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Sammy Baugh is the best quarterback in history

I'll keep saying it, because it's true. In discussions with other fans regarding what makes the best quarterback of all time, there is no single metric that demands conclusion. Championships are challenged as defining of the greatest accomplishment in sports, but then attacked on the basis that they are a team award. Stats are deemed incomparable between different quarterbacks for precisely the same reason -- context includes personnel and era. Amidst this fog of metrics most fans are left no closer to a reasonable conclusion than the one they started with, that my guy, person X, is the best quarterback ever. I join those fans in creating a metric exclusively because it leads to the conclusion I want. At least I am honest.

Neither Joe Montana, nor Brett Favre, nor John Elway, nor Tom Brady, nor even Johnny Unitas, ever had the pleasure of playing in the same league as Otto Graham. Only Johnny Unitas among those listed had the chance to play prior to the Live Ball Era -- a 1978 construct designed to increase scoring that had a profound impact on passing production. Yet for some years Otto Graham was the best quarterback in the NFL. Whereas Johnny U led the league in passing yards four times, Otto Graham did it five times (although two were for the AAFC). Just looking at Johnny U's stats, though, tells us how difficult it is to compare numbers from way-back to those from the now; his 54.6% completion percentage would land him some 10% points below Sage Rosenfels in 2007.

All of which is to say that comparing eras is difficult business, especially when it comes to quarterbacks. The quarterbacks of yesteryear that we praise as heroes have pedestrian stats compared to even mediocre QBs today. Sammy Baugh, like Otto Graham was in his day and as John Elway, Joe Montana, and Tom Brady could very well one day become, was a victim of his time. He threw more interceptions than touchdown passes. This is hardly unusual, though, given that the modern forward pass was legalized in 1933, just four years prior to his entry into the NFL. He was, by all reasonable accounts, the first modern passer, the father of the passing game we all love so dearly today and due all deference for being the first player accurate enough to fundamentally alter the game of football. He was, is a player of such unprecedented skill that the game was forever changed as a result of his presence. The degree that he changed the position is unmatched, at least so far as one viciously partisan Redskins fan is concerned.

The NFL Record book tells a compelling story. When Sammy Baugh entered the league as a rookie in 1937, a 47.4% completion percentage was good for tops in the league. He was that 47.4% passer, incidentally. And, indeed, for 9 of his 16 seasons in the NFL, he was the most accurate passer about; in two other seasons he was 2nd. The 1945 regular season performance by Sammy Baugh deserves special mention for its place in NFL history. He completed over 70% of his passes, which was then a first for the NFL. In fact this incredible accomplishment was so unprecedented, it was not broken for some 37 years -- by Ken Anderson in 1982 -- and has not been broken since. Tom Brady led the league this year with a 68.9 completion percentage.

He still holds the record, 55 years after he stopped playing the game, for most seasons leading the NFL in passing yards (6, tied with Steve Young). Only Len Dawson has had more seasons leading the entire league in completion %, and he did it starting in 1962, and it took him 19 years. Baugh did it in 16. On October 31st, 1948 Sammy Baugh set the NFL single game record (20 completion min.) for average gain per attempt at 18.58. This October will mark the 60th anniversary of that monumental performance and, barring something unbelievable, that record will survive as tops in NFL history. But it was probably easier back then, since all he had to do was play offense and defense and, by the way, he was the team's punter.

This rant was provoked by a great article at Buffalo News citing to what it thinks are the greatest 7 quarterbacks of all time, arguing that singling out one is simply untenable. Larry Felser's list:

* Sammy Baugh, Washington Redskins, 1937-1952.
  • Tom Brady, New England Patriots, 2000- present.
  • John Elway, Denver Broncos, 1983-1998.
  • Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers, 1991-2007 (unless he comes back).
  • Otto Graham, Cleveland Browns, 1946-1955.
  • Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers, 1979-1994.
  • Johnny Unitas, Baltimore Colts, 1956-1973.
  • On deck: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts, 1998-present.
On Baugh:
Baugh last played 55 seasons ago but he still holds or is tied for six Redskins records: most touchdown passes in a career, 187; best punting average career, 45.1; most passing yards in a game, 446; most touchdown passes in a game, six; best punting average in a season, 51.4 yards, which remains an NFL record also; and most passes intercepted in a game, four. The last record occurred in 1943, when most of the veteran players were in the armed forces during World War II and Sammy was among those old guys who had to play both offense and defense.

I never saw Baugh play but the old-time players with whom I spoke swore no one was better at slinging the football, even when it was fat and unpebbled.

There is little doubt that Baugh was the greatest quarterback of his era (an era so beyond the comprehension of young fans like me, it barely included quarterbacks; Sammy Baugh started his professional career as a tailback). He survives the championship argument, with two to his name. For all this I have absolutely no trouble claiming that Sammy Baugh was the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, and encourage all others to join me. Was Dan Marino better than Johnny Unitas better than Joe Montana? That discussion is precluded if not for the existence of Sammy Baugh, who is responsible for the positional history that followed and permitted those great names to distinguish themselves.

Even Death knows better than to challenge Slingin' Sammy Baugh, as he is the last surviving member of the first Hall of Fame class. Hail to him.