July 30, 2011
On July 30, 1959 the Baltimore Colts complied with backup QB George Shaw’s request for a trade, sending him to the New York Giants for that team’s second-round 1960 draft choice (originally reported to be a first-round pick and used to take G Bo Terrell from Mississippi, who opted for the AFL).
It was the end of an association with the Colts that had begun with great promise. Shaw was chosen by Baltimore as the first overall pick (or, at that time, bonus selection) in the 1955 NFL draft out of Oregon, passing up on a baseball contract offer from the New York Yankees.
A versatile player in college (in addition to playing quarterback, he sometimes played as a halfback or receiver on offense, safety on defense, and also handled placekicking and punting), Shaw led the nation in total offense as a senior with 1536 yards. The 6’0”, 185-pound passer showed promise as a rookie, moving right into the starting lineup and completing 50.2 percent of his 237 passes for 1586 yards with 10 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. He also displayed impressive mobility, rushing for 301 yards on 68 carries.
While there were questions about Shaw’s leadership ability, he went into the ’56 season as the starting quarterback. A broken kneecap suffered in the fifth game prematurely ended his year and, ultimately, his starting career in Baltimore. Unknown backup Johnny Unitas took over and soon established himself as a rising talent. Shaw remained as a second-stringer and saw action in 1958 when Unitas was sidelined by a rib injury, but he was clearly not in the same class with the rapidly-developing all-time great who led the Colts to the NFL Championship.
In the ensuing offseason, Shaw requested a trade when it became apparent that he wouldn’t be getting any further playing time as long as Unitas was healthy and, while the Colts hoped to hold onto him as a backup, they eventually acquiesced. Both the Eagles and Cardinals reportedly showed interest, but in the end it was the Giants who made the preseason deal for the 26-year-old quarterback.
Coming to the Giants, Shaw faced a crowded quarterback situation that included the 38-year-old starter, Charlie Conerly, plus veteran backup Don Heinrich, and the team’s first draft choice, rookie Lee Grosscup. In addition, star HB Frank Gifford was being given a trial at quarterback, although he ended up staying put at running back.
Shaw made the team, but was hindered by an injured thumb on his throwing hand. He started one game in place of Conerly, who had an outstanding season as the Giants won the Eastern Conference for the third time in four years, and was a more effective passer than Heinrich when he did play - he completed 66.7 percent of his throws for 433 yards while Heinrich was successful on just 37.9 percent for 329 yards while tossing 22 more passes than Shaw (58 to 36); he also threw six interceptions to Shaw’s one, and each threw a TD pass. Grosscup was shunted off to the taxi squad.
In 1960, Heinrich was gone to the expansion Dallas Cowboys and Conerly suffered through an injury-plagued season that gave Shaw more of an opportunity to play. While he led the team in pass attempts (155), completions (76), and yards (1263) and had some good performances, he also threw 13 interceptions (a few which came at particularly inopportune times), as opposed to 11 TDs, for the 6-4-2 Giants. Moreover, questions regarding his lack of confidence and inability to command the veteran-filled offense led the team to write him off.
Moving on to the expansion Minnesota Vikings for 1961, it was anticipated that Shaw would have an opportunity to show what he could do as a starting quarterback, particularly under the guidance of Head Coach Norm Van Brocklin. But while he started the opening game, he was quickly replaced by rookie Fran Tarkenton, who was the first-string quarterback for the rest of the year (and beyond). Shaw went next to the AFL, where he played one season as a backup to QB Frank Tripucka in Denver (and completed a team-record 97-yard touchdown pass to WR Jerry Tarr), before retiring.
In the end, Shaw’s career that started with so much promise was ultimately disappointing. After losing the starting job in Baltimore, he was never more than a decent backup. Indeed, at the time of his trade to the Giants, he expressed a concern that he had developed “second-stringitis”. He went so far as to confess in an article in Sports Illustrated: “When you go in, you feel the responsibility so much. A couple of years ago, when Johnny (Unitas) was hurt, I played two games at quarterback. I wasn't relaxed and I wasn't confident because I was afraid of playing poorly. Not afraid of giving a bad performance myself, but afraid of failing the team. Maybe I shouldn't say it, but you know when you're out there that the guys up in the line aren't making as much money as the quarterback. When they are great players on a team which is about to win a championship, they demand a lot from a quarterback. They expect you to be as good as they are, or better. It's a big load.”
An offseason banker, Shaw’s personality lacked fire and, in particular with the Giants, that worked against him. Displaced by two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Unitas and Tarkenton, he became an example of a quarterback drafted in the first round who failed to make the grade at the pro level.