Mike Brown, who asked Otto Graham to throw him a ball and scouted Tom Brady throwing a pass, has now watched both of them make it to the final game of the season 10 times and win it seven.
On Sunday night, 66 years after Graham did it in the middle of the 20th century, Brady matched him in the middle of a pandemic with an MVP effort that brought the Buccaneers the NFL championship and Brady his seventh Super Bowl ring. No one is more qualified than Brown, 85, the Bengals president and son of Bengals founder Paul Brown, Graham's coach in Cleveland, to put the bookends around the league's two greatest winners.
"All you can hope to be is the best in your time," Mike Brown says. "I don't know if it's possible that a guy can be the best overall. I just think what you can say is that when he played, he was the best. And when Otto played he was the best and Brady in his time has shown to be the best."
But, as usual, Brown won't kid you. "Otto is the best I ever saw. I'm biased." It's the only observation you would expect from the 10-year-old kid that asked Graham to throw him the ball
"Please, Otto. I want to catch a pass from you," is what Brown remembers calling out to Graham. "I muffed it and threw it back. 'Please Otto, throw it to me again.' I muffed it again. I said, 'Please Otto, just one more time.' And he said, 'No, you had your chance.'
"At the time I thought it was a cutting remark, but it's always amused me over the years. He was always kind to me. Very nice to me. A wonderful person. Everyone, from coaches, players, staff, they all respected Otto."
Brown attended every home game Graham ever played. From those first four seasons just after World War II Cleveland won the only All-American Conference championships. To their first season in the NFL that ended in Brady-esque fashion with Graham's come-from-behind drive in the final 1:49 to beat the Rams for the 1950 title. To Graham's farewell in the 1955 championship game in Los Angeles that Mike Brown must have watched from home on NBC because he still remembers Graham, now up to 220 pounds at age 34, bowling over defensive backs on two touchdown runs in the rout of the Rams.
"You can be a great player in your era and it fades over time," Brown says. "Otto deserves to be ranked with the best players ever. The more current players are the ones we know and see. Their achievements are fresh. But Otto deserves to be ranked with the best."
Everyone has a childhood hero. The future Dartmouth quarterback who advised Paul Brown to draft Ken Anderson and pulled the trigger on Joe Burrow had plenty to worship, such as his Hall-of-Fame training camp buddies Bill Willis and Marion Motley.
But Otto Everett Graham, Jr., played quarterback.
"My favorite as the greatest player ever. He carried the Browns through his career," Mike Brown says. "He had the characteristics you see in the key quarterbacks of today. He could scan the field very quickly and seemingly find an open receiver. He could move in the pocket, he could move outside the pocket, he could throw on the move accurately and effectively and he could run with the ball … He had that feel for moving the ball around and finding the open guy."
When Paul Brown's cutting-edge offense reached the NFL in 1950, they were derisively called a basketball team by the establishment. Fitting, then, that his quarterback played for a season as backup guard for the Rochester Royals in the NBA and won a championship before finding the open man for the Browns.
"What was favorable to Otto over Brady is that Otto had good movement in the pocket," Brown says. "Not like Russell Wilson or (Patrick) Mahomes. (Roger) Staubach is comparable. (John) Elway would have been a comparison. Elway had a stronger arm, but he had movement and could throw on the run and Otto could do those things, too.
"Don't get me wrong. He had a good arm. He could throw in all ranges. And accurately. But what was exceptional was that Otto could find people. He could make something out of nothing and you see that with (Patrick) Mahomes and you see that with Brady."
No doubt there is some wiseacre out who would say that Graham had too short of a career to be considered if he came up for the Hall of Fame today. Imagine nowadays going into the selection process with just 114 starts and only ten seasons and think of all the nasty tweets.
Except, of course, he lost only 13 of those starts and he ended every season he ever played in a championship game. If Brady is the NFL's greatest winner of the 21st century, Graham is the greatest of the 20th century.
Graham and Paul Brown were the Brady and Bill Belichick of their day. Implementing Brown's innovative passing game that were the seeds of the West Coast Offense, Graham's nine yards per attempt for his career is still No. 1. Mahomes (8.4) and Deshaun Watson (8.3) are the only new wavers within a yard.
And Mike Brown takes nothing away from Brady. It is simply impossible and impractical to compare players 70 years apart.
"Brady has such a wealth of experience. You get the feeling whenever Brady is on the field, he's got all the answers," Mike Brown says. "You can't do anything that surprises him. At least not for very long. His accomplishments are exceptional, if not unique, then close to it. It's a different playoff system and Brady getting to the playoffs so often is a real singular achievement."
Mike Brown just wishes more people remembered one of his heroes. It turns out that two of his Bengals quarterbacks do.
On a recent Old School Scribe Podcast heading into this Super Bowl, Ken Anderson had the name of the first quarterback to play in 10 title games and wanted to make sure you knew. He had traded enough Paul Brown stories with Graham to know.
And on last week's CBS press call, Boomer Esiason recalled hearing of Graham from the source.
"I remember Paul Brown telling me stories about the great Otto Graham and what he brought to his team in Cleveland was leadership," Esiason says. "That's something we always talk about when it comes to quarterbacks. Nobody has ever discounted how great he is and what he accomplished in Cleveland with all those championships.
"But in the Super Bowl era, with the way the game has changed so much and so many big moments for Tom Brady, it's hard to discount he is the greatest."
Mike Brown isn't making pronouncements as much as he is savoring the memories of a 15-year-old kid shivering in Municipal Stadium, where the savage Lakefront cold has cut the temperature to 17 degrees or so when Graham gets the ball at his own 31 down, 28-27, with 1:49 left.
"Otto ran it some and passed it some," says Brown with a memory as icy as the moment.
Graham scrambled for 16 yards before completing a pair of passes each to wide receiver Dub Jones and running back Rex Bumgardner to put Cleveland at the Rams 11. Then Graham snuck the next snap to get Lou Groza in the middle of the field for the winning field goal with 28 seconds left.
"In my mind's eye I see Otto throwing down the field to (Dante) Lavelli and (Mac) Speedie and Dub Jones. All great receivers," Brown says. "He would hit them in stride. I don't remember so much what you see today where the receivers seem to wait for the ball or have to jump for the ball. With Otto, in my mind, there were guys catching the ball in stride. Having it where it had to be to maximize the play. He had touch … Soft enough to make it catchable."
The pictures are in black and white. Different game. Different era.
But everybody's memory is in Technicolor.
"Great person. Great player," Brown says of Otto. "I think Brady appears to be all that in today's world. He's at the top of his career and it's within the memory of most people living and writing and commenting that he's better than anyone else they've seen. He deserves to be credited for it."