Of a heart aneurysm, former Browns quarterback Otto Graham, a Hall of Famer who from 1946 to '55 led Cleveland to 10 straight title games. (They won seven.) SI's Paul Zimmerman recalls the man who could thread any needle.
Watching Graham and his Browns in the All-America Football Conference was to see a brand of football that was way ahead of its time. The NFL, in the late 1940s, was shaking off the traces of the single wing. The T formation was still a learning experience. Pass protection was primitive, and quarterbacks completed less than 50% of their passes. But the Browns, whose offensive line employed Paul Brown's technique of cup blocking and chanted "Nobody touches Graham" as they broke the huddle, helped make Otto the most precise and meticulous passer the game had ever seen. In 1953 he connected on 64.7% of his throws.
Cleveland breezed through four AAFC titles before joining the NFL in 1950. That year, at one of the keynote games in league history, the Browns played the two-time NFL champion Eagles in Philadelphia. I sat in the end zone and watched Graham play the defenders like violins, working the corners with comeback routes off quick, timed squareouts and, when they loosened up, hitting them up the middle with 238-pound fullback Marion Motley. The final score was 35-10. "It was those comebacks off the quick outs that killed 'em," Graham told me years later. "They were something I worked out with my receivers, Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie. Throw the timed pattern, but have them break back toward me at the end of it. Defensive backs couldn't react to that."
What he didn't mention was that it took utmost accuracy to make the whole thing work, and until John Unitas and Joe Montana arrived no one was as accurate as Graham. One story was about how one of his teammates bent a wire coat hanger into a diamond shape one day and challenged Graham to throw a football through it from 15 feet away. He went 10 for 10.
He played in the NFL for six years and reached the championship game in each one, and his effect on his teammates was electric. They just never felt they could lose a game he was quarterbacking. How would I rate him, alltime? Top five, along with Montana, Unitas, Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman and John Elway. But no one was as great a winner as Graham.