We here at the Office for the Preservation of Legends feel compelled to speak up occasionally in defense of a legend when we feel he is unfairly diminished, usually by extenuating circumstances that demand clarification.
You know that asterisk they put by Roger Maris's single-season home run record because he played in more games than Babe Ruth? That was us.
Now we present the case of Johnny Unitas. On Sunday, Drew Brees, the superb quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, won national acclaim when he broke an almost unbreakable record held by Unitas.
Johnny U. threw at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games from 1957 to 1960, a record so good that many thought it would never be broken. But then the game changed dramatically, didn't it?
The record endured 52 years — more than a half century — until Sunday when Brees broke the record by one game (and counting).
As good as Brees' feat is, it's not as good as what Unitas accomplished.
For the record, Unitas played in an era when the forward pass — that's what it was called in football antiquity — was considered a necessary evil (they used to have this thing called a running game — ask your dad about it). The philosophy of the era was expressed by a famous quote that is credited to a handful of legendary coaches — There are only three things that can happen with a pass, and two of them are bad.
All of that has changed in the last decade, thanks in large part to manipulation of the game by the rules committee to favor quarterbacks and receivers — no touching the receiver after five yards, various hands-off-the-quarterback edicts, and ridiculously rigorous pass interference rules that don't give the defender a fair chance (sort of like the NBA). In Unitas's era, receivers were jostled and pummeled as they ran routes, and quarterbacks were treated like all the other players on the field.
Then coaches, offenses, passing schemes and quarterbacks became much more sophisticated, with the creation of the West Coast offense, five-receiver sets, the no-huddle offense, spread offense, etc. Voila, the NFL has become a flag football league. Of the top 10 seasons in average passing yards per game, six of them have occurred in the last decade, including a record 459.4 yards per.
Unitas attempted an average of 24.5 passes per game during his career; Brees 35.9. Brees has averaged 40 attempts per game in three different seasons and barely missed a fourth. Through five games this season, he is averaging 47 per game. In 17 seasons, Unitas never threw that many passes in a single game and in only six games did he ever throw 40 or more passes.
Brees has thrown more passes in 11-plus seasons than Unitas threw in 17 seasons, 5,670-5,186. The most passes Unitas ever threw in one season was 436; Brees has surpassed that mark eight times (each consisting of more than 500 attempts) and barely missed a ninth.
In 1960, when his streak finally ended, Unitas averaged a whopping 31.5 passes per game (exorbitant for the time). Bart Starr took the Green Bay Packers to the championship game by throwing for four TDs in 12 games while completing 98 passes — two games' worth for Brees.
As Sports Illustrated's Peter King noted, by way of illustrating the difference in the two quarterbacks' eras, Unitas's stat lines during the streak tell the story. He completed 2-of-9 passes against Pittsburgh in 1957, one of them a 5-yard TD pass. Against Green Bay the following year he completed just five passes, but two for touchdowns.
The difference between Unitas and Brees — aside from passing attempts — is that Unitas averaged more yards per attempt (7.8-7.3) and more TDs per attempt rating (17.9-19.3).
Comparing Unitas's marks to Brees marks — two men from entirely different games and eras — is like comparing astronauts to the Wright brothers.
Put an asterisk by that.