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I'll warn you that this is an extremely long read. It's worth it though.
Tobin Rote’s career is a case study in timing and circumstances. He was the second pro quarterback (after Frankie Albert) to have been trained solely in the T-formation. Of course, Albert ran the single wing in high school, and if I could find material to indicate that Rote ran the T in high school then I’d say he was the first to have solely trained there. The irony is that Rote, in many ways, was the ideal single wing tailback. He was an above-average passer and an exceptional runner. If you want to see Tobin Rote, turn on a Florida Gators game on a Saturday and watch Tim Tebow. Rote was that good.
Unfortunately, when he came into the NFL in 1950, no one ran the single wing except Pittsburgh, and no one in their right mind would have gone there. To give you an example of how the Steelers were run during the 1950s, know this. They ran the T and then switched back to the single wing, and they unloaded two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks for nothing (Johnny Unitas and Len Dawson). They also picked up a Hall of Fame quarterback in Bobby Layne who was at the end of his career.
So Rote didn’t go to Pittsburgh. In fact, he went to the only place worse, and that was Green Bay. When you hear the stories about Vince Lombardi taking over a bad situation in Green Bay, it absolutely was true. Curly Lambeau was the only constant from Day One with that team, and Rote arrived just after Lambeau had been forced out. From 1950 until 1958, the Packers were run by a board of directors who basically micromanaged everything. The NFL standard even then was that the general manager was accountable to the owner, the coach to the general manager, and the players to the coach. This is normal and healthy. Green Bay, sans Lambeau, was an orgy of stupidity. If you think the relationship between boosters, coaches, and athletic directors in college football is unhealthy, it looks like the Cleaver family compared to Green Bay of the 1950s.
The results, of course, were predictable. Coaches trying to do what was right with the personnel provided were being publicly questioned and stabbed in the back by the directors, players were constantly being accosted and pumped for information by the directors, and undercutting of both authority and anything resembling a proper chain of command was common. Predictably, the on-field result was disastrous. Green Bay had seen a losing season in 1933, which was the only one of the team’s first 27 seasons. From the time Lambeau’s influence began to decline (starting after the 1947 season) until Lombardi’s arrival before the 1959 season, the Packers hit .500 just twice. Their overall record for those 11 seasons was 37-93-2, good for a .288 winning percentage. Rote was there for seven of those eleven years.
In those seven years, there were four different head coaches (Gene Ronzani, Scooter McLean, Lisle Blackbourn, and Hugh Devore). The team was 28-55 for a .337 winning percentage. They had 20 All-Pros during that time. And in those seven seasons, Tobin Rote was the Packers’ leading rusher three times. The other leading rushers were Breezy Reid, Billy Grimes, and Howie Ferguson. Among those three, they combined for a total of two 500-yard seasons (Ferguson in 1955 had 859 yards and 4 touchdowns, Reid in 1954 had 507 yards and 5 touchdowns. In both years, Rote scored more rushing touchdowns).
In basketball, we can differentiate (normally) between someone who shoots all the time because they want to and one who shoots all the time because they have to. We tend to look with a sympathetic eye toward someone who literally is a one-man show. In basketball it’s a five-man game with everyone playing offense and defense. In football, it’s a 22-man game and there is nothing more sad than watching someone who does everything because his team stands no chance otherwise.
Tobin Rote, as a rookie, had a major obstacle. Most young singers tend to sing too loudly and have poor control over their voices. Rote had a rocket of an arm and tended to make extremely hard throws that his receivers had a difficult time handling, with an inordinate number being dropped or being popped up for interceptions. Of course, I look at who he was throwing to and have a difficult time blaming Rote; I’ve honestly never heard of most of these guys. The top receivers were Al Baldwin (a receiver) and halfbacks Billy Grimes and Larry Coutre. Baldwin was playing his last season as a 27-year-old, and Grimes and Coutre didn’t make it past 25 in the NFL. That in itself should give you an idea of what the Packers looked like that year. As for Rote, he led the league by throwing 24 interceptions compared to just 7 touchdowns; Jim Hardy and George Ratterman also had 24 interceptions, but they also had 17 and 22 touchdowns, respectively. Young Tobin Rote also had 158 yards on the ground with no touchdowns. Overall, he ranked 15 th leaguewide in Points Generated. That wouldn’t be bad right now, but in 1950 there were only 13 teams.
