Revolutionaries No position has had greater impact on pro football than the quarterback, and in the 79-year history of the NFL these six passers have effected the most significant changes

Aug. 17, 1998
Aug. 17, 1998

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Aug. 17, 1998

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Revolutionaries No position has had greater impact on pro football than the quarterback, and in the 79-year history of the NFL these six passers have effected the most significant changes

Good quarterbacks leave indelible stamps on the game, but a few
of them go a step further. They change the game, through a style
that gives life to a new offensive system, by force of
personality or simply by coming along at the right time.

This is an article from the Aug. 17, 1998 issue

Here are the six NFL quarterbacks I believe effected the most
profound changes. Sid Luckman was the first to run the modern T
formation with a man in motion, which bore a striking
resemblance to today's basic set. Otto Graham, innovative and a
deadly accurate passer, will nevertheless be remembered as the
first man for whom his coach called all the plays. John Unitas
was a tough, snarling veteran of the semipro ranks who clawed
his way to the top; once he got there he battled to do things
his way, no matter how his coach felt about it. Joe Namath
became the standard-bearer for a league. He gave the AFL
respectability, changed the salary structure of pro football and
captivated fans with his brashness and flair. Joe Montana was
the master of a system that swept the game, with its reliance on
quick reads and short, precision passing. Finally, there was
Doug Williams, who with one brilliant performance opened the way
for today's generation of black quarterbacks--make that
quarterbacks who happen to be black--to multiply and flourish.

Many great quarterbacks--Sammy Baugh, Bobby Layne, Norm Van
Brocklin and Dan Marino, for instance--were not included, not
because of any lack of ability but because they didn't have the
impact the select half-dozen did.

When Sid Luckman died in July, at 81, the last originator of the
oldest offensive formation still in use was gone. The T with a
man in motion was the brain work of a coaching triumvirate of
George Halas, Clark Shaughnessy and Ralph Jones, and Luckman, a
22-year-old Chicago Bears rookie out of Columbia, was the man
chosen to implement it on the field. That was in 1939, and the
basic set remains.

"I'd been a single-wing tailback," Luckman said when I visited
him at his Fort Lauderdale suburban apartment in May. "You're
set deep, the ball comes to you, and you either pass, run or
spin. When I came to the Bears, we worked for hours on my
spinning, on hiding the ball, only this time it was as a T
quarterback. They brought in the old Bears quarterback, Carl
Brumbaugh, to work with me. We spent endless time just going
over my footwork, faking, spinning, setting up as fast as I
could, running to my left and throwing right, days and days of

Luckman seemed frail as we talked. All the charm that I
remembered from the dozen or so times I had interviewed him
through the years was there, but he'd occasionally stop to
gather himself, to get things just right. Seated with him at a
table heaped with charts and memorabilia and the scrapbooks of a
lifetime in the game, I felt as if I were listening to Orville
Wright describing the origins of the flying machine.

"Ralph Jones had coached the T with the Bears in the early
1930s," Luckman said, "but it was the old T, with everyone
bunched in there. Shaughnessy was coaching at the University of
Chicago, and they were about to drop football, so he spent a lot
of time with us. I'd be up in Shaughnessy's room every night in
training camp, going over every aspect of the thing. The whole
idea was to spread the field and give the defense more area to

"We had an 11 o'clock curfew, and Halas would drop by around 1
a.m. and say, 'That's enough, Sid. Go to bed.'"

The system was still experimental in 1939, and Luckman was a
backup tailback in the Bears' basic offense, the single wing. But
on Oct. 22, with Chicago trailing the New York Giants 16-0 at the
Polo Grounds, Halas told Luckman, "Get in at quarterback and run
the T."

"Bob MacLeod, our right halfback, went in motion and ran straight
down the field on a stop-and-go," Luckman said. "I was so
nervous I threw a duck, end over end. The defensive back had the
interception, but MacLeod took the ball away from him and went
all the way. Then I threw a little swing pass to Bob Swisher,
and he shook a couple of tackles and went 60 yards for another
score. We lost the game 16-13, and we used the T off and on for
the rest of the season, but no one made a big thing about it."

