With the change of ownership, Washington football has entered a new era. Commanders fans under 35 may be venturing into the unknown. Through two sets of owners, three team names and 35 starting quarterbacks, they have only ever known a home team lost in the doldrums of mediocrity on the field and dysfunction off it.
As an older fan, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking about a return to the glory years. I was born into Redskins fandom, like all the other kids in my neighborhood of Bethesda, in the mid-1960s. The Redskins were the sports team in the DC area in my youth, and I was very fortunate to watch them win five NFC Championships and three Super Bowls during my formative years.
To most living Washington football fans, “The Glory Era” means one thing, the run of championship winning Redskin teams from 1982 through 1991 under coach Joe Gibbs and owner Jack Kent Cooke. To celebrate the liberation of Redskins nation, I would like to take you back even further to the team’s first championship era, beginning in their first season in Washington DC.
The NFL franchise we now know as the Washington Commanders started its life in 1932 as the Boston Braves. The following year, the name was changed to Redskins, and in 1937 the franchise moved to Washington. In 1937, the Redskins used their first draft pick in Washington, sixth overall, to select consensus All-American tailback “Slinging” Sammy Baugh out of TCU.
Baugh was not the first passing back in the NFL. In fact, in 1937 most of the players in an NFL backfield threw at least some passes as well as running the ball. They also might have punted and place kicked, and they always played on defense. Baugh was one of the early leaders in demonstrating the potential of the forward pass to revolutionize the game.
In his rookie season, Slinging Sammy led the league in passing completions (81), yards (1,127), TD% (4.7), yards per attempt (6.6), yards per completion (13.9) and yards per game (102.5). His stellar debut performance led the young Redskins franchise to its second NFL championship game, and its first championship title with a 28-21 victory over the Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field. In that victory, Baugh scored three touchdowns on passes of 55 yards and 78 yards to end Wayne Millner and a 35-yard dart to wing back Ed Justice.
Baugh’s exceptionally accurate passing attack led the Redskins to four more championship appearances over the next eight years, with a second title in 1942, in a 14-6 rematch with the Bears. Following his retirement from playing in 1951, the Redskins did not contend for another championship title until 1972. A few years after hanging up his cleats, Baugh took up coaching at the college level and eventually became a head coach for the New York Titans and Houston Oilers in the AFL.
Who Was the Most Dominant QB in their Era?
This piece was inspired by an article I came across on a Green Bay Packers history site when I was doing the research for my History and Evolution of the Fullback article, earlier this offseason. The Packers article asked who was the most statistically dominant player, within their era, in the history of the NFL. The answer, as everyone would expect, was Green Bay’s Don Hutson who led the NFL in most major receiving categories from 1935 to 1945. Never heard of him? In 1942, Hutson had 1,211 receiving yards, which would be very good in today’s 17-game season. It was mindblowing in an 11-game season with practically no restrictions on defensive backs contacting receivers.
What drew me to find that article was the second name on the list, the greatest fullback and running back of all time, Jim Brown. What got my attention once I was there was the third name, our good friend Sammy Baugh. I had to scroll all the way down to 8th on the list to find the player who is generally recognized as the GOAT, Tom Brady, in a three-way tie with Emmitt Smith and Johnny Unitas. To get to Brady, I had to pass two other modern era QBs, Drew Brees and Steve Young.
Aside from the interesting findings, what really appealed to my analytical sense in the PackersHistory.com article was their approach. The key words are “within their era”. The author notes that football fans, more than fans of other American sports, suffer from severe recency bias. I would add that, when all time leaders are anointed, too much credit is given to team success and to players who had long careers.
Tom Brady is widely considered to be the greatest NFL player of all time for three reasons. First, he played the most important position for the longest-lived dynasty in league history. Second, he had an exceptionally long productive career. And third, he played in the current era, which consciously or unconsciously makes us think he is better than players from eras when the game was less advanced.
None of that is to discount the fact that Tom Brady is one of the greatest NFL players ever. But is he really better than all the other quarterbacks who played in different eras? If we forget about what team he played on for a minute, and simply focus on performance as a quarterback, we might notice that at least two of his contemporaries, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, played better for many seasons during his career. And then, how do we even think about making valid comparisons to quarterbacks who played in previous eras with different rule sets, which were less favorable to quarterback play?
