I bring up this cinematic classic as my way of conveying that, unlike the previous quarterbacks discussed in this series, I have no memories of seeing Unitas play. To decide whether or not he was the greatest QB ever I must rely solely on his on-field accomplishments and what I’ve read about the man. And based on those things the man was one hell of a quarterback. One-time owner of every major passing record, three-time NFL champion, six-time All-Pro, four seasons with an MVP award, selected as the QB for the NFL’s 50-year anniversary team, one of four QB’s on the 75th anniversary team, etc., etc., etc. When he died in 2002, Sports Illustrated proclaimed him, “The Best There Ever Was”.
But they were wrong.
Unitas made his legend early. In just his second full season as a starter he earned All-Pro votes and led the league in just about every major passing stat. The next year he led his team to its first title, an overtime win versus the Giants in the so-called “Greatest Game Ever Played”. The year after that, the Colts won a second-straight title with Unitas as the league’s MVP. After four seasons as a starting QB, Unitas was the most famous player in the game. As you can see he played brilliantly in his first two postseason triumphs:
It never got any better than that. In his excellent book Big Play, Allen Barra writes: “I’ve never heard anyone mention one, simple, obvious, and very important fact: After 1960 Johnny Unitas never played a single good postseason game”. He’s right. See for yourself:
Now his team didn’t do all that badly despite his poor performances. The Colts went 3-2 in those games if you don’t include Super Bowls III and V where Unitas played only parts of those games; 4-3 if you count them. I don’t know how much credit Unitas deserves for the 1970 championship. He played horribly that year:
His postseason stats that year are crazy. He was incredibly inaccurate but connected on enough deep passes to post a good QB rating for at least the first game. In Super Bowl V he was totally ineffective, completing only 3 passes, before getting knocked out of the game partway through the 2nd quarter. Yet his last pass of the game, an overthrown twice-deflected ball, wound up in the hands of John Mackey for a 75-yard TD that tied the game 6-6. Earl Morrall took over and guided the Colts to a last-second 16-13 victory (mainly thanks to Dallas turnovers). So can we say Unitas won a third championship? Or was he along for the ride? I don’t know.
What I do know is that Mr. Barra may have been slightly unfair to Unitas. While he clearly played badly in the postseason after his first two triumphs, those subsequent games were not exactly Johnny U in his prime. Not only did Unitas never play a single good postseason game after 1960, he never had a good season after 1967. And with the exception of the 1964 title game loss, all of those bad performances came after 1967. The reason Morrall famously took over for Unitas in 1968 and started (and blew) Super Bowl III was because of the serious hand injury Unitas suffered in the 1968 preseason. Sadly, Unitas suffered for the rest of his life from that injury. Due to either age (he was 34 in 1967), the injury, or a combination of both, Unitas was never the same player after he came back. Considering only games in Unitas’ postseason prime leaves us with his great 1958-1959 games and his awful 1964 one, where Unitas’ heavily favored Colts got blanked by the Cleveland Browns 27-0 (and it was 0-0 at the half so that one can’t be pinned on the defense).
Well, two out of three ain’t bad and we’re left with just those three games to go on. Or are we? Think about this. Before 1967, the NFL consisted of two conferences. The team with the best record in each conference was the conference champion and the two conference champions would play for the championship. No wild-cards, no playoff rounds. Just one game. So regular season were more important (especially in a 14-game season), and the most important regular season games would be the ones against the other best team(s) in the conference because those head-to-head matchups represented two-game swings in the standings. And from 1964 to 1967, the two best teams in the Western Conference (and in the league) were the Baltimore Colts and the Green Bay Packers. We now remember the Packers as the dominant team of that time period but look at the team’s combined records over those four seasons:
Green Bay 39-14-3
Baltimore was actually a little bit better! Yet Green Bay won three titles in that four-year span to Baltimore’s none and part of the reason was the head-to-head matchups. In 1964 it was the 12-2 Colts sweeping the Packers in two close games to help them win the conference by 3.5 games. The Colts led the league in offense and defense but Unitas and his team blew it in the title game, losing to the Browns 27-0. The next year, the Colts and Packers tied for the Western Conference title at 10-3-1 forcing a special playoff game won by Green Bay in OT. Unitas missed the game with an injury so that wasn’t his fault but had the Colts won just one of the two head-to-head regular season matchups with the Packers, no playoff would have been necessary. The Colts couldn't beat the Pack when it mattered in either 1965 or 1966, when the Pack again swept the Colts. Green Bay won the conference by 3 games over the runner-up Colts. If Baltimore had earned the sweep, then they would have gone on to play for the championship. In 1967, Unitas finally broke the losing streak to Green Bay by leading a last-second comeback. However, the NFL changed to a four-division format that year and the two teams now played in separate divisions and only met once. The new best team in the Colts’ division, and the team Unitas had to beat that year, was the Los Angeles Rams. In one of the most bizarre unforeseen outcomes in NFL history the Colts tied the Rams for the league’s best record that year yet missed the playoff entirely! You see, only the four division winners made the postseason. The Colts tied the Rams at 11-1-2, but lost the division on a tiebreaker. The Colts were undefeated until the final week, when the Rams crushed them in the showdown for the title and Unitas played badly that day. And had Baltmore been able to beat L.A. in their earlier-season matchup instead of settling for a tie, the final-week showdown with L.A. would have been meaningless (playoff-wise that is; Baltmore still blew an undefeated season). Unitas couldn't beat the Rams when he had to.
So let’s add up Unitas’ biggest games from 1964-1967. Totalling all the Packers games plus the two 1967 Rams games along with the 1964 Championship Game loss gives us a record of 3-6-1. I don’t have boxscores for all of those game but I believe Unitas had costly turnovers in just about every one.
I’m not trying to prove anything here. It goes without saying Unitas was one of the greatest players in NFL history. Many of the greatest football experts put him at the very top. Upon the occasion of Unitas’ death, Frank Deford wrote, “"If there were one game scheduled, Earth vs. the Klingons, with the fate of the universe on the line, any person with his wits about him would have Johnny U. calling the signals in the huddle."
But the overall record appears to show Unitas was below-average in the biggest games of his career and since we’re talking about who THE greatest quarterback of all-time is, I can’t put Unitas at the top. Allen Barra’s the first person I’ve ever seen note Unitas’ big-game failures so I’ll let his response to Deford’s words be the last words: “I'm afraid if there were one big game between Earth and the Klingons and Frank Deford was choosing the quarterback, we'd all be speaking Klingonese.”
Not The Greatest Quarterback Of All-Time: The Series
Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham