with passing quality.

          Here’s the exact same list for comp% (among players with 2500 pass attempts over the last 10 years):

          1. Brees
          2. Peyton
          3. Rodgers
          4. Romo
          5. Rivers
          6. Schaub
          7. Brady
          8. Ryan
          9. Roethlisberger
          10. Favre
          11. Palmer
          12. Cutler
          13. Hasselbeck
          14. Flacco
          15. Alex Smith
          16. Jason Campbell
          17. Fitzpatrick
          18. McNabb
          19. Stafford
          20. Orton
          21. Eli

          I think that list looks pretty much as good as your list, and each can point to anecdotes in their favor. Y/C dramatically prefers a guy like Donovan McNabb (who would have ranked 3rd on your list, but who ranked 18th on mine). Comp% dramatically favors Brett Favre (who checks in 10th for me and 18th or later once you add in all the other 2500 guys on your list). Personally, I think ranking Eli in the top 5 is a little bit nuts. At the same time, ranking him dead last behind the likes of Campbell and Fitzpatrick is also kind of nuts. In a battle of the Matts, Y/C thinks Stafford is a star, while Comp% swoons for Ryan.

          Personally, I think Matt Stafford and Matt Ryan are pretty comparable in terms of quality, even if they’ve been diametric opposites in terms of style. Which kind of encapsulates my thoughts about the three stats. Y/C and Comp% are great for telling you how a player plays, but you have to combine them to learn how well he plays.

          Just my thoughts on the subject. 🙂

          • I don’t think Y/C is an important statistic, I just don’t think it’s meaningless. A few mainstream analysts seem to use comp% as their preferred efficiency stat, which is asinine — but it’s not useless: in a vacuum, comp% is probably more important than Y/C.

            But I believe there’s a real skill element in Y/C. Something you wrote, which I agree with, is a suspicion of “system” QBs. With good people around him, a mediocre QB can throw short passes, limit his risk, and put up decent efficiency numbers just by completing a high % of passes and avoiding INTs. I don’t believe the reverse is true: a QB with above-average stats and high Y/C is almost invariably a pretty good player.

            I have written many times that Eli Manning is overrated … but he is not a system QB. You could put him in a different scheme and he’d still be an okay quarterback. I’m not sure that would apply to the low Y/C guys, like Alex Smith. It’s not that all low-Y/C passers are talent-starved system players, but if you have a successful QB who’s not really that great, he almost always has a low Y/C.

            The 2,500-att list for the last decade gave us a lot of active players whom it’s difficult to evaluate, but here’s the 1990s: C.Chandler, Testaverde, Elway, Young, Kelly, J.George, Marino, Humphries, Bledsoe, Everett, Moon, Esiason, Favre, O’Donnell, Harbaugh, Aikman.

            Obviously, I have no interest in arguing that Chandler and Vinny were better than Elway and Young, or O’Donnell and Harbaugh superior to Aikman. Low Y/C does not automatically equal a mediocre QB. But I would posit, and I doubt this is controversial, that the players at the top of the list owed their success mostly to true talent, while we might wonder about that for the players at the bottom of the list.

            O’Donnell set a long-lasting record for INT%, but could not generate offense on his own. For a two-minute drill, he’s probably the last player you’d pick. I don’t know that Harbaugh was really a system QB, but I think he’s proven that his mind was better than his arm. Troy Aikman was a good player … but if, in the course of your conversation with God, God happened to mention that one of the HOF QBs from the ’90s was just a guy … is there any chance it’s not Aikman?

            I just can’t see a high-Y/C guy being someone who fooled the numbers for a few years, but wasn’t really that good. I use the stat as a degree-of-difficulty metric and a tiebreaker.

            • Kibbles

              Interesting. Not sure if I agree- I still think Y/C is a result of scheme more than talent. Eli Manning has a huge Y/C because he played in a Kevin Gilbride offense that placed a huge emphasis on vertical passing. If he’d been drafted by Jim Mora, I think his Y/C would be lower. Sure enough, New York switches schemes and Eli puts up his worst Y/C since 2008 and the best comp% of his career.

              Sure, a guy like Alex Smith or Chad Pennington probably couldn’t have a high Y/C because they have a very specific limitation (arm strength), but I don’t think that makes them “system QB” any more than any other QB. Plenty of quarterbacks couldn’t have a high comp% because they have a different very specific limitation (see: Tim Tebow or Michael Vick).

              Also, if God told me that one of the ’90s QBs was a JAG, I’d guess Kelly before Aikman. But that’s mostly quibbling; obviously Aikman would be pretty much the only other reasonable choice.

              • Actually, I agree that Y/C is largely a function of scheme. I just don’t think a crappy QB can pull it off. Eli is a good example: while I agree that his Y/C was a function of the scheme, Eli’s broader success isn’t due to the system, it’s due to talent. A bad QB in a downfield passing offense will do badly. But you can hide a bad QB in a conservative offense.

  • Brandon Magner

    Good stuff, everyone; I came away more knowledgable about both quarterbacks’ situations because of this. Constructive debate is great to observe.

    • It really is. Happy to shine a light on it when it can, although it happens pretty often around here.

  • The Awful Truth

    Deducting for the Paul Brown factor makes sense when comparing Graham to most QBs. It makes no sense when comparing Graham to Van Brocklin.
    The Rams were the first team to run a full pro offense with a flanker and were a jump ahead of the other teams in terms of offensive sophistication. The Rams also had an incredible collection of star skill performers — Hirsch, Fears (HOF), Bob Boyd, Glenn Davis (Heisman/speed burner), and three great power runners (Younger, Towler, Hoerner). In combination this made the team an offensive dynamo – 38 points per game scored in 1950. Also from 1955-1957 Van Brocklin was coached by Sid Gillman, generally regarded as the ultimate offensive genius pre Walsh.

    • Kibbles

      True! Those early-’50s Rams were absolutely amazing. For my money, they were the greatest sustained offense of all time. It was pretty much a who’s who of Hall of Famers and legends of the game.

      The key for me, though, is that in 1958, Norm Van Brocklin left those Rams. He joined an Eagles franchise that was talent-starved and coached by Buck Shaw, and he played three seasons there. While he was there, he made three pro bowls, a first-team AP All Pro, and a league MVP award. He won a second championship with yet another below-average defense. I’m much more confident that Van Brocklin could excel outside the friendly confines of the ’50s Rams than I am that Graham could excel outside the friendly confines of the Paul Brown Cleveland Browns… because Van Brocklin actually did it. Graham might have done just as well had he gone to Philly, but then again, he might not have. If I’m being a proper Bayesian, I have much more confidence in Van Brocklin’s ability to excel in non-ideal circumstances.

      Van Brocklin’s first year in Philly was very rough, but his last two years were outstanding. He averaged 8.2 Y/A and 7.2 AY/A, the latter of which was actually substantially better than his career average with Los Angeles. That 7.2 AY/A at ages 33 and 34 (his final two seasons) was actually pretty close to Graham’s 7.5 AY/A at ages 33 and 34 (coincidentally, also his final two seasons), despite again Graham being in a substantially better situation.

      I guess what it comes down to for me is this: imagine I died and was chilling in Heaven sipping lattes with God. The conversation naturally turns to Graham vs. Van Brocklin and God says to me, “Adam, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Now, I can’t name names, but Satan and I were having an argument, and I bet him that I could make an average quarterback look like an all-time great. One of those two guys was really just a guy. But I’m not allowed to tell you which one.”

      If that was you having that conversation with God, which one would you be more likely to believe it about? It’s a lot easier for me to believe that of Otto Graham, who spent the entirety of his career within the friendly confines of Paul Brown’s offense surrounded by Hall of Famers and with some of the best defensive play any quarterback has ever enjoyed. I mean, it’d be easy for me to believe the same of Van Brocklin, if not for that pesky Eagles’ stint. I have a hard time seeing an average QB put up those numbers with that supporting cast. I have a hard time seeing an average QB keep future Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen glued to the bench for three years, until he was 27 years old.

      This isn’t to say that I think either NVB or Graham were average QBs. I think the odds of that being the case are vanishingly small. It’s just that I think they’re more vanishingly small in NVB’s case than Graham’s. Or, to flip the framing, I’m very confident that both were all-time greats, but I’m slightly more so in Van Brocklin’s case.

      To me, it’s similar to the Brady/Manning debate. I’m pretty confident that Brady is an all-time great, but if I were to suddenly discover incontrovertible proof that one of those QBs was not as good as he seemed, I would be less surprised in Brady’s case than in Manning’s. It’s easier for me to tell a story to explain Brady’s greatness that is less reliant on his inherent skills than it is for me to tell a story explaining Manning’s greatness that is less reliant on his inherent skills.

      • nobodyaskedbut .

        Trying to compare Van Brocklin to Graham borders on foolish. I rank Van Brocklin all-time top 5 but he falls way short of Graham because ALL QBs do. VB early in his career, of course, shared the QB spot with Waterfield in LA. Needless to say Graham would have shared QB duties with NO ONE at any time of his career. What many forget is how great an athlete Graham was. He was and All-American in both football (almost winning the Heisman) and basketball at NW. He played on a championship pro basketball team in 1946. He was an excellent ballcarrier and STILL holds the all-time pro record for rushing TDs by a QB with 44. As far as his play in the AAFC is concerned he validated all of it in his very 1st season in the NFL when he led the Browns to TWO de facto title game wins. In his very 1st NFL game he led the Browns to a 35-10 win over the 2-time defending champion Eagles in Philly. Then he led the Browns to a last minute drive and win (30-28) vs the Rams (still the all-time leader in single season PPG 38.8) which is in reality, closer to the greatest game of all-time than the overhyped 1958 game. This game is never talked about by the NFL because the old owners never got over the Browns embarrassing the NFL twice in that 1950 season. The Browns and Graham were not very popular after that 1st season and teams were allowed to take liberties in their physical treatment of Graham in the NFL. This is overlooked when discussing that great Browns team and Graham. Graham led his league in passer rating FIVE times in his 10 year career and led his team to the league title game all 10 seasons (winning 7). By contrast VB who was not a good ballcarrier split time with Wade in LA in 1956 and was 2-9-1 as a starter in Philly in ’58 after leading the NFL in Interceptions in ’57. I only point these things out to illustrate just how superior Graham was to even truly great QBs like Van Brocklin. Simply put, Otto Graham’s career combined great individual performance and supreme team success better than any other QB in history.

