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Original Issue

Pass Perfect

DIED 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.

COLOR PHOTO: MARK DUNCAN/AP (GRAHAM, FACE SHOT) LEADING MAN Graham (above in 2002) turned Cleveland into titletown in two leagues.