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Sacco Sez: Automatic Otto

Posted Apr 7, 2018

Jim Saccomano examines the career of one of the greatest players who ever lined up at the quarterback position.

The National Football League is inching closer and closer to two big events: the 2018 NFL Draft and the celebration of 100 years in the 2019 season.

This year's draft is loaded with quarterback prospects, and there is virtually unlimited conversation and speculation about where they will all land.

And the centennial anniversary of the game gives me cause to take a look back at some of the greatest players of the first 100 years, particularly at the quarterback position.

When NFL Films did a list of the league's best players ever back in 2010, Otto Graham was listed at No. 16 among the greatest players ever.

While some of the individuals evaluating this year's crop of quarterbacks may have barely any knowledge of Graham, that does not in any way diminish his accomplishments.

His nickname was "Automatic Otto," which should give one a pretty good hint of his body of work.

In the early 1940's, Graham played football and basketball at Northwestern, and he spent more time at running back than quarterback for the Wildcats.

But when he joined Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns after graduation, the Hall of Fame coach immediately announced that Graham would be his quarterback.

But before his first season with the Browns, Graham actually played a year of pro basketball with the Rochester Royals, who won the National Basketball League (forerunner of the National Basketball Association) championship in 1945-46, and Graham actually won his first pro sports ring in basketball.

To this day, Graham is the only NFL player to have won championship rings in both pro football and basketball.

When he reported to the Browns after the basketball season, he played 10 legendary seasons.

No legitimate list of the greatest quarterbacks of all time can be made without mention of Graham among names like Elway, Unitas, Manning, Brady, Montana, Marino and Baugh.

One of his teammates on the Browns was defensive back and future Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, who says to this day, "Otto Graham was my idol."

Shula adds, "Every season in which he played, the Browns played in the league championship game. How else do you judge a quarterback better than by championships? He won seven in ten years."

Graham was so good as a quarterback that he had a role in pro football expanding to the West Coast.

With Graham leading the Browns to championships all four years of the All-American Football Conference (a first class NFL rival league in the 1940's), Cleveland Rams owner Dan Reeves (no relation to Broncos coach Dan Reeves) concluded that his Rams, despite having just won the NFL title themselves, could not compete with Graham's Browns.

So Reeves moved his Rams to Los Angeles following a season in which they won the NFL title in Cleveland.

Graham was named to the third Hall of Fame class in 1965, but he also made his mark as a coach, mostly at the United States Coast Guard Academy and as the coach of the College All-Star Game in Chicago, in which college stars played the NFL champions each year to kick off the season.

One of my good friends in this game is Larry Pasquale, who coached in the NFL for 22 years and in college for 16 more.

Larry has his own unique Otto Graham story.

"I was a sophomore starting quarterback at the University of Bridgeport in 1960, and we had a scrimmage against the Coast Guard Academy. I was having a lot of trouble with my reads, and before the game Coach Graham approached my head coach, Bob DeSpirito, and said, 'Bob, do you mind if I give your quarterback a few tips?'"

"My coach said yes, and the next thing I knew, the other team's coach [Graham] was going over my plays with him and suggesting how I should read and attack his defense! I followed his advice and took us right down the field for a touchdown against what was an outstanding Coast Guard defense," Pasquale recalls.

It always comes down to quarterbacks, and former quarterback Pasquale eventually coached Denver Broncos Ring of Famer Frank Tripucka's son Mark at the University of Massachusetts.

So as we watch this year's draft of quarterbacks and admire the careers of so many veterans, including the Broncos' own Case Keenum, it is worth looking back for a moment at some of the all-time greats in the NFL's first 99 years of play, including Otto Graham, "Automatic Otto" of the seven-time champion Cleveland Browns.