Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham dominated professional football in the pre-Super Bowl era. From 1946-55, "Automatic Otto" led the Browns to 10 straight championship games—an achievement no other player in the sport can match. Starting every Browns game during that time frame, Graham won seven titles—a record unmatched for a professional quarterback until 2021 by Tom Brady.
Yet the player who helped lay the foundation for the NFL prior to its explosion in popularity in the 1960s often is overlooked.
“He won at the highest level any way you cut it,” says Jon Kendle, Pro Football Hall of Fame director of archives and football information. “I think he stacks up extremely well to any of the great quarterbacks throughout history and the great quarterbacks of today.”
Under Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown, Cleveland deployed cutting-edge preparation methods and schematic concepts. Among the legendary coach's many innovations were game film and playbooks. But to lead the Browns' high-powered offense, Brown needed a gifted quarterback such as Graham.
“[Graham] helped glamorize the sport by winning championships and elevating the role of quarterback as the NFL entered the television era,” former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in 2003.
How Otto Graham Became a Cleveland Brown
Offered no college football scholarships, Graham played basketball at Northwestern. But Wildcats football coach Pappy Waldorf was so impressed by Graham's play at an intramural football game that he invited him to join his team.
A single-wing tailback at Northwestern, the 6-foot-1 Graham impressed Brown by leading the Wildcats to two upset wins over the future Cleveland leader’s Ohio State teams. Shortly after he became coach of the Browns, then in the All-America Football Conference, the fledgling rival of the NFL, Brown lured Graham from the National Basketball League’s Rochester Royals. In Graham's lone season in the NBL, the Royals won the title.
In 1946, the Graham-led Browns won their first AAFC championship by beating the New York Yankees, who ran the antiquated single-wing offense. Cleveland’s offense ran wild in the top-heavy AAFC, which featured numerous ex-college all-stars and 15 future Pro Football Hall of Famers but did not impress NFL bigwigs.
Propelled by Graham, Cleveland compiled a 52-4-3 record in the AAFC, winning all four league titles. The Browns were undefeated in 1948, finishing 15-0 after a 49-7 championship game victory. Two days before the Browns claimed their fourth championship, however, the league dissolved. In December 1949, the NFL absorbed the Browns and two other AAFC franchises.
After Philadelphia won its second straight NFL title that season, Eagles coach Greasy Neale proclaimed his team the best assembled and wondered, “Who is there to beat us?” Washington owner George Preston Marshall went further, remarking the worst NFL team could beat the best AAFC outfit.
This backdrop gave the 1950 Browns a historic validation opportunity. In the season opener against the Eagles, dubbed the “World Series of Football," Cleveland routed Philadelphia, 35-10. Graham passed for 346 yards, a dizzying figure in an era when prolific passing attacks were not the norm.
Three months later, the Browns beat Cleveland’s former team, the offensive powerhouse Los Angeles Rams, for the championship. In the 30-28 win, Graham threw for four touchdowns and piloted a fourth-quarter comeback. But that Christmas Eve classic wasn't nationally televised, thus limiting the lasting appeal of the Browns’ crowning achievement. In the modern era of major professional sports (NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball), the Browns are the only team to join a league and win a title in its first season.
Displaying what the Los Angeles Daily News described as “vengeful glee,” Cleveland conquered a league that mocked it. In their first six seasons in the NFL, the Browns won 82 percent of their games and Graham played in six title games—no other quarterback in league history has played in a championship game more than four times in a six-season span.
“Otto Graham’s their team,” New York Giants coach Steve Owen said of the Browns in 1953. “Graham is the field leader; he engineers their attack downfield. He is uncanny in his passing and running calls.”
Otto Graham Twice Retires As Champion
In 1951, the Browns lost to the Rams in a championship game rematch. And, in 1953, a rugged Detroit Lions team that featured seven future Hall of Famers beat the Browns for a second straight year, extending Cleveland’s streak of title game losses to three. The defeats ratcheted the pressure on Graham. "Emotionally, I was so far down in the dumps those three years," he later said. "I was the quarterback. I was the leader. It was all my fault."
Not long after a self-admitted “lousy” 1953 title game, a 17-16 Lions win, Graham announced he would retire following the 1954 season. The ensuing season changed his career trajectory.
The Browns exorcised their Lions demons in 1954, winning the second-most lopsided championship game in NFL history—a 56-10 mashing that featured nine Detroit turnovers. In the rout, Graham threw for three touchdowns and ran for three—the only player in league history to do so in a playoff game.
As late as June 1955, Graham said he was done with football and would not “pull a Ted Williams,” a reference to the Boston Red Sox's star who came out of retirement that year. Instead, he referred to himself as “Otto Graham, the insurance man.” The 33-year-old passer was prepared to venture into a then-more lucrative field, but he left a comeback door open, notifying Brown he would unretire if Cleveland’s quarterback situation proved unsatisfactory. Brown came calling and agreed to bump Graham’s salary to an NFL-high $25,000.
The result: a third NFL MVP award, a seventh championship and status as the quarterback who set a remarkable standard of excellence. After the Browns' 38-14 win against Los Angeles in the 1955 championship game, first-year Rams coach Sid Gillman said Graham had “a perfect day.” The crowd in Los Angeles apparently agreed, sending him into retirement for good with a standing ovation.
Cleveland Browns Decline After Otto Graham Exits
Brown’s innovations, which also included scouting reports and full-time assistant coaches, aided Graham. But Graham, who died in 2003, was the clear-cut top quarterback during a period in which the near-free rein afforded to pass rushers and secondaries made passers’ jobs harder.
Graham's achievements dwarfed Hall of Fame contemporaries Norm Van Brocklin and Bobby Layne, also star quarterbacks. He earned four All-Pro honors to their combined one during his NFL career. In his 1953 MVP season, Graham lapped his peers in completion percentage (64.7) and yards per pass (10.6).
Graham, nicknamed "Automatic Otto" for his precision passing, sits first in professional football in career yards per attempt at 9.0. The ex-running back’s 44 rushing touchdowns also stood as the professional football quarterback record for 61 years.
After Graham's retirement in 1956, the Browns declined sharply, finishing 5-7 and out of the playoffs. The organization's last championship came in 1964.
"The test of a quarterback is where his team finishes," said Brown, who died in 1991, long before Peyton Manning and Brady joined the NFL. "By that standard, Otto Graham was the best of all time."