To Lenny Moore, there’s no real disappointment that the NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass held by teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas is likely to be broken by the Saints’ Drew Brees on Sunday.
To the contrary, the fact that it’s taken 52 years for someone to do so just goes to show how monumental Unitas’ 47-game streak is, as well as what kind of quarterback he was.
“You really can’t compare the two eras,” Moore, who played flanker and running back with Unitas for the Baltimore Colts from 1957-67. “Teams didn’t throw nearly as much as they do now, offensive linemen couldn’t use their hands to protect the quarterback, and guys like ‘Night Train’ Lane would beat you to a pulp when you were trying to get open.
“Guys weren’t as big and strong and fast as they are now, either. The whole strategic setup of the game is different.”
Unitas’ streak began late in his rookie season of 1956 after he’d taken over for injured starter George Shaw.
It stretched through the Colts’ championship seasons on 1958 and 1959, and although playoff game are not included in the streak, Unitas had one touchdown pass in the legendary “Greatest Game Ever Played” overtime victory against the New York Giants in ’58, and three when the Colts beat the Giants again the following year.
The streak ended 11 games into the 1960 season in a 10-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
“I don’t think anybody paid much attention when it ended,” said Moore, now 78 and still living in Baltimore. “John’s main thing was just getting the job done, and he was probably a lot more upset that we lost that day than any streak being broken.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Unitas’ record is that until Brees came along, it had never been challenged by any of the great quarterbacks who have played the game since.
Brett Favre’s 36-game streak from 2002-04 is a distant third.
The other remarkable thing about Unitas’ record standing so long is that it was accomplished in an era when the modern passing game was just developing. Unitas is given credit for being the prototype for today’s quarterbacks.
Over the course of the streak, Unitas attempted 1,298 passes, 597 less than Brees, with 605 fewer completions and 4,060 fewer yards, although Unitas’ 102 touchdowns compares favorably to Brees’ 114.
Certainly Brees has more targets available. In the Colts’ 1958 championship season, Unitas’ touchdown passes went to only four players: Moore, wide receiver Raymond Berry, tight end Jim Mutscheller and fullback Alan Ameche.
“You watch guys like Johnny U and the way he threw the ball during that era was pretty unbelievable,” Brees said. “He revolutionized the quarterback position and the game.”
Part of that revolution was because of the ground-breaking attention-to-detail film study by Berry.
Berry, yet another Hall of Famer from the Colts, would all but give the coaches the offensive game plans because of his meticulous note taking, and then work with Unitas after practice perfecting routes.
It’s no surprise that Berry, also a Hall of Famer, was the recipient of 39 of Unitas’ 102 touchdown passes during that streak. Moore is second with 28.
Under Don Shula, his second coach, Unitas often bristled at plays called.
“Don would send in something he wanted, and if John didn’t think it would work, he wouldn’t call it,” Moore said. “They had their differences.”
Unitas even schooled the immortal Vince Lombardi on the passing game.
Once, Moore recalled, at the Pro Bowl, Lombardi told Unitas how he liked lining up the tight end close to the tackle.
Unitas pointed out that spacing the tight end 5 yards further out opened up more opportunities because it gave the linebackers more to deal with.
Lombardi agreed to the switch.
“I never saw another quarterback in the Pro Bowl do something like that,” Moore said. “But that’s how much John wanted to win.”
That’s why, Moore added, Unitas would not mind being surpassed by Brees.
“Johnny wouldn’t feel a thing about this because he was never about records,” Moore said. “But as a quarterback, that Johnny U was something else.
“In my mind, he’s the best ever.”