This is the Era of Optimum Conditions for NFL quarterbacks. If there was ever a time and place to be a QB, it’s right here, right now. For one thing, the rules have never been more favorable to the passing game. For another, the receivers all wear gloves — tacky gloves. And if you happen to play for a dome team, well, who loves ya, baby?
I mention this because pro football figures to bid adieu Sunday to another piece of its past. Barring a broken arm, a 400-yard rushing effort by Mark Ingram or a monstrous performance by the San Diego defense, Drew Brees will throw a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game, breaking a record that has been held by Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Colts legend, for 52 years.
Fifty-two years is a long time for any record to last, much less a passing record. Peyton Manning, you may recall, set a record in 2004 with 49 TD passes in a season. Three years later, Tom Brady tossed 50. So it goes in the Era of Optimum Conditions. (Motto: Enjoy it while you can.)
Let me just say at the outset that Brees has done first-ballot, Hall of Fame work with the New Orleans Saints. None of what follows is meant to disparage his current streak or his pursuit of Unitas’ mark. But somebody has to speak for the dead, and who better than me, the near-dead?
It’s a shame what happens, as the decades go by, to old-timers like Johnny U. Consider: In his 18 NFL seasons, he threw for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns, both records when he retired in 1973. But nowadays, with longer schedules, better medicine (leading to longer careers) and a greater emphasis on the pass, numbers like that are much more reachable. Why, Brett Favre threw for more yards after his 30th birthday (44,110) than Unitas did in his 18 years.
Time is cruel. And what makes it even wickeder is the league’s approach to record-keeping, which gives Modernity a huge leg up on Yesteryear. To the NFL’s thinking, you see, a season is a season, be it 12 games (as it was for the first five years of Unitas’ career) or 16. This, of course, is crazy.
Let me give you a for-instance: In 1959, in the midst of his streak (which stretched from 1956 to ‘60), Unitas threw 32 touchdown passes in 12 games, topping the old mark of 28 by the Chicago Bears’ Sid Luckman in the 1943 war season. In ‘61, Sonny Jurgensen, then with the Philadelphia Eagles, “tied” with Johnny’s record, even though he played two more games. And in ‘62 (33) and ‘63 (36), the New York Giants’ Y.A. Tittle “broke” it, even though 32 TD passes in 12 games is the equivalent of 37 in 14 games (37.3 to be exact).
Unitas’ record wasn’t really broken until 1984, when Miami’s Dan Marino threw for 48 scores in 16 games (which translates to 36 in 12). What’s funny, though, is that after 12 games that season, Marino had 32 touchdown passes.
Some other points I could make about Unitas’ 47-game streak:
It began in his rookie season. Brees’ began in his ninth, when he was very much in his prime.
While Johnny U. was setting the record, he also was winning two NFL titles (1958 and ‘59). Brees has won one (2009).
Few today appreciate how competitive the league was in the 1950s. Remember: There were only 12 teams for most of the decade. That means that, every Sunday, Unitas went up against — hypothetically — two of the top 24 cornerbacks in football. For Brees, it’s two of the top 64. Think that makes a difference? (Or to put it another way, there were 48 active Hall of Famers in 1959, an average of four a club. There certainly aren’t an average of four a club running around this season.)
None of Unitas’ games was played indoors. Brees, on the other hand, will enjoy the climate-controlled benefits of a dome this weekend for the 32nd time in 48 games. In the ‘50s, quarterbacks routinely had to deal with the wind, the cold, even the sun. (The latter was especially an issue in San Francisco. Johnny’s favorite target, Raymond Berry, would walk the field at Kezar Stadium the afternoon before the game, just to get a sense of where the sun might be at a particular time. Berry also might have been the first NFL receiver to wear sunglasses.)
Finally, allow me to remind you that DBs in Unitas’ day could virtually mug receivers as they ran their routes. The bump-and-run, it was called. (It since has been legislated out of existence, but back then you could jostle potential pass catchers anywhere on the field as long as the ball wasn’t in the air.) Bottom line: It was harder to get separation, harder to complete a pass.