1951 was the beginning of the One-Man Tobin Rote Show. By relying entirely on the 23-year-old, Green Bay surged to 6 th in the NFL in offense (254 points). Unfortunately, the defense allowed 375 en route to a 3-9 record. Most embarrassing was a game on December 2; Rote had a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown (of 55 yards, a career long) to give the Packers a 21-10 lead over the New York Yanks after three quarters. The defense then allowed 21 unanswered points, and a late Rote touchdown pass gave the final score of 31-28. The Yanks would finish 1-9-2 in their final NFL campaign.
In 1951, Rote and Bobby Thomason split passing duties (256 pass attempts to 221). Rote had 15 touchdown passes to 20 interceptions, but he also led the Packers in rushing with 523 yards and 3 touchdowns (second best was Fred Cone with 190 yards and 1 touchdown). He also garnered was 3 rd -most productive and 3 rd -most efficient leaguewide, giving him his first overall points.
1952 was more of the same; the Packers lost three games after scoring 24 or more points and finished 6-6. Thomason was replaced as part-time QB by Babe Parilli, who actually started 4 games and had more pass attempts than Rote. But once again on the ground, Rote led the Packers in rushing and in touchdowns; he was 4 th -most productive leaguewide and was also most efficient.
1953 was an unequivocal disaster; Green Bay burned through three head coaches and finished 2-9-1. Parilli and Rote split duties again, and for some reason Rote handled the ball much less than in previous years (his 33 carries ranked 6 th on the team, although his 5.5 average per run topped the team). 1954 saw yet another new head coach, and for the first time Tobin was the unquestioned top dog under center. He led the league with 382 pass attempts (second place was Jim Finks with 306), and also was second on the team in rushing yards and first in rushing touchdowns with 8. The 8 touchdowns on the ground tied for 3 rd in the NFL. Rote was the most productive in the league that year with a shockingly bad efficiency.
1955 was basically a repeat of 1954; Rote was most productive and was roughly average in efficiency. Once again he was 2 nd on the team in rushing, but his 5 touchdowns (on 332 yards) were most on the team, leading Howie Ferguson (who had 859 yards) and his 4.
And that brings us to 1956. The question was examined in 2004 as to whether Peyton Manning or Daunte Culpepper was having the better season, and especially whether it was the greatest individual season in NFL history. Various people have tried to determine what is the best season in NFL history, and in my opinion, most have failed. If by “most”, I mean “all”, because I don’t think anyone has the right answer just yet.
Ultimately, a great season is one in which the quarterback is substantially above the league average. The issue of filtering through the great seasons to determine the greatest is not easy, but there usually are a number of other criteria to consider. Small things like touchdown to interception ratio tends to be overblown, and big things like exactly how much better than average the season was tend to be underrated.
The good folks of Football Prospectus (online at footballoutsiders.com) determined Bert Jones’ 1976 season to be the greatest ever. I respectfully disagree. It’s in the top 15 for sure, but I don’t go for the best ever.
My own Points Generated system shows the best ever to be any number of pre-WWII seasons. The problem there (and this is where I show an issue with my own system, as I recognize it to be imperfect) is that the single wing was in widespread use. A single wing tailback was the entire offensive catalyst. He got a lot of rushing attempts and a lot of the passing attempts. So the numbers, and therefore PG, tend to favor single wing tailbacks since there’s no way to discount their actual offensive production.
1936 is a good example. Arnie Herber, the outstanding Green Bay passer, was 77/173 passing for 1239 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. His rushing totals are -32 yards and 0 touchdowns. This put him a tad under 73% over average. It also put him barely behind Dutch Clark of the Detroit Lions, who was 38/71 passing for 467 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. The breaking point is that Clark, as a single wing tailback, had 628 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns.
This is an example of why numbers have to be taken in context and not completely on face value. These two legendary seasons, at 73% and 77% over Average, would be more then 50% under average today. Someone looking at the raw numbers would conclude that all the pre-WWII quarterbacks were an embarrassment to the game, rather than looking at the context and seeing how dominant they were.
Arnie Herber was succeeded in Green Bay by Cecil Isbell, who is noteworthy also for being one of three quarterbacks in NFL history to start a game with a last name beginning with “I”. In 1941, Isbell was 98.99% above average, although he did have some nice (but unremarkable) rushing totals to help his cause. In 1942, with his rushing totals far below what had been seen, Isbell was an unbelievable 117.68% above average. This is the greatest single season performance in a context outside of the “traditional” single wing (although Isbell was, in fact, a single wing tailback). Or is it?