Since the 1940’s the NFL has been continuously updating its rules to make the game faster and encourage more passing, to appeal to TV audiences. Two rule changes had such dramatic effects on the passing game that it is simply not meaningful to directly compare quarterbacks who played before and after they came into effect. The introduction of unlimited substitution in 1950 allowed players to specialize in roles on offense, defense and special teams. Then, in 1978, the illegal contact rule banned defensive players from contacting receivers beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage, making it much easier to complete passes.
Fans today might find it ridiculous to claim that Sammy Baugh was a better quarterback than Tom Brady, considering that he only completed more than 60% of passes twice in a 16 year career. However, he actually led the league in completion rate eight times, fully half of the seasons he played. Brady, by comparison, passing in a much more conducive environment, only led the league in completion rate once in 23 seasons. What’s more, Baugh’s peak completion rate (70.3%), throwing to receivers with defensive backs draped all over them, was actually higher than Brady’s (68.9%).
To flip the cross-era comparison around, it is unlikely that Tom Brady could have even played professional football in 1937, since it is unclear what position he could play on defense. In that era, players leaving the field could not return in the same half, making it a tough sell to NFL teams to add a player who could only play on offense. In addition to being one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Baugh was also an All-Pro defensive back and punter. In 1943, he led the league in defensive interceptions with 11, in an 11-game season. That total would have placed him five interceptions ahead of the leaders in 2022. Baugh also led the league in yards per punt five times. His Washington franchise record of 45.1 yards per punt was finally broken by current punter, Tress Way.
Since it’s not really meaningful to compare stats of players from different eras, to discover who is truly the greatest of all time we need to ask which quarterback stood out the most from their contemporaries, playing with the same rules and similar conditions.
Ranking the Most Statistically Dominant Quarterbacks in NFL History
Following the PackersHistory.com’s lead, I ranked the leading contenders from each era of NFL history in terms of how many seasons they led the NFL, or other quarterbacks, in key statistical categories.
The main categories chosen to rank QBs were passing and comeback drives. Under passing, I counted seasons leading the league in Completion Percentage (Comp%), Passing Yards (Yards), Passing Touchdowns (TD), Interception Rate (Int%), Yards per Attempt (Y/A), and Passer Rating (Rate). Unfortunately, it was not possible to use more advanced QB stats like QBR, since they are fairly recent inventions and are not amenable to doing at home.
One of the key factors which differentiates great quarterbacks from merely good passers is the ability to lead teams to victory in clutch situations. To rate game winning leadership, I therefore included two more metrics in the comeback drives catgory: fourth-quarter comebacks (4QC) and game-winning drives (GWD).
The sample of quarterbacks/passing backs was intended to include all the likely suspects from each era of football. I limited it to backs who played a minimum of five years. It included all the QBs in the Hall of Fame, as well as names drawn from leaderboards. Many more QBs were sampled than are listed here. After about the top 30 ranked QBs the sampling wasn’t comprehensive. There might be a few players who could crack the bottom of this list, but I very much doubt that I missed anyone who should be in the top 20. What we really care about is who is in the top five.
The first table ranks QBs by the sum total number of seasons leading in each of the categories throughout their entire careers. Next to that is a table of other QB stats which I’ll add to the ranking in the following section. But first, let’s start with the main ranking:
After that lengthy introduction, it may come as little surprise to see Redskins great Sammy Baugh all alone in first place, with a sizeable lead over his closest competitor. What may surprise people is who is in second place. Not Tom Brady, as most present day NFL fans would surely expect. Rather, it is a tie between the first captain of the legendary Cleveland Browns dynasty of the 1940s and ‘50s, Otto Graham, and the greatest 9th round draft pick of all time, Johnny Unitas.
Under Graham’s leadership, the Browns appeared in the AAFC and post-merger NFL championship game every year from the franchise inauguration in 1946 through 1955, spanning his entire NFL career. During that legendary run, Cleveland won seven out of 10 championship titles, including five consecutive titles from 1946. Graham is the only NFL quarterback to appear in a championship playoff game every year of his playing career.
Johnny Unitas was the NFL’s dominant passing QB from 1957 through 1967, during which time he was voted AP MVP three times and appeared on 7 AP All-Pro teams. He led the Colts to five championship games, four league/conference championship titles, and one Super Bowl win from 1958 through 1970. During his peak years he set a record of 47 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass, which was finally broken by Drew Brees in 2012. Unitas pioneered modern clock management from the QB position and was renowned for his late-game comebacks. His 10 seasons leading the league in fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives separate him from the pack of other greats to land in second place.
The first QBs on the list to play in the post-illegal-contact-rule era are Steve Young and Drew Brees, tied for fifth place. They are closely followed by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in sixth and seventh place. You can look at that in two ways. These data might show that modern era QBs we tend to think of as perfecting the game are not actually as great as giants of the past. Or there may be more competition for the number one spot now than there was in the past. Afterall, Brees, Manning and Brady had to battle with one another for the league lead. Then again, Sammy Baugh had to compete with Otto Graham as well as 9th and 10th ranked Sid Luckman and Arnie Herber, as well as 14th ranked YA Tittle. Feel free to debate that one in the comments.
Last of all, some readers may notice that Baugh, like Unitas, benefited from a disproportionate share of years leading in the Comeback Drives category. In six of the seasons when he led the league in game-winning drives (GWD), he only had one. Many modern QBs have far more 4QC and GWD than that. However, that is because rule changes since Baugh’s era have opened up the passing game, making it much easier for modern QBs to stage comebacks. Late game comebacks were rare in the 1930s and 1940s, and Baugh was the best at leading them.
Nevertheless, to prove that I didn’t cook the books to favor the hometown hero, if 4QC and GWD are removed, the top ten QBs become: Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham tied in first place, Len Dawson and Steve Young tied in third place, Drew Brees in fifth place, Johnny Unitas and Tom Brady tied in sixth place, with Sid Luckman, Arnie Herber, Ken Anderson and Aaron Rodgers in a four-way tie for eighth place.
I think it’s fair to give Sammy Baugh the edge over Otto Graham based on comeback drives. But I’m happy for readers to debate me on that.
Additional QB Stats and Career-Length Adjustments
Now, for the other QB stats. The quarterback’s role in NFL football has evolved considerably over time. There is a common misconception that, in the early days, the quarterback was primarily a running back who occasionally threw the ball. That may have been the case prior to 1932, when statistics started being kept. As far back as the early 1930s, however, most teams had a primary passer. Just as today, some teams’ passing back also ran the ball a lot. On others, such as Arnie Herber’s Green Bay Packers and Sammy Baugh’s Redskins, the passing back mainly passed the ball and ran very little.
The misconception may have arisen because the term quarterback only became widely used in 1946. Prior to that, teams’ primary passers were usually termed tailbacks or just backs, and all the backs on a team could throw passes, even the fullbacks. Be that as it may, the point is that throughout all eras of football, from the 1930s to the present, there have been some quarterbacks and passing backs who have earned some of their living rushing the football.
In addition, prior to the advent of unlimited substitutions in 1950, quarterbacks often did the punting and, sometimes, even did the place kicking. To give credit for these additional contributions, and avoid giving preferential treatment to modern era passing specialists, I repeated the ranking by counting years leading the league in the main QB stats, as before, as well as the other QB stats in the first table in the categories of rushing, punting and kicking.
Since quarterbacks and primary passing tailbacks before them have seldom led the league in rushing, I rated rushing (total yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt – min 20 attempts) as numbers of years leading all quarterbacks from 1948. Prior to 1948, I rated it as number of years leading all primary passing backs, who might be designated as quarterbacks, tailbacks or backs. That required a lot of manual sorting.
The following table repeats the rankings from the first table in the left column. The right column shows the updated rankings, based on years leading the league in all statistical categories (Standard QB Stats, Other QB Stats) in the first table.
There is a little shuffling of the deck chairs at the top of ranking. Sammy Baugh remains in the lead. Steve Young pulls ahead of Otto Graham in second place, due to his prowess as a running quarterback. Modern era greats Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning remain about where they were.
The biggest risers, when total contributions are taken into account, were Tobin Rote (+18), George Blanda (+16), and Bob Waterfield (+16). Blanda is a Hall of Fame quarterback and place kicker who holds the record for playing 26 years from 1949 to 1975 for the Chicago Bears, Houston Oilers and Oakland Raiders. He led the NFL and AFL several times in passing, field goal percentage and extra points made. He still holds the record for most extra points made.
Waterfield was another QB and kicker who played for only eight years for the Los Angeles Rams, but made five All-Pro teams while leading the league in passing categories in four seasons, in field goals in five season and in extra points four times.
Overall, factoring in contributions beyond the passing game does not seem to have a major impact on the top of the all-time QB rankings. It does shine a light on some greats of the past who have been largely forgotten by today’s football fans.