The T explosion came one year later. While the Bears were using
the formation to go 8-3 on the way to the NFL Championship Game,
in which they would annihilate the Washington Redskins 73-0,
Shaughnessy, who had moved on to coach Stanford, was dazzling
the college world with the T. Stanford went 9-0, then beat
Nebraska 21-13 in the Rose Bowl. The rush was on. "I went back
to Columbia to help Lou Little put in the T," Luckman said. "I
went to Holy Cross, to Army when Red Blaik called me, to Notre
Dame to work with Johnny Lujack and George Ratterman."

The Bears won four NFL titles in the 1940s, and other teams
gradually switched to the new formation. Luckman, who in 10
games in 1943 threw 28 touchdown passes en route to winning
league MVP honors, was the first T master, a gifted passer, long
and short, a skilled faker and ball handler. He was there when
it all began.

Otto Graham played for 10 years with the Cleveland Browns
beginning in 1946, and the Browns were in a league championship
game every one of those seasons. If you're looking for a record
that never will be matched, that's a good place to start.

He played for a club that outrecruited everyone else (the heart
of the post-World War II Browns was a group of service vets who
still had college eligibility left), outcoached everyone else
and was years ahead of the rest of pro football in organization
and innovation. He played for the only coach to have an NFL team
named after him, Paul Brown. Brown's ego reached such a peak
that he decided that he, not Graham, would call the plays. That
became Brown's system.

The messenger-guard rotation was introduced in the early '50s.
Brown's bold move changed the game, even though the innovation
didn't immediately catch on. Many stories of that era mentioned
how unhappy Graham was with the arrangement, but he says it
wasn't true. "A lot of people in this world have great egos, but
on the Browns there was room for only one ego, and it wasn't
mine," says Graham, who's 76 and living in Sarasota, Fla. "I
never openly criticized the coach. We had a checkoff system, and
occasionally I'd change one of his plays, but as for his calling
the game, we never talked about it. He was the admiral, the
general, the CEO.

"I'm sure that some quarterbacks couldn't have played in that
system," says Graham, who twice led the NFL in passing yardage
and was the top-rated passer of his time. "I don't think Bobby
Layne could have. But what I loved was that we were a passing
team in an era of the run. In the morning we'd work on the run,
in the afternoon the pass. What were my talents? I could throw
hard if I had to, I could lay it up soft, I could drill the
sideline pass. God-given ability. The rest was practice,
practice, practice. I had the luxury of having the same
receivers for almost my entire career. We developed the timed
sideline attack, the comeback route where the receiver goes to
the sideline, stops and comes back to the ball, with everything
thrown on rhythm."

In their NFL debut in 1950, the Browns, four-time champs of the
rival All-America Football Conference, crushed the defending NFL
champion Philadelphia Eagles 35-10. Philly's 5-2 defense
couldn't cover the sideline comebacks. The Giants scouted that
game and, dropping the ends in their 6-1 alignment into
linebacker positions, stopped the Browns when the teams met two
weeks later. The 4-3, today's standard defensive set, was born.

"After the game against the Eagles," says Graham, "their coach,
Greasy Neale, said we were nothing but a basketball team. Pretty
good basketball team, huh?"

In 1955, after completing an unremarkable career at Louisville,
getting drafted in the ninth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers
and being released near the end of training camp, 22-year-old
John Unitas was the quarterback for the Bloomfield Rams in
western Pennsylvania. He made six bucks a game. "They called it
semipro football," he says. "Actually it was just sandlot, a
bunch of guys knocking the hell out of each other on an
oil-soaked field under the Bloomfield Bridge."

Five years later, after Unitas had led the Baltimore Colts to
two NFL championships, Eagles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin was
asked what made Unitas so great. "He knows what it's like to eat
potato soup seven days a week," the Dutchman replied.

Unitas became synonymous with toughness on the field, for
stepping up in the teeth of the rush and delivering the ball. "I
often thought that sometimes he'd hold the ball one count longer
than he had to," Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Merlin Olsen
once said, "just so he could take the hit and laugh in your face."