        • Nitpicker

          Not to pick nits, but Damon Allen rushed for 93 TDs in the CFL (a professional football league).

          • Bryan Frye

            I would add “whose stats the NFL also doesn’t recognize” to your parenthetical. You know, since snark is probably what you were going for.

        • Richie

          You know who else was an awesome QB? Michael Jordan. He won 6 NBA championships!

        • Kibbles

          This sounds very much like an “agree to disagree” situation, but I would like to comment on one particular point:

          As far as his play in the AAFC is concerned he validated all of it in his very 1st season in the NFL when he led the Browns to TWO de facto title game wins.

          Imagine that Belichick and Kraft and the New England Patriots got so pissed off about deflategate that they decided they were going to play a season in one of the local Boston high school leagues. Tom Brady passes for 80,000 yards in a single season, LeGarrette Blount rushes for 83 touchdowns in a single game, Rob Gronkowski breaks Jerry Rice’s all-time touchdown record, etc. Then the next year, the Patriots return to the NFL and win a Super Bowl. Does the fact that they won a Super Bowl “validate” all of those stats the Patriots racked up against positively putrid competition the year before? Should the NFL recognize all of those stats that a real, honest-to-goodness professional football team racked up against a bunch of nobodies? Should Tom Brady fans count that title he won against 5A-class boys’ high school teams in his career total?

          No, of course not. And likewise, just because Otto Graham and the Browns managed to win against quality competition in 1950 doesn’t mean they weren’t playing laughably poor competition from 1946-1949. You don’t think his stats were absurdly inflated by that? From 1946-1949, Graham averaged 9.4 AY/A. In 1950, with pretty much the same supporting cast but against actual NFL-quality defenses, he had an AY/A of 5.2. That’s a drop of FOUR POINT TWO AY/A! In his AAFC career, Graham threw 86 TDs against 41 INTs. In his NFL career, Graham threw 88 TDs against 94 INTs. The quality of competition was in a completely different stratosphere.

          The Browns were a great team, and they validated that when they joined the NFL. But their quality of competition was a joke in the AAFC, and their stats clearly reflect that. Comparing Graham’s performance in those seasons to other QBs’ performances against real NFL defenses is disingenuous to the extreme. As I said, you might as well compare his college stats to other QBs’ NFL stats while you’re at it.

          • nobodyaskedbut .

            I know I was talking about the Browns destroying your Eagles but the Browns did play and win two of the most historic games in pro football history in 1950. After that very 1st game, NFL commissioner Bert Bell called the Browns the greatest team he had ever seen. Then Eagles coach Greasy Neale claimed after the game that the Browns were soft and could only pass. Paul Brown didn’t throw a pass in their 2nd meeting and BEAT THEM AGAIN. The TRUTH IS, THE BROWNS DOMINATED THE NFL FROM 1950 TO 1955. The owners of the other teams in the league did not appreciate this and that probably includes the 49’ers and the Colts who had already been dealing with it since ’46. It was literally the Browns against the rest of the league. Remember they were the outsiders, the “invaders” and the league without question allowed extra roughness to go on vs the the Browns (especially against Graham). Despite all this they still were the best team. Oh, and the 49’ers finished between 7-4 and 9-3 from 1951 to 1954. So much for the AAFC being vastly inferior. I understand being a diehard fan of an team can cloud one’s thinking but you have got to be the only reasonably informed “all-time” football follower who is not an Eagles fan, who believes your contention regarding Graham and Van Brocklin.

            • Nitpicker

              The ability to be condescending and use caps lock in the same thought truly is impressive. I applaud you, sir or madam.

            • Kibbles

              Never once have I disputed the greatness of the Cleveland Browns. Efforts to educate me on that front are in vain. If anything, I’m giving the Browns more credit than most, here. A lot of people seem to think they were just Paul Brown and Otto Graham. I’ve already identified their defense as one of the greatest in history, (even better than their offense, in fact!) In the 8 years after they joined the NFL, Cleveland ranked 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, and 1st in points allowed. That’s crazy. People talk about how Otto led them to all those championship games, but I’m sure having the best scoring defense in the NFL year after year after year (after year after year after year) probably helped, too.

              No, I have only ever disparaged the quality of the competition the Browns faced when they played in the AAFC. And extended discussions of the greatness of the Browns does absolutely nothing to address that point. Not a single thing.

              Yes, the San Francisco 49ers were a very good team from 1951-1954. You also conveniently omitted their record in 1950, the year they left the AAFC and joined the NFL. Probably because they went 3-9 that year. Or the record of the Baltimore Colts, who went 1-11 in their first and only year in the NFL before they were disbanded, (in fairness, they were terrible in the AAFC, too). You also omitted the records of every other team from the AAFC- you know, the ones I am directly criticising here. Probably because they were disbanded, too.

              You failed to address my point that Otto Graham’s AY/A fell by over four yards his first year in the NFL. Or my point that he averaged a better than 2:1 TD:INT ratio against the AAFC, but threw more INTs than TDs against the NFL. Or how he had a career passer rating of 99.1 against the AAFC and a passer rating of 78.2 against the NFL.

              This wasn’t an Otto Graham specific phenomenon, either. Frankie Albert was the QB of the 49ers from 1946 to 1952. In the AAFC, he averaged 6.5 AY/A and an 83.4 passer rating. In the NFL, he averaged 4.1 AY/A and a 57.7 passer rating. Hall of Fame running back Joe Perry averaged 7.0 ypc against the AAFC and 4.8 ypc against the NFL. Hall of Fame fullback Marion Motley averaged 6.2 ypc against the AAFC and 5.0 ypc against the NFL. Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle averaged 7.1 AY/A against the AAFC and 5.9 against the NFL. (a number inflated by an absurd second act in the ’60s: in his first decade in the NFL, that AY/A was 5.3. In his first year in the NFL, it was 3.8 AY/A.)

              I’m not going out on a limb here. There’s a veritable mountain of evidence that tells us over and over again that the AAFC simply was not any good. The Cleveland Browns? Yeah, they were amazing. The San Francisco 49ers? They were pretty good. The other six teams? They were rubbish, and any decent player in the league from 1946-1949 used all those games against that terrible competition to run up some really eye-popping numbers.

              So no, player stats accumulated in the AAFC don’t really do much for me. Just like a player’s college stats don’t really move the needle for me when I’m discussing his greatness. Unless you want me to counter-submit Tim Tebow’s 10.4 career AY/A in college. That’s very much a situation of “wow, those are big numbers, but how did he do against NFL-caliber competition?” And thankfully, with Otto Graham, (and, of course, with Tim Tebow), that’s not just a wistful counterfactual. We have his actual NFL stats accumulated against actual NFL-caliber competition. We could say that his NFL production “validated” his AAFC production. Or we could just look at his NFL production, without inflating his averages with all of those superfluous stats he ran up in an inferior league.

              Also, for what it’s worth, they’re not “my” Eagles.

              • Kibbles

                Also for what it’s worth: four times, Chase has created a formula to try to measure career QB values. Four times, that formula has put Van Brocklin ahead of Graham. Part of that owes to a greater number of career dropbacks, but the difference wasn’t that big. 2626 career pass attempts for Graham, 2895 career pass attempts for Van Brocklin.

                And yes, those formulas only look at passing, which underrates Graham because he genuinely was a much bigger threat with his legs. But as I’ve said, I believe that situation plays a very substantial role in a player’s production, so the fact that Van Brocklin produced in multiple different situations carries a lot of weight with me.

                Benjamin Morris wrote something this year over at 538 that I believe is applicable. Here’s the article: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/skeptical-football-matthew-stafford-is-gunning-for-peyton-mannings-throne/.

                “But in football, a player’s contribution is impossible to measure directly, because there are too many variables that go into every result. And it can’t be measured indirectly, because the sample sizes are too small (that is, there are relatively few games and not as much data). Thus, player valuation is a quagmire of guesswork and debate.

                This is why I prefer questions of limited scope, like, “How certain are you that Peyton Manning is a good quarterback?” For which, the answer is “really extra pretty super-duper certain.” OK, that seems obvious, but ask me the same question about Joe Montana — whom many regard as the greatest quarterback of all time — and I’m not sure. It seems very, very likely to me that Montana was a good quarterback, but I am literally thousands of times less certain of that fact than I am when evaluating Manning.

                But that doesn’t even prove that Manning was better than Montana, though I tend to think the odds are tilted a bit in his favor. The problem with saying anyone is “the best” is that he has to be better than Montana, then better than Dan Marino, then better than Lawrence Taylor, etc. And it’s even possible that the true winner could be someone with incredible skills who was never in the right situation. Like, what if Jeff George had played for Bill Walsh? Anything is possible.

                So we can’t know for sure. But we constantly have to act on things we don’t know for sure. Thus, if my life depended on guessing who was the best NFL player of all time, I’d pick Peyton Manning.2 Not because he’s clearly the best, but because he seems to have the best odds of being the best.”

