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Article:Len Dawson: Pro football's 3rd-best quarterback....ever

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Here’s an interesting question for you.  Who had the worst first five years to start a career?  To go even further, who also was drafted immediately ahead of one of the all-time greats (at any position)?  And who recovered enough to become one of the greats himself?

In 1957, Cleveland was desperately looking to replace the irreplaceable Otto Graham, who had retired after the 1955 NFL championship game.  George Ratterman had done nothing of note in 1956 and certainly wasn’t the star of the future; consider that Ratterman had a nice AAFC career.  Tommy O’Connell and Babe Parilli were basically just passing through.  None of the three could hold the starter’s job. The only chance was to try to pick up a substandard retread or else draft the next great quarterback.  Paul Brown, being a prudent man, decided that the draft was the best way to find his man.

That 1957 was one of the deepest (as far as the later impact on football history) that has been held.  Without doing the research into it, I’ll go ahead and say that it was.  If not, I’ll correct myself later.  Household names that came from 1957 include Hall of Famers Paul Hornung, Sonny Jurgensen, Henry Jordan, and Gene Hickerson.  Two members of the NFL All-Time Team came from here, Jim Parker and one I’m getting to.

Paul Hornung was Green Bay’s bonus choice, followed by Jon Arnett to the Rams, John Brodie to the 49ers, and Ron Kramer to the Packers.  Cleveland was selecting 5 th overall and had their sights set on Purdue quarterback Len Dawson.  All they needed was for Pittsburgh to take someone, anyone, other than Dawson and Cleveland would have their man.  Pittsburgh announced their choice….from Purdue, quarterback Len Dawson.  A stunned Browns contingent was forced to take a consolation prize of Syracuse fullback Jim Brown.  The Eagles took Clarence Peaks 6 th overall, followed by Baltimore’s selection of Jim Parker 7 th.

How’s that for top-level depth?  Peaks played 9 years and was easily the most disappointing player in that first eight (seven official, one bonus).  But for five full seasons, it looked as if Dawson was a completely flop.  The only question is how big a flop he would be.  If he was picked directly ahead of Jim Brown and three spots ahead of Jim Parker, would his flameout be even more brilliant than the standard by which all are measured by, Ryan Leaf?

The answer, astonishingly, is yes.  This is saying something because of the fact that Leaf became a starter from day one (ahead of the glorious Craig Whelihan).  He was horrendous from the beginning, finishing 1998 with a sterling two touchdowns to fifteen interceptions.  Leaf played 26 games in three seasons, tossing for 3666 yards (odd to see that number string in one of his totals, huh?), 14 touchdowns, and 36 interceptions.  He also ran for 127 yards.

Dawson?  Well, he couldn’t crack the starting lineup in Pittsburgh.  He basically saw spot duty over three seasons (1957-59), appearing in 19 games.  In those 19 games, he was 6/17 passing for 96 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.  That went with 50 rushing yards.  But the disaster wasn’t complete just yet.  He ended up in the city that wanted him all along and had a chance to be the Browns’ starter of the future.  He couldn’t crack that lineup either (Milt Plum, Cleveland’s second-round pick in that 1957 draft, was the established starter), and in nine games of mop-up duty he was 15/28 for 108 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions.  A career statline of 21/45 for 204 yards, two touchdowns, and five interceptions is bad enough.  That he did it in 28 games of garbage time is even worse.  To do it after being picked ahead of two members of the NFL All-Time Team is borderline cataclysmic.

How does this compare to Leaf?  Let’s just say that Leaf is lucky that there were a lot of first-round busts in 1998.  His complete flameout was emphasized because of his position, because he and his fellow top pick Peyton Manning were polar opposites, and because it went hand-in-hand with his absolutely bizarre behavior with teammates, coaches, front office, and the media.  But Leaf also was the starter from the beginning.  Dawson couldn’t come out ahead of career backups like Earl Morrall or an aging Bobby Layne.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the scrap heap.  Cleveland decided to unload the boy from Alliance (a city less than an hour from Cleveland.  If the media today refers to Dublin native Brady Quinn as “hometown” [when Dublin is over two hours away from Cleveland], then Dawson was born hawking hot dogs at Cleveland Municipal Stadium).  Rather than fade into obscurity, Dawson landed with the Dallas Texans of the AFL.  What ensued was an incredible run.

It took until the beginning of his sixth pro season to become a starting quarterback, but Dawson finally showed the brilliance that warranted his high selection.  He led the high-flying Texans offensive attack to an 11-3 record and a 20-17 championship game victory over the Houston Oilers.  Dawson led the league in touchdown passes with 29 and was in the top five of every other quarterbacking category.  He also tied for 7 th in the entire league in rushing touchdowns.