"I kept a picture of Johnny U. over my bed," Namath once said.
"To me he meant one thing--toughness."

How did Unitas change the game? He was the antithesis of the
highly drafted, highly publicized young quarterback. He
developed a swagger, a willingness to gamble. He showed that
anyone with basic skills could beat the odds if he wanted to
succeed badly enough and was willing to work.

He's 65 now, vice president of sales for a computer electronics
firm and chairman of Unitas Management Corp., a sports
management firm, and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational
Foundation, which awards scholarships. On a sunny day in May we
sat on the porch that overlooks his 19 acres of pastureland in
Baldwin, Md., and I mentioned my favorite quote of his: "You
don't arrive as a quarterback until you can tell the coach to go
to hell."

"Once you've got [the game] down, you've got a better feel on
the field than a coach has," Unitas said. "My first year I was
learning. By the end of the second year it was like a complete
revelation, like a cloud had moved away. I'd get a feel for how
to move the defense into coverages that I wanted. I'd keep a
chart on every defensive back, on his tendencies.

"Weeb Ewbank, our coach, used to be scared to death of [Detroit
Lions Hall of Fame cornerback] Night Train Lane. He'd tell me to
stay away from him. I thought, Hell, I'm not going to give him
the day off. But Weeb was the perfect coach for me because he'd
always get players' input."

How about the system today with, for instance, the radio
receivers that have become standard in quarterbacks' helmets so
coaches can send in plays from the sidelines? "I'd be very
deaf," said Unitas, a three-time league MVP and 10-time Pro Bowl
player who still ranks third in career touchdown passes. "Mine
would be out of service."

Unitas thought for a moment. "One of the greatest compliments
I've ever had," he said, "came against the Green Bay Packers on a
fourth-and-one in a tight game. Before we huddled, I was checking
the line of scrimmage to see where the ball was, and I heard one
of their guys say to Henry Jordan, their defensive tackle, 'What
do you think he's going to do?' Jordan said, 'Damned if I know.
I've been playing against him for five years, and I haven't
figured his ass out yet.' That's what quarterbacks today are

The hit had been a brutal one, helmet to rib cage, and it had
come just as New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath released the
ball. Namath was stretched out on the turf of Denver's Mile High
Stadium for a couple of minutes. This was September 1969, a
little more than eight months after the Jets had stunned the
Colts in Super Bowl III. After the game, no one was more worried
about Namath's condition than Dave Costa, the Broncos' defensive
tackle who had delivered the blow.

As Namath was getting his sore ribs treated, Costa stood in the
New York locker room in civvies, just outside the trainers' room,
practically wringing his hands. "Is he all right?" he asked.
"Honest to god, I didn't mean to hurt him."

I asked him why he was so upset.

"Are you kidding?" he said. "All that Joe has meant to us, to our
league, whipping the Colts' ass the way he did. He's the reason a
lot of us are making decent money."

In 1965 Namath, then a rookie out of Alabama, spurned the St.
Louis Cardinals and signed a three-year, $427,000 deal with the
Jets. At that time the contract was the biggest for a pro
football rookie. The signing was a public relations bonanza for
the struggling AFL. "Ridiculous," Packers coach and general
manager Vince Lombardi said at the time, but the signing war was
on. The following year Lombardi topped Namath's big deal with a
$1 million package for a pair of rookie running backs: Donny
Anderson ($600,000) and Jim Grabowski ($400,000). Also, the
Atlanta Falcons came up with more than $300,000 for linebacker
Tommy Nobis, the first player picked in the '66 draft.

The brash Namath was a shot in the arm for the AFL. In his first
season, Jets home attendance increased by more than 12,000 per
game. The Houston Oilers set a single-game franchise
home-attendance record that would stand for 14 years when 52,680
turned out to see Namath ride the bench in his pro debut. In June
1966 the AFL and the NFL merged.