                Morris mentions Manning’s lack of entanglement as a key point in his belief. It is likewise similar for me and Van Brocklin. Because Van Brocklin succeeded with the Eagles, I am more certain that he was not a product of his circumstances. Because Graham was never afforded that opportunity- through no fault of his own- I cannot have that same level of certainty.

                • nobodyaskedbut .

                  Yea, Motley only went from 5.0 in ’49 in the AAFC to 5.8 in ’50 in the NFL and he led the NFL in Yds rushing and Y/A that yr. After 1950 he was mostly injured and a shadow of himself during the next couple of seasons. Remember he didn’t start till he was 26 after military duty in WW2. Oh, and there were only 3 teams in the NFL from the AAFC. My point was that the Browns and the 49ers were both among the top 50% of the NFL for 4 of their 1st 6 yrs in the league. Did some of the NFL teams have seasons in which they were not too good? Of course they did. You just don’t seem to get the logic of the Browns dominating the NFL from the outset. If the AAFC was as weak as you say it was, that never would have happened. That’s basic logic. Whether the AAFC was as strong as the NFL is not the issue because there were bad teams in the NFL. The issue is the fact that the strength of the Browns and Graham’s TOTAL football ability was proven absolute by his and the team’s success in the NFL. He was a more complete QB (superior playmaker) than Van Brocklin and that can’t be overlooked. Otto had various RBs and WRs during those 6 seasons. Besides Motley, D. Jones, Renfro, Bassett and Morrison all led the team in yds rushing. Lavelli, Speedie, Renfro, D. Jones and Brewster all led the team in either receiving Yds or TDs. Only 2 of those players are in the HoF. The ONE constant on offense was, of course, Graham. In 1955 Graham and the Browns crushed Van Brocklin (6 INTs) and the Rams in the title game 38-14 with Morrison, Renfro and Brewster as their top RB and WRs. Graham retired and Van Brocklin then split time with B. Wade at QB in LA in ’56, went 2-9-1 with the Eagles in ’57 and led the league in Interceptions in ’58. Again, I only point out those things about VB to further show just how much better Graham was than even truly great QBs like Van Brocklin.

                  • nobodyaskedbut .

                    Just to get the exact facts straight, VB led in INTs in ’57 and went 2-9-1 in ’58. Also, it should be noted that the Browns went on to their 1st losing season (5-7) in 1956 after Graham’s retirement.

                  • Kibbles

                    You just don’t seem to get the logic of the Browns dominating the NFL from the outset. If the AAFC was as weak as you say it was, that never would have happened. That’s basic logic.
                    You’re right, I don’t seem to get the logic. To me, this seems quite clearly a case where the conclusion does not follow from the premise.

                    As I understand it, your logical formulation is thus: Cleveland dominated the AAFC. Cleveland dominated the NFL. Therefore, the AAFC = the NFL. Or something.

                    I can dominate my wife in chess. I can dominate my 2-year-old son in chess. This does not mean that my 2-year-old son is on par with my wife in chess, or even remotely close to my wife in chess, or the fact that I have a 300-0-0 lifetime record against my son is somehow indicative of my true quality of play and should therefore be considered when ranking me among global chess players without first applying a ludicrously hefty discount.

                    Also, ignoring San Francisco’s first year in the NFL to highlight their next four, then turning around and highlighting Cleveland’s first year after Otto Graham while ignoring their next four, strikes me as the rankest form of opportunism. Which is important here, how a team does in the immediate aftermath of a transition, or how it does over a longer timeframe? Because the very next season, Cleveland was 9-2-1 and back in the championship game. Without Otto Graham. In fact, Cleveland didn’t have another losing season until 1974, a streak spanning 18 years.

                    Look, I’m not saying that Otto Graham is a bad QB. My premise is simple and can be summed up entirely in a single sentence: the quality of Otto Graham’s play against NFL-caliber competition is best demonstrated by examining Otto Graham’s play against NFL-caliber competition. We don’t discuss a player’s college stats when debating his greatness. We don’t mention what Warren Moon did in the CFL or what Herschel Walker did in the USFL. I merely suggest that we should apply the same standard to Otto Graham. If we want to debate his merits, we should debate them on the strength of his performance against the NFL- which, while nowhere near the stratospheric heights of his AAFC statistics, are still among the most impressive era-adjusted numbers the league has ever seen. We can speculate what his numbers might have been had he played in the NFL from 1946-1949. I think that his rate stats would have been very similar to what they were from 1950 to 1955, if not slightly worse because of a tougher learning curve. Brad O. thinks that they might have been slightly better, given early-era aging patterns. Either way, I suspect they’d be in a very similar ballpark, instead of 2 ANY/A and 20 passer rating points higher.

                    Oh, one final point. You highlight how Graham crushed Van Brocklin in the championship game, largely because Van Brocklin threw 6 INTs. Which, I feel, further serves to reinforce my point that Cleveland’s defense deserves every bit as much credit- if not more- for their remarkable title success. A point that gets wholly whitewashed in the Otto Graham hagiography.

                    • I disagree, strongly, with your penultimate paragraph.

                      First, let’s clarify: I don’t think Graham might have been slightly better in the AAFC than the NFL; I have little doubt that Graham’s best years came in that league. I think he was the best QB in football, or close to it, every year of the late ’40s. Statistically, 1948 was his weakest season in the AAFC, and that year the Browns went undefeated, UP named him first-team all-AAFC, and AP named him first-team all-pro.

                      But more importantly, I think your exclusion of non-NFL leagues from your analysis is deeply flawed. How can you omit several years of a player’s prime from your analysis? Statistical comparison across leagues is hard, but that’s a lazy excuse.

                      Take Herschel Walker. He was the best RB in college football in the early ’80s, maybe the best RB, period. In any case, he was one of the best RBs alive from 1980-82. He was one of the best RBs in 1986. He was one of the best RBs in 1987. He was one of the best RBs in 1988. He was a good player, every year, for the next six seasons after that. If Walker was great in the early ’80s, and great in the late ’80s, and the best RB in the USFL (which was a strong league) in between, it is crazy to assume that he wasn’t a good RB from 1983-85. If you omit those years from your analysis of Walker’s career, your analysis is wrong.

                      Warren Moon was not drafted by the NFL, because he’s black. He went to the CFL and won five Grey Cups in six years. Then he came to the NFL and went on to a Hall of Fame career. Moon didn’t play in the NFL until he was almost 28. Are you going to let racism steal six years of a man’s career? If you do, your analysis is wrong.

                      The AAFC was a major league with dozens of NFL-quality players and several inner-circle Hall of Famers. There is reason to believe — certainly I believe — that Otto Graham had the best years of his career in that league. If you assume that Graham’s AAFC production was ≤ his NFL production, your analysis is likely to be wrong.

                      I don’t believe I am suggesting anything radical. We know, beyond any really reasonable doubt, that Herschel Walker was a good (and probably great) running back from 1983-85. Why is it wrong to give him credit for what he was? We know that Warren Moon was a good player in the early ’80s, who was prevented from playing in the NFL because of racism. Why is it wrong to give him credit for what he was? We know that Otto Graham was the best QB in football in the late 1940s. I would advise you to re-think the primacy of the NFL in your evaluations.

                    • Kibbles

                      I don’t think I’m being clear enough on my point.

                      Let’s say that we invent a formula that produces a stat called “VAL” that perfectly measures a player’s value; further, let’s assume that the VAL formula perfectly age adjusts, and players experience no year-to-year variation in their level of play, so that a guy who produces 100 VAL at age 23 will likewise produce 100 VAL at age 30 and 100 VAL at age 38.

                      Now, let’s invent an imaginary player who spends 5 years in the CFL and 5 years in the NFL. In the CFL, against CFL competition, this player produces an annual VAL of 200. In the NFL, against NFL competition, this player produces a VAL of 80.

                      Simply accepting the player’s CFL production as valid with no adjustment is akin to saying “this player produced a cumulative 1400 VAL in 10 career seasons, and is therefore a 1400 VAL player.”

                      I think you believe I’m saying “this player spent 5 years in the NFL at 80 VAL a year, so he’s essentially a 400 VAL player.”

                      What I’m trying to say is “Based on his production in the NFL, this player’s true talent level was 80 VAL a year. Given that he had a 10 year career- regardless of which leagues he was in- he was the equivalent of an 800 VAL player.”

                      I’m not trying to pretend that Otto Graham did not play football before 1950, or that he shouldn’t get credit for being amazing during the preceding years. I’m just saying his production against the AAFC is not a true representation of his actual ability, in my opinion. I want to give him credit for those years, but not based on his AAFC stats. Just like I wouldn’t want to give the 80-VAL-a-year guy extra credit for running up the score against the CFL. Basically, I’m assuming that, had Graham and the Browns played in the NFL from 1946-1949, he and they would have been as good as they were from 1950-1955. Hopefully that clarifies my stance sufficiently.

                      You say that you believe Graham’s best years were in the AAFC. That’s possible. I didn’t watch him play, and at this point, I don’t really trust the accounts of anyone who tries to say he was better in one league or the other. I think that’s one of those unsolvable problems, like “just how good was Ernie Nevers, really, and how would he compare to Emmitt Smith?”

                      Otto Graham did not play organized football in 1944 or 1945. I would imagine that time away would have a negative impact on his play, like it did for Staubach his first two years in the league. Beyond that, quarterbacks rarely peak within their first four seasons in the NFL. On the other hand, you make a very compelling point about quarterback aging curves being different in the 1940s and 1950s. He might have been better in the AAFC. He might have been worse. I feel like, in this situation, splitting the baby and just assuming he was the same caliber of player from 1946-1949 as he was from 1950-1955 is a conservative but fair resolution to the problem. It might even be a hair generous because, again, I really doubt Graham was at his peak in 1946 after two years away from the sport. And 1946 represents 25% of his AAFC career (by years, not by attempts).