All of the rankings up to this point is this point are based on total cumulative career statistics. This is how players are usually evaluated for purposes of sporting lifetime achievement awards. From an analytic standpoint, cumulative statistics are unsatisfying because they are prone to rewarding players with the longest careers, rather than those who were the best when they were playing. For example, does anyone think that Emmitt Smith was a better running back than Barry Sanders because he rushed for more total yards?
To correct for differences in career length, for the final rankings I divided the years leading figures in the previous table by the number of seasons that each QB played. The rankings based on career-adjusted figures are shown in the following table:
Adjusting for career length allows Otto Graham to overtake Sammy Baugh for the title of GOAT in both rankings. What Graham accomplished in a 10 year career is truly outstanding, even in a field composed of the greatest QBs to ever play the game. In addition to Graham and Baugh, Johnny Unitas, Len Dawson, Steve Young, Peyton Manning, Sid Luckman, and Arnie Herber all retain their positions within the top 10.
Drew Brees and Tom Brady both fall out of the top 10 in the career-adjusted rankings.
They are replaced by Cecil Isbell and Bob Waterfield in the main QB stats ranking. Tobin Rote and Roger Staubach also join the top 10 in the extended QB stats ranking, displacing Arnie Herber and Manning. As a result, the career adjusted main QB stat rankings only contain two QBs from the illegal-contact era in the top 10: Steve Young and Peyton Manning. The career-adjusted extended stat rankings only have Young in the top 10.
So who are these highly ranked older generation QBs? We have already met Waterfield and Rote.
Isbell was a dual threat tailback and half back for the Green Bay Packers for only five years from 1938 to 1942. He was the team’s leading passer and rusher in 1938, when the Packers lost the NFL championship game. In 1939, when the Packers won the Championship, he led the team in rushing, but was second in passing to Arnie Herber. He led the league in rushing yards per attempt in 1938 and led the league in three passing categories in 1941 and four passing categories in 1942. In 1942, he became the first player in NFL history to pass for more than 2,000 yards in a season. He was one of Sammy Baugh’s main competitors during his short career and was inducted into the Hall of Fame All 1930’s team.
Football fans, more than those of other sports, tend to focus on the present era. We tend to rate the heroes of the present above those of the past in part because their stats look so much better. But that can be misleading when judging quarterbacks because the NFL has spent the past 100 years continually adjusting the rules to make it easier to pass the football and harder to defend the pass.
It also does a disservice to Washington football fans, in particular, who have hopefully just emerged from a 30-year glitch. Prior to that, the Washington Redskins had experienced two glory eras. Most fans today only know about the more recent one. That is a shame, because the first was led by a home grown quarterback who can make a legitimate claim to be the best to ever play the game.
While it is generally accepted today that Tom Brady is the GOAT, that claim is mainly based on him being the quarterback for the greatest team dynasty in league history. If we can look past team wins, examining QB leaderboards reveals that he was not even the leading quarterback of his era. That title goes to Drew Brees.
The NFL has seen other dynasties in the past led by other great quarterbacks, as well as great quarterbacks playing for good teams.
Using a method that asks how far quarterbacks stood out among other players within their eras revealed that Sammy Baugh is the true outlier among NFL quarterbacks. In total cumulative terms, which is how we normally determine all-time greats, Baugh is the clear leader and is well separated from the trailing pack. Adjusting for career length reveals that his main rival for the title of GOAT is Cleveland Browns great Otto Graham, not Brady.
Sammy Baugh was the Redskins’ first draft pick in franchise history. In the 86 years since he was drafted the team has only had a small handful of quarterbacks who were even worthy of franchise status, and only one other who ranked in the top 20 of the present all-time list.
We might not ever see another quarterback like Baugh again. However, the dawn of a new era of football in DC brings with it the hope that we can once again see the franchise do things the right way. And who knows. That might even include finding a quarterback who can compete with the best in the league. We have done it before.
Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett
Who is the greatest player in NFL history?
This poll is closed
Sammy Baugh, QB
Jim Brown, FB
Otto Graham, QB
Jerry Rice, WR
Tom Brady, QB
Lawrence Taylor, OLB
Anthony Munoz, OT
Rod Woodson, DB
Jim Otto, C
Joe Montana, QB
Ray Lewis, LB
Bruce Matthews, OL
Alan Page, DT
Walter Payton, RB
Don Hutson, WR
Marshall Faulk, RB
Reggie White, DE