The “passing” of the torch

Unitas Brees

Throughout the wide world of sports it has been said often, “records are meant to be broken”.

And you know what? They’re right!

Some sports are defined by numbers. For instance, in the NBA, the number is 100 – that was how many points Wilt Chamberlain scored for the Philadelphia Warriors in game against the New York Knicks in 1962. In baseball there is 56 – the number of consecutive games that Joe DiMaggio hit in safely in 1941.

Then there is football and for me that number has always been 47 – the number of consecutive regular season games in which John Unitas threw a touchdown pass. This number, this record is personal to me, not only as a NFL historian but as a Baltimorean.

Growing up in Baltimore in the 1960’s I became an avid football fan, being fortunate enough to watch the Baltimore Colts on television – though only their away games (all home were blacked out until 1973, even the sold out games) – to see a few games in person at Memorial Stadium, and to visit Colts training camp in Westminster every Summer. My favorite player of course was quarterback John Unitas, who was not only Baltimore’s most celebrated football player, but also America’s most celebrated gridiron gladiator.

Unitas left Baltimore after the 1972 season having played 16 years here, and he retired from football after playing a forgettable half-season for the San Diego Chargers in 1973.

He retired from the game with just about every passing record in the books – most attempts, completions, yards, 300-yard passing games, touchdowns, and the one record that every sportscaster thought could never be broken – a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive regular season games.

As the years went by all of John’s records fell, mostly broken by Hall Of Fame Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton, and all in 1975, Fran’s 15th year in the league. Since then all of Tarkenton’s records have fallen.  The humble Tarkenton would say after breaking a Unitas record, “it is an honor breaking my hero’s record.”

Keep in mind the two were also contemporaries, having faced each other twice a year from 1961-1966.

That said, all those records made to be broken there was one that seemed to defy the cliche — John’s 47-game streak.

Whenever the national media talks about the greatest quarterbacks of all time, you hear the names of Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning. John Unitas is always mentioned, and whenever he is mentioned, the next line is always about the 47-game streak. No matter how many quarterbacks have come and gone, when the talk of great quarterbacks comes up, it always comes back to Unitas.  And when it does, inevitably, talk of “the streak” surfaces.

Our streak,, our record, no matter how much the game has changed, the number 47 will always be linked to John Unitas, which means it will always be linked to Baltimore.

John set the record between 1956 and 1960, and as we all know Saints quarterback Drew Brees tied it last week in Green Bay and likely will break it this week at home against the San Diego Chargers.

With every record set and broken there will always be comparisons. From a statistical standpoint, here they are – John Unitas’s 47 straight games and Drew Brees’s 47 consecutive games.

As a historical note, before Unitas set his record of 47 consecutive games, the record was 23 consecutive games set by the Packers’ Cecil Isbell from 1940 to 1942 operating Curly Lambeau’s passing offense.   Isbell retired from pro football after 1942 to go into coaching first at his alma mater, Purdue, then he moved to the pro ranks, and became the first head coach……of the Baltimore Colts in 1947. Isbell developed a rookie quarterback into a star in 1948, eventual Hall of Famer YA Tittle.

Isbell was let go after a few games in 1949. He remained in contact with the Colts, and was an advisor to Colt coach Weeb Ewbank from 1954-1957. He would become the Colts unofficial quarterbacks coach during training camp. He advised Ewbank to keep free agent Unitas as Shaw’s back up for 1956. Ewbank wanted to lure retired former Colt quarterback Gary Kerkorian back from law school. Isbell won that debate and the rest as they say, is history.

Unitas Streak 1956-1960  

During a loss to the Bears in Week 5 of 1956, Shaw broke his leg. Unitas came into the game, having made a brief appearance a few weeks before against the Lions, throwing an incompletion and an interception. His first pass against the Bears was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by the Bears’ JC Caroline. The Colts were crushed 58-27. Ewbank lured Kerkorian back, fearing Unitas was not the player he needed, but Unitas had to start the next week at home against the favored Packers. The Colts pulled the upset. The next week Unitas led the Colts to a victory over the defending champion Browns in Cleveland. Kerkorian simply watched from the sidelines, as the Colts had found their quarterback.