                    • You’re right, I misunderstood your point. The VAL explanation was very helpful in understanding your perspective. I would caution you, though, not to assume that a player’s NFL production necessarily represents his peak performance. With Herschel Walker, for instance, we should probably assume his 1983-85 play was similar to his 1986-88 play, not his whole 12-year NFL career. With Doug Flutie, we would obviously assume he was a better player in the CFL (in his early 30s) than the NFL (in his late 30s and early 40s). With Otto Graham, I believe the available evidence suggests that he was at least as good from 1946-49 as 1950-55.

                      I don’t think any knowledgeable person disputes that Otto Graham was the best QB of the late ’40s, in either league. You dispute that Graham was obviously the best QB of the early ’50s. I disagree — I think it’s very likely, and impossible to make a compelling case against — but it is closer than the late ’40s. The kind of consensus around Graham’s dominance in that era is almost unheard of. Within the modern era, how many quarterbacks could you find who for a period of 3-5 years, were so clearly the best in football that everyone agrees? Less than a handful, I think. Graham in the late ’40s, Unitas in his prime, Young 92-94, maybe Favre 95-97. You could argue for Tittle with the Giants, or Tarkenton or Staubach or Fouts or Marino or Warner or Manning, but I don’t believe they generated the same consensus. No knowledgeable analyst would argue against Steve Young as the best QB from 92-94, but there are educated fans who weren’t sold on Warner, or preferred Montana to Marino, etc.

                      Otto Graham was clearly, and without dispute, the greatest quarterback of the late 1940s. He was very probably the best of the early ’50s as well, but it is perhaps less clear. This suggests that Graham was a more exceptional player early in his career.

                      I don’t understand your comparison of Graham in 1946 to “Staubach his first two years in the league”. Staubach was a backup his first two years. And Otto Graham was the best QB in football in 1946. If you were to suggest that Sid Luckman or Bob Waterfield or Frankie Albert might have been better, I would be disinclined to take you seriously. I’d be interested in your argument, but you would have to present extremely compelling evidence.

                      The AAFC, unlike the AFL, did not grow stronger over time. The AAFC in 1946 was not substantially weaker than in 1949, and it may have been stronger. Graham’s greatest efficiency numbers of his career came in ’46. You suggest that he must have been rusty, but there’s nothing to support that idea. Or if he was rusty, so were most other players, many of whom were returning from war; I don’t see the point of adjusting the whole league for that. Graham was the best QB of 1946, and I can’t imagine you’d want to suggest otherwise.

                    • Kibbles

                      Graham was the best QB of 1946, and I can’t imagine you’d want to suggest otherwise.
                      The reason you cannot imagine it is because I have not ever and would not ever suggest otherwise. Again, you seem to be misunderstanding my fundamental point. It’s not that 1946 Otto Graham was worse than some other 1946 quarterback. It’s that 1946 Otto Graham was probably worse than 1947 Otto Graham. And I’d bet he was worse than 1948 and 1949 Otto Graham, too. I am willing to bet that, after two years away from football, Otto Graham was not at his absolute peak the very second he returned to a football field. Instead, I would suggest that he improved over the course of the next few years. I don’t have any direct evidence to this claim, and with all of the entanglement involved, (as you pointed out, all of the other players were returning from the war, too), there’s no way to ever prove that one way or another. But it’s a well-established enough pattern in the career development in pretty much every NFL player ever that I still feel comfortable with that belief. Exceedingly rare is the player who peaks the very first time he steps on the field against professional competition.

                      There was overwhelming consensus that Graham was the best QB in the league, but that’s because Graham was really the only “modern” QB of his time. He was playing a different sport from everyone else. We’ve talked about Paul Brown’s innovations before, and I know you know them better than I do, so there’s no need to rehash them. I would instead point out that Graham was directly preceded by Sid Luckman as the best QB in the NFL, and I would expect that Luckman engendered the same unanimity of opinion. And Luckman was directly preceded by Sammy Baugh, who I would again wager engendered the same unanimity of opinion. The fact that the consensus was unanimous for Graham during the late ’40s then becomes far less remarkable, because unanimous consensus was the standard state of affairs from the mid-to-late ’30s onward. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong; you certainly are far more familiar with the early history of the league than I.

                      The reason such unanimity of consensus was so common early on and so rare later on is because the passing game was really a newfangled innovation that some teams were reluctant to experiment too much with. As a result, when a “modern” quarterback like Baugh or Luckman or Graham came along, he was ahead of his time and had very little competition for “best QB in the league”. And then, in the ’50s, when passing started spreading through the rest of the league, the competition started ratcheting up and unanimous consensus became a rarity instead of the norm. In short, I believe Graham didn’t become “less unanimously” the best quarterback in the ’50s because he got worse, he did because everyone else got better. But I could be wrong.

                      In the end, as I said, it’s one of those things we’ll never know the answer to. I believe my assumption that Otto Graham was roughly as good from 1946 to 1949 as he was from 1950 to 1955 is a fair and reasonable approximation.

                    • This is an oversimplification of my position, but it’s basically accurate:

                      1. Otto Graham was, without dispute, the greatest QB from 1946-49.
                      2. Norm Van Brocklin was, without dispute, NOT the greatest QB from 1956-60.
                      3. Graham was a more exceptional player from 1946-49 than Van Brocklin from 1956-60.

                      There was overwhelming consensus that Graham was the best QB in the league … I would expect that Luckman engendered the same unanimity of opinion. And Luckman was directly preceded by Sammy Baugh, who I would again wager engendered the same unanimity of opinion.

                      Acknowledging that it’s sometimes tough to know, in that era, where to draw the line between QB and RB, the quarterback with the broadest all-pro support:

                      1937 — Dutch Clark and Sammy Baugh
                      1938 — Ed Danowski and Ace Parker
                      1939 — Parker Hall
                      1940 — Ace Parker and Sammy Baugh
                      1941 — Cecil Isbell
                      1942 — Luckman
                      1943 — Baugh and Luckman
                      1944 — Luckman
                      1945 — Bob Waterfield

                      I don’t know enough about this to say with certainty, but I think you would find clear pluralities for Baugh and Luckman, rather than the unanimity that applied to Graham.

                      I believe Graham didn’t become “less unanimously” the best quarterback in the ’50s because he got worse, he did because everyone else got better. But I could be wrong.

                      You are wrong, but not for the reason you thought. Graham did not become “less unanimously” the best quarterback in the ’50s. He was all-pro every year.

                      1950 — UP 2nd-Team All-Pro
                      1951 — Consensus 1st-Team All-Pro
                      1952 — UP 1st-Team All-Pro, AP 2nd-Team All-Pro
                      1953 — Consensus 1st-Team All-Pro
                      1954 — Consensus 1st-Team All-Pro
                      1955 — UP 1st-Team All-Pro, AP 1st-Team All-Pro

                      Graham was NFL MVP in ’51, ’53, and ’55, and I suspect he would have won in ’52 if any of the major organizations had named one. Graham was unanimously the best quarterback in the early ’50s.

                      This is why I hold Graham in such high regard. Throughout his career, there was a consensus that he was the best quarterback in the game. He has excellent regular-season stats, excellent postseason performances, and on a team level, he was the most successful QB of all time. He succeeded when he was handing off to Marion Motley with a power running game; he succeeded from 1948-52, whipping the ball all over the field to Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli and Dub Jones; he succeeded after Motley retired and Speedie went to the CFL. Graham won in every style of offense, and he won every year, without exception, and Paul Brown never won a pro championship without Otto Graham.

                      No matter what standard you prefer, Graham was the most exceptional QB of his generation. I evaluate players using a variety of criteria, and by all of them, Graham is phenomenally impressive. No one else in history is so dominant by so many discrete evaluation methods. Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas probably come closest. That harmony of excellence, Graham’s clear superiority by every standard of evaluation, reinforces my statistical analysis, and leads me to rank him among the very best QBs in history.

                      Norm Van Brocklin was a great player, and he’s unjustly overlooked by most modern analysts, but it’s silly to suggest that he was better than Otto Graham.

                • Not that this invalidates your point, but it is worth mentioning that Van Brocklin’s leading receivers in Philly were Tommy McDonald and Pete Retzlaff.

                  I also have a little trouble reconciling an emphasis on avoiding entanglement with your ranking of Steve Young as the second-best quarterback in history.

                  • Kibbles

                    Honestly, I do too. I have a bitch of a time deciding what to do with Joe Montana and Steve Young every time this comes up. I typically dock Young slightly less than Montana because (a) he started under George Seifert instead of Bill Walsh, and (b) the WCO was hardly as revolutionary by the time Young took the reins. But, then again, Jeff Garcia was pretty ludicrously good in San Francisco after Young retired, so maybe the fact that he wasn’t directly under Walsh and the WCO was old hat aren’t really that relevant. And Montana *DID* have success with a greater variety of offensive supporting casts. It’s messy.

                    The biggest difference between Steve Young and Otto Graham, in my mind, is that Steve Young was equally dominant relative to his peers at a time when there were many more teams and the overall quality of play was higher than it had been at any other point in history. After all, if dominating your contemporaries was all that was required to rank highly by me, Luckman would have been a lot higher in my list. Modern players get a bump because I believe football in general is more competitive, and because I believe the NFL was drawing in a larger share of the NFL-caliber talent in the ’90s than it was in the ’40s and ’50s (when many of the top athletes were opting for baseball, or boxing, or even just regular jobs).

                    In 6 NFL seasons, Otto Graham had an AY/A+ of 108, 124, 112, 148, 115, and 142, for an average of 124.8. That’s a pretty ridiculous number compared to pretty much anyone except Steve Young. In 8 seasons as a starter, Young had an AY/A+ of 140, 142, 133, 143, 113, 124, 133, and 126, for an average of 131.8. That’s otherworldly. And, like I said, tougher competition.

