Photo credit: Sports Illustrated (December 1956)
In the 1950's, Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly was one of the biggest names in pro football. He played in four NFL championship games (1956, 1958, 1959, 1961), brought New York it's first title in 18 years, threw a ton of touchdowns, broke records, played until the age of 40 and for all intents and purposes—road off into the sunset.
He played in an era stocked with some of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history: Unitas, Graham, Tittle, Van Brocklin and Layne—all of whom eventually found their way to Canton, Ohio. Conerly's legacy, as the decades passed, found itself relegated to the throne of footnotes. "Oh yeah, he played for the Giants back in the day." With the number '42' sewn onto the back of that blue and white jersey, Conerly was that other quarterback that Unitas and the Baltimore Colts defeated in the "Greatest Game Ever Played." If that's all you ever knew about Conerly, you've missed out on a lot. Though in fairness, some of his greatest accomplishments took some digging to find.
The title of this article gets right to the point. I've studied quarterbacks from the 1930's-2010's and I'm very familiar with the resumés of all 23 modern era inductees. Conerly is not the greatest quarterback in the history of pro football, but he was better than some of the quarterbacks already inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
What you didn't know:
- Conerly took over the worst team in pro football, the Giants, who went 2-8-2 prior to his arrival.
- Conerly had the greatest rookie passing season, of any generation, in NFL history (1948).
- Conerly recorded the highest passer rating (age 38+) in NFL history—a record that stood for 50 years.
- Conerly was more productive and efficient than many quarterbacks already in the Hall of Fame.
- Conerly had a higher winning percentage than 15 Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
- Conerly recorded the highest passer rating in NFL Championship/Super Bowl history (1956).
- Conerly recorded the highest passer rating, in defeat, in NFL Championship/Super Bowl history (1958).
Why does Conerly belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? I'll do my best to answer that question.
I. Championship Game Performance
Since 1933, the NFL has held a total of 81 championship games.
- Highest passer rating in victory: 152.1 (Charlie Conerly, 1956 NFL Championship game)
- Highest passer rating in defeat: 137.5 (Charlie Conerly, 1958 NFL Championship game)
If you believe it's conincidence that in over eight decades worth of championship games, the same quarterback recorded the highest mark in victory and defeat—so be it.
Though the storied recollection of Unitas-to-Berry in the 1958 NFL Championship game might leave you believing the better quarterback won that night, Conerly's 137.5 passer rating far eclipsed Unitas' 90.5. It won't be mentioned in books or in documentaries, but it could be argued that Conerly out-performed Unitas that historic evening.
When Conerly retired after the 1961, his 173 career touchdown passes ranked as the third most in NFL history—below only Sammy Baugh and Bobby Layne (both Hall of Famers), tied with Norm Van Brocklin (a Hall of Famer) and ahead of Sid Luckman (a Hall of Famer). As you'll see in the chart above, ten Hall of Famers (Montana, Fouts, Moon, Bradshaw, Graham, Kelly, Starr, Young, Staubach and Aikman) retired ranking below third on the career touchdown pass list. Had Conerly's professional debut not been delayed by three years due to his service in World War II, he would have likely retired as the NFL's all-time leader in touchdown passes.
- Conerly's 173 career touchdown passes were only 14 away from Baugh's all-time record (187).
The QBS2 grading system uses multigenerational-adjustment
to level the playing field between different generations. By this measure, Conerly has a higher career QBS2 average than ten
quarterbacks (including Favre) in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While some quarterbacks managed to maintain high QBS2 averages by virture of short careers (e.g. Bert Jones
), Conerly played in the NFL for 14 seasons, 11 of which qualified for QBS2 grading
. Conerly ranks ahead of a number of big-name Hall of Famers via QBS2P (the average of a quarterback's five best seasons).
If you include Favre, Brady and Rodgers as eventual Hall of Fame inductees—Conerly ranked in the Top-3 in passer rating more times than 18 Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
IV. Rookie Season for the Ages
As a rookie in 1948, Conerly joined a Giants team that had the worst record in pro football prior to his arrival (2-8-2 in 1947).
He would go on to set NFL rookie records for most touchdown passes, most passing yards, highest completion percentage and highest passer rating.
"I've never been big on individual records, but the fact that record was held so long by Charlie Conerly, that's a special thing."
- Conerly's rookie passer rating record stood for 35 years—eventually being broken by Dan Marino (1983).
- Conerly's rookie touchdown pass record stood for 50 years—eventually being broken by Peyton Manning (1998).
While Manning finished his rookie season with 26 touchdown passes (since tied by Russell Wilson in 2012), Conerly threw 22 touchdown passes over the course of a 12-game season. Conerly's rate of production, 1.83 touchdown passes per-game, would amount to 29.33 touchdown passes over a 16-game season. Conerly also rushed for five touchdowns as a rookie, bringing his combined passing/rushing touchdown rate to 2.25 per-game, which would amount to 36 combined touchdowns over a 16-game season. No quarterback since Conerly has ever set the rookie marks for touchdown passes, passing yards, completion percentage and passer rating in the same season.
V. Greatness at Age 38
In 1959, Conerly recorded what was at the time, the third highest single-season passer rating (102.7) in NFL history (minimum 150 attempts). Unitas won the AP MVP award after throwing a then-record 32 touchdown passes, but Conerly's passer rating was +10.7 points higher (92.0). Conerly was 38 years old at the time and it would take decades for a quarterback age 38+ to eclipse his mark, which still ranks as the second best in NFL history.
- Conerly's passer rating record, for a quarterback age 38+, stood for 50 years—eventually being broken by Brett Favre (2009).
VI. Ageless Excellence
At the time of Conerly's retirement, only one other quarterback had ever thrown a touchdown pass at the age of 38 or older—Sammy Baugh, who threw only two.
Although his role had been greatly reduced by his final season, Conerly stepped up for the Giants in relief of Y.A. Tittle on December 10th, 1961
when he threw three touchdown passes, zero interceptions and recorded a 129.2
passer rating. The 28-24 win knocked off the Philadelphia Eagles—winning the Giants the Eastern Division crown and granting the team a birth in the 1961 NFL Championship game.
*Detailed passing statistics first began to be recorded in 1932.
VII. Winning Percentage
Conerly maintained a higher career winning percentage (regular season and postseason combined) than 15 Hall of Fame quarterbacks. He recorded eight winning seasons (1950, 1951, 1952, 1954, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960)—would have been nine had he been officially credited as the starter during the Giants 8-3-1 run in 1956.
"For the life of me, I can't figure it out...I've campaigned for him myself and I think (Conerly not being in the Hall of Fame) it's wrong."
- Conerly retired with a higher career touchdown pass rank than Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Bart Starr and Roger Staubach.
- Conerly maintained a higher QBS2 career average than Y.A. Tittle, Brett Favre, Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman and John Elway.
- Conerly recorded more Top-3 passer rating season than Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.
- Conerly recorded a higher NFL championship/Super Bowl passer rating than Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas and Tom Brady.
- Conerly maintained a higher winning percentage than Jim Kelly, Brett Favre, Dan Marino, Troy Aikman and Fran Tarkenton.
Is Conerly the greatest quarterback in NFL history? No. There are various tiers of greatness amongst those already inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But is he better than some Hall of Famers? In my opinion—absolutely. His production is Hall of Fame worthy, his efficiency is Hall of Fame worthy, his winning percentage is Hall of Fame worthy, his performance in championship games is Hall of Fame worthy, his rookie season may have been the best in NFL history and his performance at the age of 38 may have been the best in NFL history. I agree with Wellington Mara and Frank Gifford—Charlie Conerly belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.