Then came the Super Bowl, with Namath guaranteeing a victory and
then meticulously picking apart a Colts team that was favored by
19 1/2 points. After having been whipped by Lombardi's Packers
in the first two Super Bowls, the AFL now could look the NFL in
the eye. "A bunch of guys from the Chiefs--Buck Buchanan, Emmitt
Thomas, Willie Lanier--were waiting at the hotel to meet us
after the game," Namath says. "They just wanted to shake our
hands. John Hadl, the Chargers' quarterback, told me he was
sitting in the stands at the game, taking abuse from Baltimore
fans, and when we won, he just started crying. Couldn't help it,
he said, and John's a pretty tough guy."

Looking back on that Super Bowl almost 30 years later, what did
it all mean? "I got letters from a lot of high school coaches
who told me they used the game as a motivator," says Namath,
who, in 1967, became the first player to pass for more than
4,000 yards in a season. "Maybe it motivated some other people,
too. There are a lot of underdogs in the world. Maybe it meant
something to the underdogs in life."

It was a system built out of desperation, the Bill Walsh system,
also known as the Cincinnati system and popularly mislabeled the
West Coast offense, whose true architect was Sid Gillman. It was
a system that Walsh, the Cincinnati Bengals' quarterbacks and
receivers coach, had installed to accommodate Virgil Carter, a
quick-thinking, short- to medium-range passer who became the
starter during the 1970 season after Greg Cook went down with an

"I didn't think of it as a system; it had no name," Walsh says.
"It's just what we did. Keep the sticks moving with
high-percentage passes, get through your progression of reads
quickly, make the guy underneath, the guy closest to the passer,
your final read."

The system worked for Carter and his successor, Ken Anderson,
and also for Steve DeBerg, the quarterback for the San Francisco
49ers in 1979, when Walsh took over as coach. But when Joe
Montana arrived that year, Walsh knew he had something special.
"He took the system to a new level," Walsh says. "His
gracefulness on the move, his skill, his resourcefulness, all of
that blended into the system.

"We'd have what we called bad-situation practices where I'd take
Joe aside and tell him, 'O.K., I want you to go to the third
read on every play.' Then in a game he'd do it, but what made
him extraordinary was his innate ability to concentrate
downfield with all hell breaking loose around him and then to
put the ball in exactly the right spot on perfect timing. It
would be like a guy standing on the Speedway in Indianapolis,
looking past the cars and throwing his pass."

"The coolest quarterback I've ever seen," Luckman said of
Montana. "Nothing ever seemed to bother him."

"I'd been throwing on the move ever since high school," says
Montana, who still lives life on the go, traveling the country
making speeches and endorsements, and checking out the California
wine country for investments. "The beauty of Bill's system was
that there was always a place to go with the ball. I was the
mailman, just delivering people's mail, and there were all kinds
of houses to go to."

The Montana-Walsh legacy in San Francisco is three Super Bowl
victories, and Montana would add a fourth under George Seifert.
Walsh's disciples spread the system throughout the NFL,
sometimes in modified form but always recognizable. Mike
Holmgren took it to Green Bay, where it was perfect for Brett
Favre, another quarterback who was gifted on the move. Steve
Young, nimble and creative, kept it alive in San Francisco and
brought the 49ers one more NFL title. It's no wonder Young
(97.0) and Montana (92.3) have the top two career quarterback
ratings in NFL history. No one, however, took the system to a
higher level than Montana.

On one glorious January afternoon in 1988 Doug Williams changed
the perception of a nation, changed it for all time. He removed
an adjective. "When I came into the league," he says, "I was
never Doug Williams, quarterback. It was always Doug Williams,
black quarterback. Nowadays you don't hear that when people talk
about Jeff Blake or Kordell Stewart or Steve McNair. They're just
quarterbacks. I like to think I had a hand in that."

On a hunch, Redskins coach Joe Gibbs had benched Jay Schroeder
for the playoffs and started Williams in his place, and now Super
Sunday had arrived and Williams would go against John Elway and
the Broncos, who were favored by 3 1/2 points. The first quarter
ended with Denver leading 10-0. The second ended with Washington
in front 35-10. For all intents and purposes, the game was over.