                    Another difference is that I have personally seen Steve Young play, so I can form first-hand opinions about him. “Avoid entanglement” is a heuristic, not a death pact. While, all else being equal, I will lean towards the player with less entanglement… I’m willing to make exceptions for the single most dominant player I have ever personally witnessed.

              • I am not real interested in resuming the Graham-Van Brocklin debate, because I don’t think you are open to changing your mind. But I do want to address the validity of one of your arguments.

                You use Graham’s AY/A to “prove” that the NFL was a far, far greater league than the AAFC. However, I can use Drew Brees to demonstrate that the NFL was a much higher quality league in 2003 than ’04. Bobby Thomason’s stats prove that the NFL was a weaker league in 1956 than ’55. How about Bart Starr in ’66 and ’67? I can do this all day. Anecdotes are not a substitute for data.

                Of course, you also cited running backs like Marion Motley (his NFL averages are lower at least in part because his knees were gone) and Joe Perry, whose role shifted in the NFL. In the AAFC, he was a part-time player, and his 7.3 rookie average is inflated because Perry was the third-down back alongside Johnny Strzykalski, while in the NFL, he was the cannon, with McElhenny in the scatback role.

                And if you want to cite anecdotal evidence about AAFC RBs who performed differently in the NFL, don’t leave out Chet Mutryn or the aging Strzykalski. Of course, then you might feel obligated to include Dub Jones, Hunchy, and Buddy Young, and we wouldn’t want that.

                You mentioned Y.A. Tittle, who had a good rookie season in the AAFC, then — shockingly — fell off a cliff when his best receiver retired, and didn’t rebound until he went to a team with some talent around him. This feels a lot like arguing that Steve Young sucked when he was in Tampa. The 1949-50 Colts were even worse than the late-80s Bucs. It’s a bit disingenuous to argue that a QB whose team went 8-18 in the AAFC was better in that league than the NFL. Your selective use of Tittle’s stats projects a real air of objectivity, though.

                Frankie Albert was much more effective in the AAFC, it’s true. But that’s a data point, a tiny sample. I would also suggest that it makes sense to expect a QB would struggle in his first year or two against higher-level competition. The 1950 NFL featured the combined talent of the best players from both leagues, and if you tried to play against those defenses the same way you did against the Chicago Rockets, you’d be in for a rude surprise. It would probably take a while to adjust. Such a theory not only makes intuitive sense, it could explain why Otto Graham was better in ’51 than ’50, and better in ’52 than ’51. Something similar happened to most NFL QBs in 1950.

                This seems to be a topic you’re interested in, and I would really suggest that you do
                more research on the AAFC.

                • Richie

                  I was curious how Cleveland and San Francisco compared to “the rest of the AAFC” vs. how they compared to “the rest of the NFL” once they switched to the NFL.

                  To be fair, I also subtracted two of the best NFL teams from 1946-1949 (Eagles, Bears) from the NFL averages during that period.

                  I charted the results. This shows the yards/play (Offensive, Defensive, Delta) for the Browns, 49ers, Eagles, Bears, AAFC and NFL.

                  I just thought it was interesting. One thing it highlights is that it was a combination of offense AND defense that made Cleveland such a great team.

                  http://i.imgur.com/GZXvnhW.png

                • Kibbles

                  Again, I think we’re getting our wires crossed. It seems you’re arguing that the NFL of 1946-1949 was not that much better than the AAFC of 1946-1949. As I mentioned earlier, this argument, while interesting, has no real bearing on the Graham vs. Van Brocklin debate, because outside of a trivial number of attempts as a rookie, Van Brocklin did not face the NFL of 1946-1949.

                  You’re right that anecdotes are not data. I don’t have a database to work with, (and I’m not Jason Lisk or Neil Paine, so I wouldn’t know what to do with it even if I did). I can’t compare the production of all AAFC players in 1949 to their production in 1950 to try to come up with some sort of “discount factor”. I’m not trying to cherrypick, I’m trying to think of every relevant player I can come up with who played in both the AAFC and the NFL, and in all cases their statistics declined upon joining the NFL in 1950. Given my resources and my capabilities, this is the most in-depth analysis I can provide.

                  More in-depth analysis shouldn’t really be necessary, though, since you agree with me and have admitted as much several times. You just called the post-1950 NFL “higher-level competition”. You note that it featured the combined talent of both leagues.

                  That is my point in its entirety. Prior to 1950, Otto Graham put up “glitch-in-the-matrix” type numbers. After 1950, Otto Graham put up “merely” historically great numbers. Why? Because Otto Graham was facing tougher competition after 1950. Do you fundamentally disagree with this assertion? And if not, what are we arguing?

                  Norm Van Brocklin’s entire relevant career came against that tougher post-merger league. That is the context in which he put up all of his statistics. Because of that, if you’re going to compare statistics from the two quarterbacks, I think it’s fairest to compare their statistics in a similar environment. Comparing Otto Graham’s statistics from the admittedly inferior pre-merger AAFC to Norm Van Brocklin’s statistics from the admittedly superior post-merger NFL/AAFC amalgam seems unfair to Norm Van Brocklin, no? That’s all I’m saying. If you want to compare their statistical profiles, let’s compare apples to apples.

                  When you compare apples to apples- when you compare NVB’s stats from the post-merger leagues to Otto Graham’s stats from the post-merger leagues- you see that they had remarkably similar statistical profiles. And, given similar statistical profiles, I tend to favor the guy with less entanglement, because I am marginally more confident that his production was a result of his own inherent ability and not favorable circumstances.

                  • I don’t know why you are unable to process that I was making a side point about the AAFC, and — as I explicitly wrote, twice — not trying to resume the Graham-Van Brocklin debate.

                    You said: Prior to 1950, Otto Graham put up “glitch-in-the-matrix” type numbers. After 1950, Otto Graham put up “merely” historically great numbers. Why? Because Otto Graham was facing tougher competition after 1950. Do you fundamentally disagree with this assertion? And if not, what are we arguing?

                    Do I disagree? No. What are we arguing? I don’t know how to say this without being rude, but I am arguing that you are unqualified to make judgments on the quality of the AAFC, or at least anything beyond “it was worse than the NFL.” You don’t know how much worse, because you haven’t done enough research. Throughout our discussion, you have consistently and dramatically understated the quality of the league. Your confidence, in judging the quality of the AAFC, is unfounded. That’s what I’ve been arguing, and I apologize for my bluntness, but implying this more politely just seems to have confused you.

                    ===

                    re: Graham-Van Brocklin, you wrote: When you compare NVB’s stats from the post-merger leagues to Otto Graham’s stats from the post-merger leagues- you see that they had remarkably similar statistical profiles. And, given similar statistical profiles, I tend to favor the guy with less entanglement, because I am marginally more confident that his production was a result of his own inherent ability and not favorable circumstances.

                    I don’t believe a thorough analysis can rely so heavily on stats. As far as I can tell, pretty much everyone who watched football in the 1950s rated Graham ahead of Van Brocklin. If you’re trying to put their careers in context, why not allow people with more information — contemporary players and coaches and writers — to do that for you? Graham was all-pro every year, and while Van Brocklin surely lost votes because of the odd arrangement with Bob Waterfield, that does not fully explain Graham’s dominance in award recognition.

                    I’m sure there are people who saw them play, and regarded Van Brocklin as the better quarterback, but I can’t think of a single instance where I’ve seen that indicated … but I can think of many people who preferred Graham. In fact, in the literature of that era, Bobby Layne was regarded as a greater player than Van Brocklin, and Layne — who retired two years later — was inducted into the Hall of Fame four years before Van Brocklin.

                    I understand your admiration of Van Brocklin’s accomplishments with two teams, but his contemporaries knew that the Rams and Eagles were two different teams, and Van Brocklin was credited for his role in turning around the Eagles. Everyone agreed that Van Brocklin was a great player, but no one suggested that he might be the best of his generation. Your idea, that Van Brocklin was better than Otto Graham, is a 21st-century invention. I can’t imagine what you know about those two players that people from the previous 50 years didn’t. Obviously I don’t believe in complete adherence to subjective evaluations, but the statistical record does not contradict the consensus in contemporary opinion. The available evidence, taken in whole, indicates that Graham was better from 1950-55 than Van Brocklin.

                    • Kibbles

                      but I am arguing that you are unqualified to make judgments on the quality of the AAFC, or at least anything beyond “it was weaker than the NFL.”

                      Great. That’s an argument you win. It’s an argument you won weeks ago when I admitted that I was unqualified to make judgments on the quality of the AAFC beyond “weaker than the NFL, better than college”. Apparently you still take great umbrage to my comparison to the CFL. I’ve already explained that the reason I made the comparison is because (a) the CFL is a professional (or semi-professional) football league, and (b) there aren’t really very many professional (or semi-professional) football leagues out there, so my potential number of reference points was pretty small. I also compared to the USFL and the AFL.

                      I don’t know why you are unable to process that I was making a side point about the AAFC, and — as I explicitly wrote, twice — not trying to resume the Graham-Van Brocklin debate.

                      Probably because you’re popping up to make these side points when I’m busy arguing about Van Brocklin vs. Graham with someone else, and I’m judging your remarks in light of the context in which they surfaced.