Consider world events in 1942. Three months before the season started, the U.S. Navy won a miraculous victory at Midway. The bloodbath for the islands of the South Pacific was in full swing. Bombing of occupied Europe had begun just weeks before. Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, was nearing a climax. America was fighting a two-front war (three fronts, if you include domestic espionage) and the NFL sent many off to fight. 21 would never return home. It is truly humbling to look at the historical record and see young men of barely 20 years old with their NFL statistics listed, followed by “Died February 1945, Iwo Jima”. Hundreds left everything behind to fight for those who were living under a yoke of oppression.
In the context of the NFL during WWII, I can’t simply slap a tag on Isbell in 1941 or 1942, or Sid Luckman in 1943 (106% above average) and say “That’s the greatest ever”. Considering the overall caliber of play in the NFL, which was littered with hundreds of players who had never seen an NFL field before the war and never would after, putting enormous stock into those years doesn’t do the league justice.
So the question then becomes, in what is truly the modern era of football (1945-present), what is the greatest season? Numerous players have had seasons of 60% or more above average. Many are Hall of Famers. Johnny Unitas in 1959 was 71% above average. Roman Gabriel in 1973 was 63.2% above. Ken Stabler was 61% above in 1976, but he also played 12 games out of 14. Dan Fouts had some excellent seasons, but he didn’t touch 60%. Warren Moon in 1990 was barely under 70%. Steve Young was 65% better in 1998, and Daunte Culpepper was 59.93% better in 2004. Peyton Manning was over 60% better in 2004, but if you take out his minimal performance in a meaningless 16 th game, he jumps to over 70% better (on a per-game basis). This would put him right there with Dan Marino in 1984. Most recently, Tom Brady in 2007 was 71.69% over average.
As you can see, the list of quarterbacks who have had truly incredible seasons is a very distinguished one. Unitas, Fouts, Moon, Young, and Marino are Hall of Famers. Manning will be someday. Gabriel and Stabler were a cut below them, albeit a small cut below. Culpepper, before destroying his knee, was putting together an under-the-radar Hall of Fame career. But none of these has had the best season in NFL history.
The best season in NFL history did not come from a Hall of Famer. It didn’t come from a perennial All-Pro, although he could have been one. The best season in NFL history was Tobin Rote of the Green Bay Packers in 1956.
1956 was no exception to the Packers' run of ineptitude. The team finished 4-8 and had nothing to celebrate. The Lions were good, the Bears were division champions, and the Vikings were years off in the distance. Cleveland had just finished their Otto Graham years and was one year away from the Jim Brown years. Green Bay, with such a proud tradition, was floundering. A quarterback having a legendary season wasn’t something to be proud of when a 4-8 record was the end result.
So the question now is, how dominant was Tobin Rote? For the year, he was 146/308 passing for 2203 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. In rushing, he added 398 yards and a superb 11 touchdowns. In a 12-game season, Rote generated 187.6 points, or 15.63 per game. This put him 76.016% above average. This in itself is the highest percentage over Average of the post-WWII era. To make it all the more astonishing, one more rushing touchdown from Rote would have given him the NFL lead in that category as well, and made him the only player of the championship era (1932-present) to lead the league in both passing and rushing touchdowns. Rick Casares of Chicago had 12 rushing touchdowns (on 234 carries), with Rote all alone in second place with 11 touchdowns (on 84 carries). All in all, Rote had 187.6 Points Generated and the rest of his team had 66.133. Tobin Rote in 1956 accounted for roughly 74% of his team's offense.
But here’s where it gets better.
The second-place quarterback was Bobby Layne of Detroit. He had 1909 yards passing, 9 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions to go with 169 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns. This gave him 117.36 points generated, or 9.78 points per game. This was 10.109% above average. Rote beat the second-place quarterback, a Hall of Famer and legend, by 66%.
How was Rote recognized for this amazing year? Layne won the MVP and was consensus first-team All-NFL. Rote was then traded to Detroit to back up Layne. This blurb appeared the next day in the papers.
“ Tobin Rote and defensive back Val Joe Walker were traded to the Lions for halfback Don McIlhenny, tackles Oliver Spencer and Norm Masters, and guard Jim Salsbury.”
Rote and Walker were starters in Green Bay in 1956, while all four players coming from Detroit were backups. Walker ended up in San Francisco for the 1957 season, which was his final NFL year. Spencer, Masters, and Salsbury became starters all season for Green Bay on the offensive line, while McIllhenny was a starting running back. Understand that I am a firm believer in General Robert Neyland’s maxim that “one good blocker equals three good ballcarriers”; as a former lineman and a current line coach I am practically required by law to believe it.