On December 9, 1956, Week 10 of the NFL season, the Colts lost 31-7 to the Rams at the Los Angeles Coliseum on a rare rainy day. Ram quarterback Billy Wade ran for 2-yard touchdown to give the Rams a lead they never gave back.  A second quarter touchdown pass from Unitas to Jim Mutscheller was the Colts’ only score of the day. The touchdown was meaningless at the time, but it was the touchdown pass that started the streak. Unitas threw for touchdowns in the last two regular season games and finished 1956 with a three-game touchdown streak.

Forty-seven regular season games later the streak came to an end on December 11, 1960, in the same place it started, Los Angeles. The Colts lost 10-3 to the Rams, the only touchdown being another Billy Wade scoring run, thus ending the incredible run of games in which Unitas threw at least one touchdown pass.

Unitas’s statistics during the streak were almost unthinkable, as he threw for 102 touchdowns in 47 consecutive regular season games, attempting 1,298 passes with 10,645 yards worth of completions, two MVP awards, and two world championships.  The most dominant period any quarterback has ever had.

As is the case with all modern sports rules change, though probably none more drastic than those in the NFL. In trying to promote scoring the NFL has made several rule changes since Unitas set his record.

In 1972, the hash marks were moved more to the center of the field to give offenses more room to operate. A play clock was initiated to make sure there were more plays per game. Before 1978, a defender could hit a receiver up to the time the ball was thrown. In 1978 the NFL changed the rule so that there is no contact between a defender and receiver after 5 yards. This is the most dramatic rule change the NFL ever made. It made passing the ball easier, hence more scoring, more yards, more broken records.

Brees Streak 2009-Present

After the 2005 season the San Diego Chargers allowed promising – but oft-injured – quarterback Drew Brees to sign as a free agent with New Orleans Saints. San Diego made no effort to keep him.

Brees joined new head coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and together they led the Saints to an NFC championship game appearance, which they lost to the Bears.

Although they missed the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, the Saints had become an offensive powerhouse with Brees becoming an elite quarterback throwing 62 touchdown passes in 32 games over that period.

In 2009, the Saints finished with the best record in the NFC, and would go on to win the conference championship and Super Bowl XLIV over the Colts.

During 2009 Brees would start a streak that would eventually challenge, tie Unitas’ seemingly unapproachable record.

Brees’s assault upon the iconic “47″ is not shocking. He is tremendous football player. What is shocking is that so many talented quarterbacks, such as Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Warren Moon, Dan Fouts, and Peyton Manning who came before have not been able to reach Unitas. Favre came closest, having thrown for at least one score in 36 straight games.

What Brees has been able to accomplish is remarkable. All of the aforementioned great quarterbacks have played with mostly the same rules as Brees, none has even knocked on 47′s door and that says a lot about the talent and commitment of Drew Brees.

Brees started his assault on the record October 18, 2008 in a 48-27 win over the Giants, and threw for three touchdowns last Sunday against the Packers in a 28-27 loss, his 47th consecutive regular season game with at least one touchdown pass.

Brees should break the record against an average San Diego pass defense Sunday night.

His statistics during his 47 game streak are:

  • 105 touchdown passes, compared to Unitas’ 102;
  • 1,725 attempts to Unitas’ 1,298 – Brees has attempted about nine more passes a game than John Unitas did during his streak;
  • 13,471 yards, compared to 10,645 yards by Unitas – Brees threw for about 60 yards more a game.

The attempts and yardage difference are a result of the way the game is played today. The game has evolved, it has moved forward.

The  falling of the 47-game record – arguably the most steadfast of the old NFL records and by no stretch a breeze – is essentially the collateral damage resulting from the collision of favorable passing rules and a remarkable player in Drew Brees.

And that’s not meant as a slight on Brees. He didn’t choose to be born in this modern day era.

But he did choose to give his all to the game,  perfect his craft and even overcome some physical limitations in the pursuit of excellence both on and off the field. In the end records are meant to be broken and there’s no one better to accept the passing of the torch from Johnny U than Austin, Texas native Andrew Christopher Brees.

Just ask his son Joe!

One Rave about “The “passing” of the torch

  1. ravcolt on said:

    Another great piece of research and insight Kurt. Interestingly, over the 47-game span you brilliantly dissect, Unitas’ numbers are superior by two relevant measures: yards per attempt, and TD’s per attempt. Unitas’ were 8.2 yds/attempt and .0786 TD/attempt (1 TD every 12.7 attempts), and Brees was 7.8 yds/attempt and .0608 TD/attempt (1TD every 16.4 attempts). Unitas remains the measure for all quarterbacks.

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