1963 was Dawson’s worst season during the rest of the decade, as he slumped to a 53% completion percentage to go with 2389 passing yards and 26 touchdowns to go with only 19 interceptions.  For the remainder of the 1960s, Dawson finished in the top 6 of every quarterbacking category every year (although he was 10 th in everything in 1969, when he was injured and played only 9 games).  From 1962-68, Dawson led the league in touchdown passes four of a possible seven times.

Dawson owns three AFL championship rings (1962, 1966, 1969) and one Super Bowl ring (IV), which is paired nicely with his Super Bowl MVP award.  His overall point production was phenomenal.  To give you an example, he ranks in the all-time top 50 in passing attempts, completions, yards, and touchdown passes.  Where, you ask?  He’s 45 th in pass attempts, 41 st in completions, 34 th in passing yards….and 16 th in touchdown passes.  He ranks as the top quarterback in the AFL’s history.

I’m not sure whether Dawson falls into “unappreciated/underappreciated” category, or if he falls into the “victim of media snobbery” category.  The reason I say this is for a good reason.  After the folding of the AFL into the NFL, a group of Hall of Fame voters from the AFL cities created the AFL All-Time Team.  Joe Namath was first-team, Dawson was second-team.  Here’s where it gets fun.

Namath played five seasons in the AFL, from 1965-69.  He accumulated 10 production points and 3 efficiency points (for a total of 23.954 total points).  He also led the Jets to one AFL title and a victory in Super Bowl III.  Dawson played eight years, from 1962-69.  He accumulated 17 production points (tied for 15 th all-time) and an astounding 34 efficiency points (tied for tops in pro football history).  In those eight seasons, this gave him an unbelievable 108.44 total points, which is SECOND ALL-TIME IN HISTORY.  Len Dawson, in eight years, put together a track record of dominance that is tied with Johnny Unitas and ahead of every other passer in professional history with two exceptions.  And what did the Texans/Chiefs do during Dawson’s tenure?  Let’s see here….three AFL titles and a win in Super Bowl IV, plus Dawson’s MVP award from that game.

There are two reasons that I can think of for putting Dawson behind Namath for the AFL All-Time Team, and neither of them is really valid.  The first is that Namath simply had a bigger name.  The line of thinking there is that, if Namath were to not be named the best ever in that league’s history, it would cause eye-rolling on the part of the NFL writers toward the AFL.  Since Namath was a huge name and a huge draw, to not have him as the best ever would suggest that the real reason for his name recognition would be for the fur coats and the nightlife and New York City.

The second is that it was simply media snobbery at work.  The irony is that media snobbery usually works against a more productive player and toward an inferior one, with the deal-breaker being that the inferior one has more titles or his team has more success.  In this case, Dawson was more productive by a mile, more efficient by a mile, more dominant in relation to the league by a mile, and his team also had more success.  I’m not sure what else could be expected.  Heck, maybe it would be that Namath had more recent success, but the Chiefs won the last AFL title and the Super Bowl that followed.

A third possible explanation is another offshoot of the credibility factor.  It’s possible that, since Dawson was nearing the end of his career in 1970 and Namath was around the midway point, the AFL writers didn’t want to point to a passer who was starting to wear down as being the best that they’d have.  The theory may have been that Namath would tear up the merged NFL (which he didn’t) while Dawson would be around average; this would hurt the defunct AFL in the eyes of the NFL.  But, as I said already, none of these reasons for putting Namath over Dawson really holds water.

I don’t think the problem I’m facing here is overvaluing Dawson’s career.  Rather, I think the real problem is that I may well be undervaluing him.  The AFL in its first two years was vastly inferior to the NFL, but I can argue that by 1962 (when Dawson came in), it was at least 90% as good as the NFL if not equal.  If you want to go strictly by the hypothetical of who would win Super Bowls had they existed from 1960, the Texans would have given the Packers a terrific battle in 1962, and I believe the Chargers of 1963 would have thumped the Bears (or Giants with a healthy Y.A. Tittle, but that’s another story).

Even as venerable a group as NFL Films picked Namath over Dawson in the all-time context (#19 and #20, respectively).  I don’t see how, I really don’t (and it’s not for lack of trying).  Dawson dominated his league to an extent that had been seen twice before and not at all since.  Without a more in-depth case study, by which I mean an entire appendix or more, into the comparison between the AFL and NFL from 1962-69, Dawson may be legitimately undervalued compared to where he actually belongs.

Tracking down most old-time quarterbacks is a tricky proposition for the most part, but Dawson has stayed close to his native town of Alliance.   You can visit him pretty much any time you’d like, just 16 miles down the road at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.  Dawson may have made the most circuitous route within football to end up less than 20 miles from his home, but he’s there for all time.

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