Watch CBS News

Silverman: Unitas' Record Is Certain To Fall, But His Legacy Will Remain Intact

By Steve Silverman
» More Columns

One of the NFL's greatest records seems destined to be erased from the record books this Sunday.

When the Saints host the Chargers on Sunday night, Drew Brees will take the field for the home team having thrown at least one touchdown pass in 47 straight games.

If he can find the end zone one time against the resurgent Chargers, Brees will own the record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass. His name will be in the record book alone.

Right now, he is tied with Johnny Unitas.

For football fans of a certain age, Unitas was the greatest quarterback of his era when he starred for the late, lamented Baltimore Colts. Bart Starr of the Green Bay Packers may have been his equal in terms of leadership, but Unitas was clearly the best passer in the NFL from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s.

The game has changed so much that you can't compare quarterbacks from different eras fairly. Throughout much of Unitas' career, he played regular seasons that consisted of 12 games. Later, the number of games were increased to 14 games. The NFL went to the 16-games season in 1978.

In addition to the number of games, the game is played is a dramatically different manner. Many teams don't rely on their running game any longer. The time to run the ball is when a team has built a double-digit lead and the game has reached the fourth quarter.

But in the time Unitas played, the running game was the favored way of moving the ball. You attacked with the run for four quarters. When a defense was "softened up" by the pounding, a good quarterback would take advantage of it and throw over the top of the defense and make big plays.

Call it the meat era of pro football. Unitas was one of the first quarterbacks who tried to take pro football to the next level.

He had no pedigree. He was a ninth-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955 and was promptly cut by his hometown team. He was picked up the following year as a free-agent by the Baltimore Colts, and head coach Weeb Ewbank quickly realized that Unitas had remarkable skills.

The Colts were quickly his team, and they were a championship team two years later. They would earn that championship by beating the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL title game. That game is widely considered by most pro football historians to be the greatest game ever played.

It has that title for many reasons, and one of them is that Unitas was such a devastating and accurate passer. His performance opened many eyes to what could be accomplished by throwing the football.

It was also the first overtime game in pro football history.

It also sparked the passion of American Football League founder Lamar Hunt, who had been frustrated in his desire to own an NFL franchise. After watching that game, Hunt decided to start his own league.

Unitas became the icon for many young western Pennsylvania football players who wanted to become quarterbacks. One of those who idolized Unitas was Joe Namath, who would later go on to a fairly notable career with the New York Jets. The Jets, with Namath at quarterback and Ewbank coaching, beat Unitas' Colts in Super Bowl III in 1969.

That championship contest also has its supporters as the greatest game ever played.

So Brees, a stellar quarterback in today's game, has a chance to supplant Unitas in pro football's record book.

But Brees would probably be among the first to tell you that he will never erase Unitas' legacy.

It was Unitas who demonstrated how explosive the passing game could be, and he changed pro football forever.

Is Johnny Unitas still the greatest quarterback to ever play the game? If not, who is? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below...

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.