They’re already calling this the year of the quarterback as NFL passers chase after some long-standing records. One of those records fell on Monday when, when Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints passed Dan Marino’s single-season mark of 5,084 passing yards, a record that stood for 27 years – Brees now has 5,087 yards, with one game left to play.
Now Brees is taking aim at an even older record, one many observers thought would never be broken – Johnny Unitas’ streak of 47 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass, a record that has stood for more than 50 years. Brees has now thrown at least one TD pass in 42 straight games and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue the streak.
But this is not an homage to Brees or any of the other great quarterbacks of this era, like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. It’s a reminder that Unitas is still the greatest quarterback of all time, no matter how many records other QBs set.
Brees and those other QBs are playing in a different era than the one in which Unitas played, and it’s an era in which it’s much, much easier to complete passes and break passing records.
Generally speaking, you can’t compare eras when it comes to sports. Everyone knows that today’s athletes are bigger and stronger and faster than their counterparts in the 1950s and 1960s, but advances in diet and conditioning and weight training have a lot to do with that, not to mention the fact that athletes can train all year round now. It used to be that pro football players had to unload beer trucks or something in the offseason to make ends meet. Now pro football players own the distillery.
Plus there’s something else that’s changed, and it’s the main reason those impressive passing records set by Manning and Brees and Rodgers deserve an asterisk – rules changes. Every year, the NFL changes its rules and almost always it’s to enhance the passing game. And those rules changes have made it possible for today’s quarterbacks to rewrite the record books.
Just about all of today’s passing records – with the notable exception of the consecutive-game-touchdown-streak record – are owned by quarterbacks who played in the last 20 years and there are a number of current-day quarterbacks who will own them eventually, including, of course, Brees.
But all of those quarterbacks played or are playing in the hands-off era of football, where you can’t touch the receivers or even breathe on the quarterback. Plus offensive linemen can extend their arms to pass protect, which was forbidden in the past.
When he retired in 1973 – just as the liberal rules changes were starting to be made – Unitas owned just about every passing record in the book. Records, of course, are made to be broken, but those changes made the records a lot easier to break.
That was true when Marino and Joe Montana played and it’s even truer today, when quarterbacks like Brees and Brady and Rodgers dominate the game. They’re undoubtedly great players who would have excelled in any era and one day they’ll join Unitas in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But this is not about what they would have done in Unitas’ era as much as it’s about what Unitas would be doing in their era. Imagine if Johnny U. played today with all of the rules that protect the quarterback and his receivers. Imagine what Unitas would have accomplished if he couldn’t be touched and his receivers — great players like Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore and John Mackey — could run free and unmolested downfield like today’s receivers.
Back in his day, defensive backs could mug receivers all the way down the field as long as the ball wasn’t in the air. Now, you can’t even touch them after five yards. And quarterbacks were fair game in the 1950s and 1960s. To get called for roughing the passer you would have had to hit him in the face with a set of brass knuckles and even then it was 50-50 whether the defensive player would be flagged.
That’s what makes his accomplishments and records even more amazing. And that’s why Johnny Unitas is the greatest quarterback to ever play the game even if he doesn’t have the passing records to prove it.