Williams put up eye-popping single-quarter numbers: 228 yards
passing, four touchdowns. The struggles of a career--two
division championships in five years with the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers (still the only titles in that franchise's history)
without much recognition; a two-year stopover in the USFL; a
couple of seasons as an off-and-on starter in Washington--had
crystallized in one inspired quarter. He finished with four
touchdown passes and a Super Bowl-record 340 total yards in the
42-10 triumph, and, of course, he was voted the game's MVP, but
what he remembers best is what someone asked him during an
interview in the week leading up to the game: "How long have you
been a black quarterback?"

"Everyone laughed at the question," he says, "but I knew what the
guy meant. I answered, 'Since I've been in the NFL.' At Grambling
I'd just been a quarterback."

He's back at Grambling this season as the successor to Eddie
Robinson, the Tigers' retired coaching legend. In May he was
working out of a temporary office in a converted trailer. There
was no secretary on duty when we talked. He took all phone calls

"Did I change history?" he said. "Well, I'm not going to the Hall
of Fame. I like to think that I was part of history. But maybe I
changed the way people looked at things. Maybe I changed things
for the black quarterbacks who followed me."

He wasn't the first black quarterback in the NFL. In the dawn of
pro football there was Fritz Pollard, a run-and-pass tailback in
the 1920s. In the '50s there were Willie Thrower and Charlie
(Choo Choo) Brackins, mere blips on the screen. Marlin (the
Magician) Briscoe was a one-year wonder for the '68 Broncos
before he was converted to wideout. Joe Gilliam once started
ahead of Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh, but drugs cut his career
short, and James (Shack) Harris had productive years with the
Buffalo Bills and the Rams, although he never achieved stardom.

"When I left Grambling [in 1969]," says Harris, who's now the pro
personnel director for the Baltimore Ravens, "Coach Robinson told
me, 'Don't expect things to be fair in the NFL. You're going to
have to be better than anyone else just to survive.' There was a
lot of pressure, and that's what I tried to tell Doug when he
came into the league."

"I was a one-week holdout after I was drafted," says Williams,
who was the Buccaneers' first-round pick in 1978. "I guess that
didn't sit right with some people. They must have figured I
should have felt lucky to have been drafted at all. Then after
five years and two division titles, I was only the
43rd-highest-paid quarterback in the league.

"I held out again, and eventually went to the USFL. My wife had
just died of a brain tumor. There was a three-month-old baby girl
to take care of. You couldn't believe some of the letters I'd
gotten in Tampa. Everyone heard about the package I got with the
watermelon inside and the note, 'Throw this, nigger. They might
be able to catch it.' It got so that every time I got a letter
with no return address, I wouldn't open it."

A rough career, but one Super Sunday put a grace note on it--for
all time.

"A very special moment for a very special person," Harris says.
"A special moment for all of us."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. MAN OF STEEL The black hightops were his trademark, but toughness is what made Unitas stand out. [John Unitas and others in game]B/W PHOTO: BURK UZZLE Sid Luckman Luckman (shown shortly before his death in July) became the first quarterback to run the modern NFL offense. [Sid Luckman]B/W PHOTO: AP/CHICAGO TRIBUNE [See caption above--Sid Luckman in game]B/W PHOTO: BURK UZZLE Otto Graham Playing in an era when teams moved the ball primarily on the ground, he engineered a passing attack that was built around timing routes. [Otto Graham]B/W PHOTO [See caption above--Otto Graham in game]B/W PHOTO: BILL FRAKES John Unitas He was a survivor in more ways than one: He overcame an early rejection, and he could withstand a pounding. [John Unitas]COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. [See caption above--John Unitas in game]B/W PHOTO: BRIAN SMITH Joe Namath With his brashness and flair, he gave life to a struggling league and then gave it validity with the biggest upset in Super Bowl history. [Joe Namath]COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER [See caption above--Joe Namath in game]B/W PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Joe Montana Calm amid the chaos, he flawlessly directed a complex offense, saving his best for when the stakes were the highest. [Joe Montana]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above--Joe Montana in game]B/W PHOTO: ROBB KENDRICK/AURORA Doug Williams In one quarter of one game, he put his name in the record books and, more important, changed a nation's perception. [Doug Williams]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above--Doug Williams in game]