Good quarterbacks leave indelible stamps on the game, but a few of them go a step further. They change the game, through a style that gives life to a new offensive system, by force of personality or simply by coming along at the right time.
Here are the six NFL quarterbacks I believe effected the most profound changes. Sid Luckman was the first to run the modern T formation with a man in motion, which bore a striking resemblance to today's basic set. Otto Graham, innovative and a deadly accurate passer, will nevertheless be remembered as the first man for whom his coach called all the plays. John Unitas was a tough, snarling veteran of the semipro ranks who clawed his way to the top; once he got there he battled to do things his way, no matter how his coach felt about it. Joe Namath became the standard-bearer for a league. He gave the AFL respectability, changed the salary structure of pro football and captivated fans with his brashness and flair. Joe Montana was the master of a system that swept the game, with its reliance on quick reads and short, precision passing. Finally, there was Doug Williams, who with one brilliant performance opened the way for today's generation of black quarterbacks—make that quarterbacks who happen to be black—to multiply and flourish.
Many great quarterbacks—Sammy Baugh, Bobby Layne, Norm Van Brocklin and Dan Marino, for instance—were not included, not because of any lack of ability but because they didn't have the impact the select half-dozen did.
When Sid Luckman died in July, at 81, the last originator of the oldest offensive formation still in use was gone. The T with a man in motion was the brain work of a coaching triumvirate of George Halas, Clark Shaughnessy and Ralph Jones, and Luckman, a 22-year-old Chicago Bears rookie out of Columbia, was the man chosen to implement it on the field. That was in 1939, and the basic set remains.
"I'd been a single-wing tailback," Luckman said when I visited him at his Fort Lauderdale suburban apartment in May. "You're set deep, the ball comes to you, and you either pass, run or spin. When I came to the Bears, we worked for hours on my spinning, on hiding the ball, only this time it was as a T quarterback. They brought in the old Bears quarterback, Carl Brumbaugh, to work with me. We spent endless time just going over my footwork, faking, spinning, setting up as fast as I could, running to my left and throwing right, days and days of it."
Luckman seemed frail as we talked. All the charm that I remembered from the dozen or so times I had interviewed him through the years was there, but he'd occasionally stop to gather himself, to get things just right. Seated with him at a table heaped with charts and memorabilia and the scrapbooks of a lifetime in the game, I felt as if I were listening to Orville Wright describing the origins of the flying machine.
"Ralph Jones had coached the T with the Bears in the early 1930s," Luckman said, "but it was the old T, with everyone bunched in there. Shaughnessy was coaching at the University of Chicago, and they were about to drop football, so he spent a lot of time with us. I'd be up in Shaughnessy's room every night in training camp, going over every aspect of the thing. The whole idea was to spread the field and give the defense more area to cover.
"We had an 11 o'clock curfew, and Halas would drop by around 1 a.m. and say, 'That's enough, Sid. Go to bed.' "
The system was still experimental in 1939, and Luckman was a backup tailback in the Bears' basic offense, the single wing. But on Oct. 22, with Chicago trailing the New York Giants 16-0 at the Polo Grounds, Halas told Luckman, "Get in at quarterback and run the T."
"Bob MacLeod, our right halfback, went in motion and ran straight down the field on a stop-and-go," Luckman said. "I was so nervous I threw a duck, end over end. The defensive back had the interception, but MacLeod took the ball away from him and went all the way. Then I threw a little swing pass to Bob Swisher, and he shook a couple of tackles and went 60 yards for another score. We lost the game 16-13, and we used the T off and on for the rest of the season, but no one made a big thing about it."