                      I know I’ve intimated this before, but since we’re all making our points as explicit as possible: I don’t care how the AAFC compares to the CFL. If that was an ill-advised or indelicate comparison, then I apologize. I don’t care how the AAFC compares to the 1946 NFL. That would be interesting, but it’s wholly beside the point I’m discussing at the moment. I don’t care how it compares to the USFL, or NFL Europa, or Australian-rules rugby. At the moment, in the context of this conversation, I care exclusively how the competition Otto Graham faced from 1946-1949 compares to the competition he faced from 1950-1955. And on that point, the record is pretty clear that it was worse by a pretty sizeable margin. Unless you want to argue against that very specific, very clear, very easy-to-define statement, then I ask again… what are we arguing?

                      I don’t believe a thorough analysis can rely so heavily on stats.

                      Yup. You’ve just summed up our entire disagreement into a single sentence. For you, the foremost authority on NFL history is first-person opinion. I respect that. I think that’s super-important, and I assign a lot of weight to it, too. First team AP All Pro awards are perhaps my favorite measure of player value. We just differ on how much authority we assign to it. For you, unless someone else was there to question it, there’s little we can do to contradict it. Personally, I have enough first-hand experience with first-person perspectives to believe they’re far more fallible than you’re giving them credit for. First-person perspectives in this day and age tend to overrate players on winning teams. They overrate players who play with great teammates. They overrate quarterbacks who play with great defenses and underrate quarterbacks who play with terrible defenses (see: Trent Green, Tony Romo). They overrate guys with rings (see: anyone who suggests Eli Manning should be in the Hall of Fame). They underrate the impact that situation has on production. Many of these biases are built into our basic operating software, so I’m sure they also existed in Graham’s day.

                      Baseball is a sport that can be quantified much more precisely through statistics, and we’ve seen in the past 15 years just how many flaws there are with first-person perspective. For a guy like Ernie Nevers, it’s really the only thing we have to go on, and it’s hard to argue with it. But by the ’50s, we’re starting to get enough data that we can start forming opinions that don’t rely on the hagiography of the sports flaks of the day. I’m not saying that those opinions should be discarded, merely that in situations where we know those opinions are going to be prone to bias, (great teammates, great defense, innovative coach, multiple championships), we do what we can to try to correct for those biases. That’s why I talk so much about entanglement, and about asking who was least likely to be average instead of who was most likely to be great.

                      This disagreement isn’t because one side doesn’t understand the data, or one side is unfamiliar with the evidence. The disagreement cannot be resolved by continuing to supply data or evidence. It’s ultimately a philosophical difference, and while each side can explain their position until the other side understands, (and really, at this point, I believe each of us understands the other’s position), the philosophical dispute undergirding the disagreement will not be resolved. That’s fine. Not everyone has to agree with us all the time.

                    • That’s an argument you win. It’s an argument you won weeks ago when I admitted that I was unqualified to make judgments on the quality of the AAFC

                      This is the source of my frustration. You can’t assess Otto Graham’s career if you don’t know how to judge the first half of it. You admit you’re unqualified to judge the AAFC; that leaves you unqualified to judge Otto Graham. You haven’t done enough research to make an informed assessment of his career.

                      Remember, you and I agree on Norm Van Brocklin; we rate him basically the same. The difference is how we rank Otto Graham, and you rate him improperly because you don’t have enough information. You say this disagreement isn’t because one side doesn’t understand the data, but that’s not true. You don’t know how to use the data from half of Graham’s career, and you’ve made an uneducated guess. How can you be confident you’re right about something you’ve admitted you don’t understand?

                      Possibly because you’re popping up to make these side points in the comments to a post dedicated to the Graham-Van Brocklin debate, in the middle of a thread where I’m busy arguing about Van Brocklin vs. Graham with someone else, and I’m judging your remarks in light of the context in which they surfaced.

                      It didn’t seem to be a problem with the side conversations about white cornerbacks or yards per completion. I also had hoped that clues like “I do want to chime in on the quality of the AAFC specifically” and “I am not real interested in resuming the Graham-Van Brocklin debate” might have indicated that I wanted to discuss the quality of the AAFC specifically and I was not interested in resuming the Graham-Van Brocklin debate.

                      You’ve just summed up our entire disagreement into a single sentence. For you, the foremost authority on NFL history is first-person opinion.

                      Actually, my evaluation begins with stats. I am certain I’ve done more statistical research on this era of football than you have. The biggest disagreement, rather, lies in [1] our evaluation of Graham’s AAFC years, and [2] here:

                      We agree that Graham and Van Brocklin have roughly equal stats from 1950-55, and that the challenge is to put those stats into context. My approach to context-seeking, to the statistically undocumented aspects of a player’s career, relies mostly on primary sources, while yours seems to fall primarily on your own subjective judgment of their respective entanglements. I understand your skepticism about first-hand accounts, but you can take them into account without being dominated by them. And in this instance, you’re arguing against a consensus.

                      For all practical purposes, everybody born before 1970 believed that Otto Graham was better than Norm Van Brocklin. Everyone who saw them play thought Graham was better, and all the children of people who saw them play — the ones who grew up on stories of the championship Browns and the record-breaking Rams — thought Graham was better. Given the limited research you’ve done on that era, I don’t understand what you could know about these players that no one from the previous 60 years knew. What new information do you understand that they didn’t?

                      I would love — and I mean it, I’m not being sarcastic in the least — I would love for you to find some quotes from players or coaches or writers who said Van Brocklin was better than Graham, or Van Brocklin was better than Layne, or Van Brocklin was the best QB of his era. I haven’t seen any that I can remember, and I’ve been actively looking these past weeks. I’m sure that it wasn’t literally everyone who preferred Graham; maybe it was 95%. I just can’t find them. If you can, I’d be grateful.

                    • Kibbles

                      You don’t know how to use the data from half of Graham’s career, and you’ve made an uneducated guess. How can you be confident about something you’ve admitted you don’t understand?

                      The statement “you don’t know how to use the data” implies that there is one right way to use data, (or, perhaps, some other clearly limited number of right ways), and all other ways are by extension the wrong way. I categorically reject that implication. My method for using it was best summed up in this statement, which you have yet to disagree with: “At the moment, in the context of this conversation, I care exclusively how the competition Otto Graham faced from 1946-1949 compares to the competition he faced from 1950-1955. And on that point, the record is pretty clear that it was worse by a significant margin.”

                      Since you have repeatedly declined to disagree with that statement, I am taking that as tacit agreement. So Otto Graham put up impossible-to-fathom numbers against competition that we agree was noticeably inferior, and possible-to-fathom numbers against competition that was noticeably superior. My reaction to that is to assume that his production against superior competition was more indicative of his true quality of play. Your reaction to that assumption is to call it uneducated and question my right to be making assumptions or holding opinions on this subject in the first place. Not much incentive for me to continue discussing why I believe something with someone who makes it clear that I have no standing to even have a belief on this particular topic in the first place. Before I show myself the way out, though, you did ask a question that I would like to answer.

                      How can you be confident about something you’ve admitted you don’t understand?

                      I can’t, and if you think I am, then I question how closely you’ve been reading my posts. From the very, very, very beginning of this conversation I have strived to make it abundantly clear that I’m not speaking about what I’m most confident in, I’m speaking about what I’m least unconfident in. Remember my hypothetical conversation with God? What about that hypothetical indicates that I have any confidence at all in my position? When I phrase my belief as which QB was least likely to not be great, what about that indicates that I have any strong feelings of confidence about the respective greatness of either player?

                      I am supremely, humbly unconfident in pretty much everything I know about football. I inhabit a world of bias and doubt and confusion. I think Jerry Rice was a better receiver than Randy Moss, but I’m not at all confident about that, and I saw both players play first-hand. Had Randy Moss been in San Francisco and Jerry Rice been in Minnesota, what might have been? I think Peyton Manning is the best QB to ever play, not because I’m sure he’s better than everyone else I’ve seen, but because the circumstances of his career leave me willing to attribute more of his success to his intrinsic skill (as opposed to external factors) than I might do for his peers at the top. Is Peyton Manning better than Tom Brady? I’m not really sure. But I’m marginally more apt to believe that Peyton Manning would have excelled in New England than I am that Tom Brady would have excelled in Indianapolis.

                      This fascination with entanglement stems entirely from my lack of confidence in my own ability to make value judgments like these. Wikipedia lists 93 named cognitive biases that affect decision-making, belief, or behavior. These biases are universal and unavoidable; in fact, there’s even something called the bias blind spot which states that even being aware of cognitive biases provides no protection against falling prey to those very cognitive biases. Those 93 biases don’t include the numerous other memory biases and social biases that we’re all prone to. I talk often about our faulty mental software, and how it really makes it impossible to gain even the barest grasp on any sort of objective truth. I recognize that each and every one of those biases is acting upon my reasoning process at all times, and so I worry about things like entanglement and era-adjusted statistical profiles to try to give myself some sort of anchor in the storm.

                      Confidence, to me, is a word that doesn’t really belong in football. If it must be used, then it should be limited to discussions comparing slam-dunk Hall of Famers to 2-time pro bowlers, or the like. I’m confident that Peyton Manning is better than Eli Manning. Peyton Manning vs. Joe Montana? How could anyone in the world possibly have the tiniest bit of confidence regarding a comparison like that? It doesn’t have any place in crazy, hair-splitting hypotheticals like these. I do not see these issues as black and white. I don’t even see them as shades of gray. I see these issues as occupying the very narrowest range of the gray color palette that exists somewhere between smoke and graphite.

