State Your Case: Charlie Conerly
NFL Rookie of the Year in 1948 and NFL MVP in 1959
(Published August 2016)
Every year the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame awards the Conerly Trophy to the best college player in the state. Eli Manning, Deuce McAllister, Patrick Willis and Dak Prescott have all been so honored.
The state of Mississippi obviously recognizes greatness on the gridiron. The Pro Football Hall of Fame, not so.
The award is named after former Ole Miss quarterback Charlie Conerly, who took the Rebels to their first SEC championship in 1947 and went on to become a two-time All-America. He has since been enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Conerly had an equally distinguished career in the NFL, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 1948 and league MVP honors in 1959. He took the New York Giants to three NFL championship games and his jersey number 42 has been retired by the franchise.
But an MVP trophy, a championship ring and a retired jersey number haven’t been enough to convince the Pro Football Hall of Fame to commission a bust for Conerly. He’s been a finalist for the Hall seven times without success and his candidacy can now be found in the abyss known as the senior pool.
Conerly deserves better.
For five seasons in the 1950s, though, Conerly shared the quarterbacking chores with Don Heinrich. Giants coach Jim Lee Howell employed a two-quarterback system with Heinrich generally starting and Conerly finishing.
Conerly didn’t start a single game in 1956, the year the Giants won the NFL title, but still wound up throwing for almost 800 more yards (1,143) than Heinrich and twice as many touchdowns (10).
Howell believed Conerly had a better temperament for coming off the bench than Heinrich and could step into the flow of a game easier. Heinrich started the 1956 NFL title game but Conerly came off the bench to throw two TD passes in a 47-7 romp over the Chicago Bears.
Heinrich also started the 1958 title game against the Baltimore Colts but Conerly again came off the bench to rally the Giants from a 14-3 deficit. Conerly’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Frank Gifford gave the Giants a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter. But Johnny Unitas engineered a late field-goal drive in regulation to tie the game and then a touchdown drive in overtime to lift the Colts to a 23-17 victory.
Conerly did start the 1959 title game but the Giants again fell to the Colts, 31-16. New York scored four touchdowns on passes in those three title games and Conerly threw them all.
Conerly had his best season in 1959 when he won his only NFL passing title and league MVP honors. He threw 14 touchdown passes against only four interceptions, winning eight of the nine games he started.
Maybe a perception that he was a “backup” worked against Conerly. He was voted to only three Pro Bowls in his career. He wasn’t even voted to the Pro Bowl the year he won NFL MVP honors.
But Conerly was a backup in name only. In the five seasons he shared the job with Heinrich, Conerly threw 986 passes for 7,070 yards and 58 touchdowns. During that same window Heinrich threw only 307 passes for 1,704 yards and 123 touchdowns. When the Giants needed offense, they turned to Conerly.
Not that Conerly couldn’t open games. He started 114 times in his 14-year career and won 60.1 percent of those starts. That’s a better winning percentage than Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Fran Tarkenton, Warren Moon and Dan Fouts.
After football, Conerly portrayed the rugged “Marlboro Man” in magazine ads and television commercials for the cigarette company. He was all man with no ego. He was all about winning whenever Jim Lee Howell sent him into a game. His arm took the Giants to three NFL title games in a span of four years.
Conerly deserves a longer look, a better look from Canton. He checks all the boxes as a quarterback except the one that matters most – pro football Hall of Famer.