You probably recognize this to be true as well. Look at the Denver Broncos churning out 1,000 yard rushers over long periods of time while keeping the offensive line pretty much the same. Look at Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson in Kansas City, and look how Johnson’s production has declined dramatically as the line ages and falls apart. There are a very small number of truly elite running backs not just at a given time, but in NFL history. The rest, believe it or not, are virtually interchangeable. A running back’s ability to produce is enormously dependent on the line in front of him. Two years ago Shaun Alexander looked dominant, and when guard Steve Hutchinson moved on, so too did Alexander’s “dominance”.
So it would stand to reason that acquiring three offensive line starters at the expense of a quarterback would cause an increase in offensive production. The man replacing Rote was Babe Parilli, who for some reason history tends to regard as being equal to Rote. Surely this shored-up offensive line would lead Green Bay from the bottom of the division and a 4-8 record (with the most relatively productive season ever taking place, no less).
It didn’t happen. The Packers’ offense went from 5 th -ranked to 8 th, which was based on a drop from 264 points scored to 218. This was more than enough to offset the defense shaving 31 points off their total allowed from one year to the next. The offense ran more plays in 1957 (751 to 714) but also generated just under 600 fewer yards of offense (3232 to 3819). With Rote and a pathetic offensive line, the Packers averaged 5.3 yards per play. With Parilli and Bart Starr behind a much-improved offensive line, to say nothing of having a rookie named Paul Hornung in the backfield, the 1957 Packers averaged 4.3 yards per play.
There are two conclusions to draw here. One is that Rote was simply a ball hog who failed to trust in his teammates, which would explain him scoring 29 of the team’s 34 total touchdowns in 1956. The other is that he literally was a one-man island, and that history has enormously understated just how good he was.
How did Rote do in Detroit? In 1957, he was good enough to split time with Bobby Layne. When Layne broke his leg late in the year, Rote took over and guided the team through a playoff game against San Francisco (that involved coming back from a 20-point deficit) and to a 45-point win in the NFL championship game against Cleveland.
Layne ended up being traded before the next season, and unfortunately for Rote, the Lions were in sharp decline. This put him on teams that were no better than what he had left behind in Green Bay. He was very good in 1958, but played poorly in 1959 while being replaced by Earl Morrall. The Lions wanted nothing to do with Rote after that, so he went to the CFL. In Canada, he became a legend with a three-year career before San Diego of the AFL came calling. Jack Kemp had been lost to Buffalo in a bizarre waiver deal and John Hadl wasn’t ready to step in, so the aging Rote was brought in as a stopgap.
Rote was outstanding in that role. A career of taking an inordinate amount of abuse behind pathetic teams had robbed him of a good deal of his speed and power as well as his ability to rocket passes, yet he was still the AFL’s second-most efficient in 1963. In a reprise of the 1957 title game, Rote in the 1963 title game led the Chargers to a 41-point victory over Boston. San Diego made it back to the 1964 game; a 20-7 loss to Buffalo. Rote retired after that game, but made a brief comeback in 1966 with Denver that involved throwing eight passes.
So how on earth does this come out to a top-20 quarterback in all of pro history? Let’s look at the record. Tobin Rote was the most productive passer three times (1954-56) and 3 rd -most productive once (1951). This ties him with Warren Moon for 20 th all-time. In efficiency, he was tops once (1952) and second twice (1956 and 1963); those 13 points are 26 th all-time (tied with Starr, Tarkenton, and Ken Anderson). And those championship bonus points? There’s 14 more; he won two titles (1957 and 1963) and had one runner-up (1964), which is 20 th all-time. The beauty of all of these is that a few guys ahead of him in a particular category are well below him in the others, so his overall points are 19th all-time. And if you can believe it, Rote’s points/season number is actually higher than Dan Marino.
The real question then becomes this. If Tobin Rote was really this good, should he be in Canton? Let’s take a closer look.
Think of what normally constitutes a "great" quarterback. Chances are the qualifications are similar, if not the same, for nearly everyone you can possibly ask. Here’s my own twist on Bill James’ Keltner List.
1) Did he win a title? Yes, he won two titles. He led the waning Lions dynasty to a 59-14 title game win in 1957, then came back after three years in the CFL and dominated the AFL while leading the Chargers to a 51-10 title game win in 1963. As for what a 1963 Super Bowl would have looked like between San Diego and Chicago, the good simulators at WhatIfSports.com determined that, with a 10-game series played (five in Chicago, five in San Diego), the Chargers would have won that series 7-1-2. The Chargers also were runner-up in 1964.