                      So how can I be confident about something I don’t understand? I can’t. I’m not. I do not pretend to be. Some evidence is suggestive enough to make me lean slightly in one direction or another. The likelihood that I’m wrong is astronomically high. When God and I sit down and have that talk over tea, he’ll probably laugh at my folly. I believe a lot of things, and I’m sure he’ll have himself a hearty guffaw at a great many of them. I’m not quite sure which ones at the moment, but I’m confident that he will, nevertheless. I’m at peace with that. I find myself quite comfortable with ambiguity of late. And if I just happen to be the only person in the entire universe who thinks Norm Van Brocklin might- just might- have been better than Otto Graham, I’m at peace with that, too. From where I sit, Otto Graham is probably overrated in more places than Norm Van Brocklin is, (owing largely to the unquestioned acceptance of his AAFC stats at face value, as well as the refusal to give any credit whatsoever to the defenses he played with for his championship success); if I’m the foolish and ill-advised counterbalance to that, so be it.

                      And with that, I believe I’m done. I’ve enjoyed the chat, but as I said, what we have here is a basic philosophical disagreement, and no amount of further debate will ever resolve that. I do not believe there is anything for either of us to gain from continued discussion on this point except, perhaps, for frustration. Thank you for sharing your time and your knowledge on the subject, though; I am certainly better off for it.

                    • You’ve indicated a polite end to our dialogue, and I’m willing to let this go, too. I can live my life without convincing you that Otto Graham was the best QB of all time.

                      re: confidence, perhaps I chose the wrong word, because you’re right that you’ve indicated, throughout this discussion, guesses and suppositions, rather than certainties. Perhaps a better phrasing would have expressed my surprise that your evaluation of Graham seems so inflexible.

                      I called that confidence in your position, and probably that wasn’t quite the right term. But I haven’t gotten the impression that you’re open to re-assessing your evaluations of the two players, and that is why I’m surprised: you’ve expressed a passion for learning about the NFL, and you’ve said this is not an era you know a lot about, yet there doesn’t seem room for new information in your thinking about this topic. Possibly I’ve misunderstood something. I’ll summarize my two main points, trying to explain where I’ve been puzzled, and move on.

                      1. We began by discussing Paul Brown’s influence.

                      You have expressed several times the idea that Graham might be a product of Brown’s system, that you have comparably greater confidence in Van Brocklin not being a product of his team.

                      I presented objective evidence (about Cleveland’s success with and without Graham) and subjective evidence (Paul Brown called Graham “my greatest player”, “the key to the whole team”, “the crux of how we got things done”) to support Graham, as well as neutral-party primary sources united in their belief that Graham was the best QB of the era. That synergy of evidence to support Graham is very persuasive to me. Granting that we don’t have to evaluate everything the same way, I’ve been surprised it doesn’t seem persuasive to you. Graham was almost certainly more critical to the team’s success than you indicated in your original comments.

                      I also pointed out that Van Brocklin himself played for two of the greatest offensive coaches in history (Clark Shaughnessy and Sid Gillman), and noted that Van Brocklin played his whole career with HOF-quality receivers. Graham played with two real good receivers, and Dub Jones, but if I was voting, none of them would be in Canton. Fears, Hirsch, and McDonald would, and I could go either way on Retzlaff. Graham played with very different teammates and very different offensive systems in 1946 and ’55, and he had some of his best seasons after Mac Speedie went to the CFL. Compared to Van Brocklin, he got less support from exceptional offensive teammates.

                      We haven’t really discussed Bob Waterfield. I suspect you would agree that with the possible exception of 1960, Van Brocklin’s best years were 1950 and ’51. Van Brocklin outplayed Waterfield from 1950-51, but not by very much. And the problem with ranking Van Brocklin as the best QB of that era is, in his greatest seasons — 1950 and ’51 — he played about the same as Bob Waterfield.

                      It’s logically consistent to assume that the higher one ranks Van Brocklin, the higher one ranks Waterfield, as well. If you believe Van Brocklin was a great quarterback in 1950 and ’51, you also believe Waterfield was a great quarterback in 1950 and ’51. Bob Waterfield wouldn’t make my top 40 QBs of all time. He might be in the top 50, but it would be touch-and-go. Since we’ve spent so much time on entanglement, that seems like an important factor to consider.

                      Again, I am totally willing to let this go, but it surprises me that Paul Brown and Graham’s single-franchise career seem so large a factor in your evaluations, while Van Brocklin’s coaches and receivers and similar performance to Waterfield are of so much less relevance.

                      2. We’ve gone back and forth about 1946-49.

                      This has emerged as our greatest disagreement, and I did not intend for it to become a bitter one. I won’t harp on this, but you have learned — and not just from me — that the AAFC was much stronger than you had presumed. I do believe Graham was better than Van Brocklin in the early ’50s, but my lofty ranking of Automatic Otto rests more on his play in the AAFC; I’m confident his best performances came in that league, not in the NFL. Your initial impression of the AAFC was formed by the discrepancy between Otto Graham’s stats in the AAFC and the post-merger NFL. I would suggest that the discrepancy is attributable not solely to the quality of the leagues, but also to Graham’s own decline as he got older; the quality gap between the two leagues is insufficient to explain the difference.

                      I appreciate your candor and your willingness to admit what you don’t know; what I don’t understand is your unwavering adherence to a position formed prior to investigation. Throughout this conversation, you have declined to consider the possibility that Graham was an even better player from 1946-49 than he was after the merger. I don’t understand why.

                      You wrote, My reaction to that is to assume that his production against superior competition was more indicative of his true quality of play. Your reaction to that assumption is to call it uneducated and question my right to be making assumptions or holding opinions on this subject in the first place.

                      I question your decision to express opinions on a topic you don’t understand. I think that is substantially different than what you’ve alleged above, and a good bit less a-hole-ish of me. In the crowd-sourcing exercise that prompted this dialogue, more than half the participants left Van Brocklin off their ballots entirely; most of those people probably were not qualified to participate in a true all-time ranking. That bugs me. I think people have an obligation to familiarize themselves with the topic before contributing an opinion. That’s been my position on the AAFC, as well. I wish you would do the relevant research before committing to your position. That’s all I’ve meant to say, and if I’ve expressed that unkindly, I do apologize.

                      Subjective all-time rankings are guesses. Am I confident that I’ve rated Van Brocklin correctly relative to Sonny Jurgensen or Roger Staubach or Warren Moon or Drew Brees? No, I’m not. I’m confident that I’m close on all those players, but that’s about as far as it goes. I am confident in ranking Otto Graham ahead of Van Brocklin.

                      It’s true that you haven’t expressed confidence per se in your assessments of Graham and Van Brocklin — I didn’t mean to mischaracterize your degree of certainty — but you’ve demonstrated a commitment to your position, and a willingness to argue on its behalf, that could easily be mistaken for great confidence.

                      I’m sorry if this conversation took on an antagonistic tone, and I hope I’ve communicated my surprises and misunderstandings without being a dick about it. Cheers.

                    • Richie

                      What ability did writers of the AAFC in 1948 have to actually watch many games and gain a reasonable assessment of which quarterback was the best?

                    • Pretty good, I believe. Certainly not like today, but the AAFC was a popular league (with higher attendance than the NFL), which demanded thorough coverage. I’m actually, right now, re-reading Paul Zimmerman’s New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, and in an early chapter, he talks about watching Browns games as a teenager in New York. Furthermore, it was common for writers of that era to travel with teams, and the AAFC — founded by Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward — got excellent media coverage, probably better than the NFL’s.

        • I think most of us have reached the “agree to disagree” threshold
          already, but I do want to chime in on the quality of the AAFC
          specifically, because I think a number of commenters have misjudged the
          league. If you study the issue — and I believe several people in
          the All-Time QB discussion failed their due diligence on this — I would
          guess that the quality of the AAFC was at least as high as the quality
          of the early AFL (say, 1960-63). To Nitpicker and Bryan’s point, the PFHOF counts statistics from the NFL, AFL,
          and AAFC. The NFL’s decision to count AFL stats,
          but not AAFC, should carry very little weight in our evaluations of the
          respective leagues.

          To some extent, I think the analysis of
          Graham’s stats becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, almost a circular
          argument: Graham’s stats in the NFL were better than the AAFC,
          and the AAFC stats don’t matter because Graham’s stats in the NFL were
          better.

          Kibbles was obviously exaggerating with the
          high school comparison — I have no problem with hyperbole in the
          service of a larger point, and I think his point in this case is
          perfectly valid. But earlier in our discussion, he compared the AAFC to
          the CFL, which is shockingly ill-informed. The AAFC produced a dozen
          Hall of Fame players in four years. The CFL has produced one HOF player I
          can think of (Moon) in half a century. The AAFC was a major league with
          dozens of NFL-quality players and several inner-circle Hall of Famers.
          At any given time, the CFL has a handful of NFL-quality players. Calling the
          Browns’ opponents in the AAFC “laughably poor competition” indicates
          either a very different interpretation of that phrase than I use, or a
          deeply flawed understanding of the AAFC.

          Perhaps I’m wrong, but I would suspect that I have studied the AAFC more
          closely than most of the people in this conversation. And I absolutely
          do not believe that the 1946-49 Lions (10-37) or Boston Yanks/NY
          Bulldogs (10-34-3)
          were better teams than the 49ers, Bills, New York Yankees … look at
          the rosters of those AAFC teams. They have a
          number of players who not only made it in the NFL, but excelled in the
          NFL. The ’46 NYY went 10-3-1 in the AAFC. Is it a stretch to assume they
          would have been a .500 team in the NFL? I think it is a stretch to
          assume they would not.

          I also get the
          impression that some people are mistaking the quality of the
          NFL in the late ’40s. The NFL was not as good in 1949
          as it was in 1950, after absorbing the AAFC. To make an obvious point,
          the Cleveland Browns may have been the best team in
          football every year from 1946-49. I’m not saying they were, but there’s
          certainly a case to be made. And no NFL team, no NFL quarterback, had to
          play against them. You want to know whose stats were way worse in the
          early ’50s than the late ’40s? Sammy Baugh. Tommy Thompson. Chuck
          Conerly.

