The quarterback may be the most glorified position in all of American sports. On the field, they are the leaders when the offense has the ball. Off the field, they are often the highest-paid player and the first the media wants to speak with. In college, they are the big men on campus. In high school, they are usually are the guy dating the head cheerleader. In its one-hundredth season, when the NFL needs a face to put on the marketing material, it usually belongs to a quarterback.
This wasn’t always the case. In the earliest days of the NFL, the game was played quite differently. Most teams used a version of the single-wing offense. In this offense, a quarterback wasn’t much more than a lead blocker. The offense worked much like modern wildcat offenses, featuring direct snaps to the ball carrier with hoards of blockers in front. In the late 1930s, this began to change. At that time the forward pass was not widely used in most single-wing offenses. It was typically reserved for desperate situations and trick plays. As the ’30s came to a close, more coaches began willing to risk turnover via interception in favor of hopes of large gains through the air.
Chicago Bears head coach George Halas was among the professional coaches that began to desire to move the ball through the air. Halas created a new style of offense that looked to challenge the old single-wing. Halas’ reinvention of the T-Formation looked to better balance the run and the pass. For his offense to work properly he needed a talented player to play the quarterback position. Unlike the single-wing, the quarterback moved to behind the center and would be responsible for much of the ball-handling in the offense.
In 1939 Sid Luckman was the player that Halas chose to run his offense. A tailback at Columbia University, Halas was intrigued by Luckman’s diverse skill set which included throwing the football. The move paid almost instant dividends as the Bears won the first of four NFL Championships with Luckman in 1940. Adding the big-play element to the Bears offense made Luckman a star among the fans of the team. Getting beat by the big play element made many other coaches reevaluate their own strategies. Soon every team was in search of a capable passing quarterback of their own.
In addition to his role as the team’s passer, Luckman was true to his era as a versatile ironman. Luckman served as a safety on defense amassing 17 career interceptions. As the team’s punter, he averaged nearly forty yards per attempt during his career. Luckman once even led the NFL in punting average. However, those accomplishments pale in comparison to what Luckman was able to accomplish as one of the league’s first true gunslingers. Although he had already enjoyed a good bit of success as the team’s quarterback it was Luckman’s 1943 season that turned heads and revolutionized the perception of what an NFL quarterback could be.
In just ten games Luckman led the NFL with 28 touchdown passes and 2,194 yards. It was the first of three times he would lead the league in those categories over his career. What made this season so memorable is how incredibly efficient Luckman was. His 10.9 yards per attempt was an incredible mark that was largely overshadowed by the fact he averaged a touchdown per every seven pass attempts that season. Luckman turned heads in a game against the Giants that season. In a 56-7 trouncing, Luckman threw for 453 yards shattering the previous single-game passing record by 120 yards. Perhaps even more impressive was his seven touchdowns that day, a single-game record that has yet to be eclipsed to this day. Most historians will credit Luckman’s 1943 season as the genesis of the modern passing offense. Luckman walked away with multiple honors that season including the NFL MVP award.
As if winning another NFL championship wasn’t enough, Luckman also put his career on hold for another battle. As a member of the Merchant Marines, Luckman bravely served the United States Military in World War II, adding the title American Hero to his already solidified title of sports hero in Chicago.
After the war, Luckman returned to the Bears to finish his NFL career. Luckman retired after the 1950 season, ending an innovative and spectacular 12-year career as the Bears signal-caller. Incredibly both Luckman’s 14,686 career passing yards and 137 career touchdown passes stood as Bears records for the next six decades. His 8.4 career yards per attempt only put him behind Otto Graham on the all-time list. Luckman’s touchdown pass percentage of 7.9% is the best in NFL history.
In 1965 Luckman added Pro Football Hall of Famer to his already impressive resume of achievements. Strangely enough, a man who nearly turned down the offer to play NFL football in favor of taking a job with his father-in-law helped turn the quarterback into the most celebrated player in sports. As much as Luckman paved the way for the modern quarterback, he certainly didn’t get paid like one. Luckman worked a day job after his playing days to make ends meet. Eventually retiring to Florida, Luckman passed away in 1998 at the age of 81. While his name isn’t as well-remembered as some of the other sports stars of the past, his legacy is still alive and well. You see it in action at every level of football.