2) Did he perform well in the postseason? The 1957 title came after erasing a 27-7 third quarter deficit in a playoff game against San Francisco; Rote was 16 of 30 for 214 yards, one touchdown, and one interception in that game. In the 1957 NFL title game, he was 12/19 for 280 yards and four touchdowns; he added another touchdown on the ground. His 1963 AFL title game performance was 10/15 passing for 173 yards and two touchdowns (no interceptions) to go with 15 rushing yards and another touchdown.
Rote’s performance in 1957 ranks as the second-best championship game performance in history in which the quarterback had 15+ offensive opportunities, and his 1963 performance is fifth-best. By comparison, Otto Graham has the 1st and 28th slots as his best, Joe Montana as 4th and 16th, Bart Starr as 3rd and 8th, Terry Bradshaw as 13th and 21st, and “ultra-clutch” Tom Brady as 41st and 42nd.
Of course, Graham had seven championship wins to cherry-pick from, Montana four, Starr five (seven if we include both Super Bowls), Bradshaw four, and Brady three. Rote only had those two.
3) Did he excel over his career? Rote was the top quarterback in the league for three straight years and was among the top five much of his career. Had he not been relegated to splitting time with Babe Parilli and been subjected to so much ineptitude, he likely would have been higher for longer
4) Did he win MVP awards or have MVP-caliber seasons? Rote's 1956 season is the greatest single year in pro history. He did not receive the MVP for this due to the team's ineptitude. He did win the MVP of the AFL in 1963.
5) Was he better than average over the span of his entire career? Rote was above average over the duration of his career, which is astonishing considering the circumstances. He had two legitimately bad years, 1950 with Green Bay as a rookie, and 1959 with Detroit as the entire team tanked from their halcyon days.
6) Was he the top at his position at any point? For three years (1954-56), Rote was far and away the dominant quarterback in the NFL
7) Would he have been just as good on a bad team as on a good one? Unlike many great quarterbacks who had the luxury of playing for teams that are average at worst for their careers, Rote played on some of the worst teams of his time or of all-time. The question of whether he would be successful on bad teams has been answered; he was absolutely dominant on some pathetic squads.
This doesn't even include the fact that he was probably the best quarterback in CFL history after just three years (1960-62). For a variety of reasons, the CFL is not considered to be applicable, but his dominance there in a league that, for at least 1960 and 1961, was on par in terms of talent and level of play with the AFL, bears mentioning.
But let’s take a closer look at those postseason performances. I don’t believe in “clutch ability”, I really don’t. If it truly existed, we would see enormous numbers of quarterbacks whose playoff performances vastly outstripped their regular season performance. Instead we see less than five. See, a single game doesn’t make for “clutch”. Steve Young had an amazing Super Bowl performance, but it’s pretty obvious that it was an aberration. Joe Montana, on the other hand, was a legitimately great playoff performer.
So what of Tobin Rote? Well, among every title game ever played where a quarterback had at least 15 offensive attempts (169 man-games), Tobin Rote has the second -highest efficiency score ever for his 1957 performance against Cleveland. As for 1963, it is the fifth -highest title game ever. For comparison, Bart Starr’s two best were #3 and #8, Joe Montana’s two best were #4 and #16. Otto Graham has #1 and #27. Terry Bradshaw has #13 and #20, Troy Aikman #14 and #53, and Tom Brady #41 and #42. In playoff history (all games included), the 1957 title game ranks 6 th, and 1963 is #16. Only Peyton Manning is better there, with #2 and #7. Daryle Lamonica, another great playoff performer, has #1 and #18.
When given the chance to excel, Rote was excellent. What made him unique was that he excelled even in dire circumstances that, 50 years later, still have seen no parallel. Normally when looking at old quarterbacking numbers, it’s quite apparent that nearly everyone was much better than the raw numbers would indicate due to the conditions of the time period. But Rote, even taking era adjustments into consideration, shone even brighter than that. Had he been in Detroit or Cleveland during his Green Bay years, I believe that we would not only have seen more titles, but we definitely would be talking about one of the “automatic” greatest ever. Incredibly disadvantageous circumstances beyond his control conspired to rob him of the opportunity, and yet he still excelled in obscurity.
And why I’m the only one who recognizes this blows my mind.