          Conerly also speaks to a point I believe many analysts
          overlook: in the pre-AFL era, QBs tended to peak early. From Benny
          Friedman and Sammy Baugh to Bob Waterfield and Conerly, it’s apparent
          that most quarterbacks of that era played their best football as young
          men. I don’t believe it’s at all implausible that Otto Graham was a
          better player from 25-28 than he was after the (partial) merger. Some level of decline in his stats was probably normal, making the difference between leagues appear larger.

          Look,
          I’m not trying to make the case that the AAFC was an NFL-quality
          league. It wasn’t. But it was significantly stronger than some
          commenters have given it credit for being. If you’re going to criticize
          the quality of the league, I think you have a responsibility to
          familiarize yourself with the situation.

          • Bryan Frye

            I’m not a fan of using a few players to prove a point about the quality of the AAFC versus the NFL. When I did my GQBOAT ratings, I gave the AAFC a .5 modifier, but I also gave the 1940s NFL a .6 modifier. So when comparing the two leagues, that amounts to a .83 modifier for the AAFC, which I think is reasonable.

            However, until I see a holistic study performed, which accounts for the performances of more than just a few star players, I don’t feel comfortable coming down hard on one side or the other. The AAFC is hurt by being a league full of expansion teams. Both leagues are hurt by WW2. The AAFC is helped by having pretty rich owners relative to the NFL owners of the era. The upstart league also benefited from having great media coverage because of Arch Ward. I think comparing the AAFC to the early AFL is appropriate and is why I gave the same .5 modifier to 1960-1962 AFL players.

            That’s just my opinion; I could be wrong.

            • A .83 modifier for the AAFC relative to the NFL sounds reasonable to me, but I think .5 and .6 are unduly harsh on the two leagues. Maybe I’m not understanding your rating system, though.

              FWIW, I use a progressive modifier for the AFL, so each year rates a little stronger than the one before. Perhaps this is a foolish suggestion — since I’m not sure how your rating system works — but I wonder if you could do something like .5 for 1960, .55 for ’61, .6 for ’62, .65 for ’63, etc. I don’t see any point, including the common draft, at which there’s an obvious hard divide, rather than a gradual one, in the quality of the AFL.

              • Bryan Frye

                Fair or unfair, I didn’t start giving full credit until 1970. I took into account things like WW2 and segregation, so the NFL has a dip in war years before going back up. 1970-2014 have 1.0 multipliers, while I think I modified the AFL in 2-3 year spans. I didn’t do a detailed analysis to arrive at the multipliers I used; I basically just went by feel.

          • Kibbles

            I believe your point that the NFL itself was inferior competition prior to 1950 and the inclusion of the Browns is at once remarkably well-made and irrelevant to the larger argument, since Van Brocklin attempted all of 58 career passes prior to 1950. If we apply less weight to the pre-1950 NFL just as we do to the AAFC, that still doesn’t make much of an impact on our relative assessment of Van Brocklin.

            Regarding your point about early QB aging patterns, that’s an interesting point. I’m conditioned to scoff at the idea that a quarterback was better at 25-28 than he was at 29-31, but that might well be a modern bias. Complicating matters, of course, is the actual arc that Graham’s career took- his best NFL season came at age 32. His second-best NFL season came at 34. Van Brocklin went downhill after 28, though I’ve mentioned how much I hate entanglement, and that also coincided with the general aging of his supporting cast, too. But, again, we have that resurgence with Philadelphia at age 33 and 34…

            Finally, regarding the CFL: I will gladly plead to ignorance here. My knowledge of the CFL is largely limited to the fact that it’s better than the Arena League or NFL Europe, but worse than the NFL. In today’s game, that’s a very rare space for a league to occupy. The USFL was there for a few years before it folded. The AFL was there in the ’60s. Maybe I’m a bit too cavalier with the CFL comparisons, but like I said, there aren’t really any other modern points of comparison that I can use that aren’t just outright insulting, (such as the aforementioned Arena League or NFL Europe.) At least CFL players are professionals who are paid enough to devote themselves to football full-time.

            It’s hard to analogize, simply because there are so few possible points of reference. Maybe college football would have been a better analogy, but I was operating under an impression that the quality of play was higher in the CFL than it was in the NCAA.

            • Bryan Frye

              Personally, I look forward to seeing the debate between you two on Shane Lechler. Brad discusses Lechler’s general overratedness in his All Decade (2005-2014) post, and it’s really good stuff. I don’t always agree with either of you, but I definitely appreciate your ability to produce an intelligent and generally respectful argument for your case.

              • Kibbles

                I don’t devote enough head space to the issue of individual punters to have a strong enough opinion to merit debate. I suspect I would be easily swayed by anyone who had done even a modicum of research.

                Now, a debate on the merits of punting as an entire profession, I can do that. Of course, I suspect given the crowd we’d probably be starting from a point of broad consensus. (I.e. no, there should not be a punter in the Hall of Fame, unless one somehow managed to separate himself from his peers by a far greater degree than any punter has yet managed.)

            • In the comment you replied to, I was talking only about the quality of the AAFC, not the Graham-Van Brocklin issue. Establishing the quality of the AAFC is important in that debate, so in that sense I suppose it’s related, but it’s not what I was writing about.

              • Kibbles

                My entire goal in all of this, from the very beginning, has been to get some sort of context for Graham’s numbers relative to Van Brocklin’s, not to create a definitive ranking of the quality of competition of every league-season ever played. I don’t much care how the 1947 AAFC stacked up against the 1943 NFL, (I’d wager it was better, actually), or against the 1964 AFL, (I’d guess worse, but am very open to the idea that I’m wrong). I’m not trying to place it in space relative to the CFL (other than to note that both the CFL and the AAFC have in turns managed to occupy the space between “2nd-tier league with no professional workforce” and “NFL”) I care how Otto Graham’s quality of competition was from 1946-1949, and how it was from 1950-1955. My impression of his 1950-1955 competition is “much tougher”. Judging from your comments on the subject, I’d assume that’s a fair impression.

                • I don’t know why you are unable to process that I was making a side point about the AAFC, and — as I explicitly wrote, twice — not trying to resume the Graham-Van Brocklin debate.

                  You said: Prior to 1950, Otto Graham put up “glitch-in-the-matrix” type numbers. After 1950, Otto Graham put up “merely” historically great numbers. Why? Because Otto Graham was facing tougher competition after 1950. Do you fundamentally disagree with this assertion? And if not, what are we arguing?

                  Do I disagree? No. What are we arguing? I don’t know how to say this without being rude, but I am arguing that you are unqualified to make judgments on the quality of the AAFC, or at least anything beyond “it was worse than the NFL.” You don’t know how much worse, because you haven’t done enough research. Throughout our discussion, you have consistently and dramatically understated the quality of the league. Your confidence, in judging the quality of the AAFC, is unfounded. That’s what I’ve been arguing, and I apologize for my bluntness, but implying this more politely just seems to have confused you.

                  ===

                  re: Graham-Van Brocklin, you wrote: When you compare NVB’s stats from the post-merger leagues to Otto Graham’s stats from the post-merger leagues- you see that they had remarkably similar statistical profiles. And, given similar statistical profiles, I tend to favor the guy with less entanglement, because I am marginally more confident that his production was a result of his own inherent ability and not favorable circumstances.

                  I don’t believe a thorough analysis can rely so heavily on stats. As far as I can tell, pretty much everyone who watched football in the 1950s rated Graham ahead of Van Brocklin. If you’re trying to put their careers in context, why not allow people with more information — contemporary players and coaches and writers — to do that for you? Graham was all-pro every year, and while Van Brocklin surely lost votes because of the odd arrangement with Bob Waterfield, that does not fully explain Graham’s dominance in award recognition.

                  I’m sure there are people who saw them play, and regarded Van Brocklin as the better quarterback, but I can’t think of a single instance where I’ve seen that indicated … I can, however, think of many people who preferred Graham. In fact, in the literature of that era, Bobby Layne was regarded as a greater player than Van Brocklin, and Layne — who retired two years later — was inducted into the Hall of Fame four years before Van Brocklin.

                  I understand your admiration of Van Brocklin’s accomplishments with two teams, but his contemporaries knew that the Rams and Eagles were two different teams, and Van Brocklin was credited for his role in turning around the Eagles. Everyone agreed that Van Brocklin was a great player, but no one suggested that he might be the best of his generation. Your idea, that Van Brocklin was better than Otto Graham, is a 21st-century invention. I can’t imagine what you know about those two players that no one from the previous 50 years did. Obviously I don’t believe in complete adherence to subjective evaluations, but the statistical record does not contradict the consensus in contemporary opinion. The available evidence, taken in whole, indicates that Graham was better from 1950-55 than Van Brocklin.

      • Andrew Healy

        Just wanted to say that this debate was awesome. I had NVB 11th and maybe that was too low.

  • Richie
    • Richie

      Wow, those embeds are huge!

  • Roger Kirk

    I’ll repeat what I wrote in the original thread. I was around then, although lacking the judgment or tools to make a sophisticated analysis, and my recollection is that Graham was the clear #1 according to the wisdom of the crowd at that time, as evidenced by the all-pro awards. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to exactly calculate what proportion of a player’s success was due to the team and system he played for. Where would Joe Montana be if he had been drafted by Tampa Bay?

    PS: Should Graham get extra credit for the fact that while he was waiting for the AAFC to begin operations after he got out of the navy in WW II, he was the fifth-leading scorer on the Rochester Royals team that won the NBL championship in 1946? The NBL later merged with the BAA to form the NBA. The Royals later moved to Cincinnati, Kansas City and Sacramento. The team they beat in the ’46 championship was the Sheboygan Redskins. I didn’t know that until just now although I was alive at the time.

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