NFL quarterbacks before 1960 played under different rules than their modern counterparts, who play a game much more heavily tilted to favor offense. But these pre-1960 quarterbacks—all enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame—stood out for their excellence and paved the way for today’s stars.
1. Benny Friedman (1927-1934)
Notable achievements: He was a four-time All-Pro and modernized the forward pass in the NFL.
Friedman, who played for the Cleveland Bulldogs, Detroit Wolverines, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers during an eight-year career in the NFL, was instrumental in developing the throwing motion for the sport. “He wrote books about throwing the football in a time when the football was very large and wasn’t easy to throw,” says Jon Kendle, director of archives and football information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The mechanics of quarterbacking that are taken for granted today came from Friedman’s innovations. He worked on strengthening his hand and forearm, developed a throwing motion that kept his arm close to his body and close to his ear and even adjusted his grip to be better suited to the football of that time.
Friedman was so influential that the Mara family, owners of the New York Giants, purchased his 1928 team, the Detroit Wolverines, mainly to acquire his rights. The move paid off handsomely for the Giants, as Friedman threw 20 touchdowns in 1929, as many as the bottom seven teams in the league combined.
“He was the first ‘real’ quarterback in the NFL,” Kendle says.
2. Sammy Baugh (1937-1952)
Notable achievements: In 1943, he led the NFL in completions (133), punting average (45.9) and interceptions (as a defensive back) with 11.
Baugh, who spent his entire NFL career with Washington, played offense, defense and special teams—commonplace during the era. In his rookie season in 1937, he threw for 335 yards—a remarkable figure for the time—and three touchdowns in a 28-21 win over Chicago.
Baugh’s 1943 season was the most striking example of his multi-faceted greatness. In a 42-20 win over Detroit on November 14, 1943. he threw for four touchdowns and intercepted four—one of the greatest performances in league history.
“Baugh is something more than football’s greatest passer,” Grantland Rice, then the most famous sportswriter in America, wrote in 1943. “He is also football’s greatest kicker. He is also a first-class runner and one of football’s greatest defensive backs. He also has the finest pair of working hands in football, as fast as a rattlesnake’s strike.”
3. Otto Graham (1946-1955)
Notable achievement: He led the Cleveland Browns to a championship game appearance in each of his 10 seasons, a feat even Tom Brady can’t match.
For Graham’s first four professional seasons, the Browns played in the All-America Football Conference, an upstart rival to the NFL. They won the AAFC championship all four times, and Graham led the league in passing yards in three of them.
After the AAFC folded after the 1949 season, Cleveland joined the NFL, where the wins kept coming; the Browns defeated the Los Angeles Rams to win the NFL championship in their first season, then lost three title games in a row before finishing Graham’s career with back-to-back championships.
In the final game of his career, Graham passed the Browns to a 38-14 win over the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL Championship Game before a then-NFL-record 87,695 fans at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. He left the field to a thunderous ovation—and richer by $3,508.21, the winning share for each player on the Browns’ title team.
4. Bobby Layne (1948-1962)
Notable achievement: He was last quarterback to lead the Detroit Lions to a title, in 1957.
Layne, nicknamed the “The Blonde Bomber,” started his career with the Chicago Bears before playing a year with the New York Bulldogs. Then he found a home with Detroit starting in 1950. Layne led the NFL in passing yards each of his first two seasons in Detroit, and his 26 touchdown passes topped the league in 1951. Although Layne’s statistics were not as impressive in 1952 and 1953, the Lions won the NFL title both seasons.
The 1953 title was particularly impressive. In a 17-16 win over Cleveland, Layne’s late touchdown pass rallied the Lions from a 16-10 deficit. Wrote Detroit Free Press sports editor Lyall Smith: “Came the final minutes of this one with the Lions in a six-point hole, and who was the player to team up with Layne for the big catches? Jim Doran, that’s who. He caught his first touchdown pass of the year on the dramatic 33-yard heave from the cool arm of a cool Texan named Layne.”
Layne would go on to win another title with the Lions, in 1957—though he didn’t play in either postseason game after starting most of the year. It the last NFL title won by the Lions. Layne finished his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1962.
5. Sid Luckman (1939-1950)
Notable achievement: He was the first NFL quarterback to average more than 200 yards passing per game for an entire season.
Although passing quarterbacks such as Baugh starred in the late 1930s and into the 1940s, the forward pass had yet to take hold in a league dominated by the running game. In 1943, Luckman changed that, averaging 219.4 yards per game passing—nearly 40 yards more than the previous record.
Luckman, who would win four NFL championships with the Bears in his 12-year career, led the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns in 1943, 1945 and 1946, and in passing yards per game from 1943-1946. He also was the first quarterback to run a complex offense that required him to use precise footwork and ball-handling skills.
In a 56-7 win over the New York Giants on November 14, 1943, Luckman played the greatest game for a quarterback in league history until that time, throwing for 453 yards and seven touchdowns. “One of the largest New York crowds ever to see a pro game—56,591—saw Sid take his airplane ride up and down the Polo Grounds gridiron on his way to his rewriting job on the record books,” the Associated Press wrote about the game.
6. Norm Van Brocklin (1949-1960)
Notable achievements: He holds the NFL record for passing yards in a game (554). In 1960, while with the Philadelphia Eagles, he beat the Green Bay Packers in the NFL title game—the only championship game Vince Lombardi lost as an NFL head coach.
In his record-setting passing game on September 28, 1951, a 48-14 victory by the Los Angeles Rams over the New York Yanks, Van Brocklin spread the wealth. Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch caught nine passes for 173 yards and four touchdowns, Tom Fears had seven catches for 162 yards and Verda “Vitamin” Smith caught two balls for 103 yards and a touchdown. Van Brocklin started in place of Bob Waterfield, who was injured.
“I never saw a finer demonstration of passing in my life than Van put on last night,” Rams coach Joe Stydahar said, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.
Van Brocklin was a two-time NFL champion, though despite his gaudy numbers, he was a first-team All-Pro just one time, in 1960 with the Philadelphia Eagles. Part of that was because he shared quarterbacking with Waterfield for his first four seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.
7. Bob Waterfield (1945-1952)
Notable achievement: He glamorized the position.
Although Waterfield led the NFL in touchdown passes twice, completion percentage once and yards per completion three times, his career numbers weren’t stellar. His biggest claim to fame was he made the position glamorous.
After his rookie season in 1945, the defending NFL champion Rams moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles, where Waterfield had starred collegiately at UCLA. Heading west raised his profile even more. “Waterfield was one of the first star quarterbacks,” says Kendle, the Pro Football Hall of Fame historian. “He was married to [movie star] Jane Russell … and he helped usher in this era of the star quarterback in terms of his persona and bravado.” Russell was Waterfield’s high school sweetheart.
In the Los Angeles Times, Waterfield’s name and photo frequently appeared in the society pages as well as the sports section. “Bob is just as big a star in his profession,” the Times reported in 1951, “as Jane is in hers.” Said Waterfield’s son, Buck, in a 2019 interview: “My parents’ friends were people like Clark Gable and (NFL legend) Elroy Hirsch and both sides of the coin. We had Hollywood people at our house and NFL players at our house.”