Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Not The Greatest Quarterback of All-Time, Part Five: Johnny Unitas

My favorite Johnny Unitas memory? It would have to be his marvelous work as the suffering football announcer who can’t get a word in edgewise thanks to the incessant chatter from his broadcast partner Bob Crane. In the end Crane finally got his (bludgeoned to death with a videocam tripod), and Johnny U triumphantly got to call the winning score without interference from his no-longer annoying boothmate. I speak of course of the movie Gus, a typical Disney slapstick effort of the 1970’s, this one a touching saga about a mule who kicks field goals with the support of a generous helping of beloved classic TV sitcom stars who worked cheap: Crane, Don Knotts, Tim Conway, Ed Asner, Dick Van Patten, and Tom Bosley. As I said, a typical Disney movie of its time, stupid, silly and shoddy (special effects-wise). And I loved it! And yes, only in real life did Crane meet the gruesome fate described above. I think in the movie, his last, the poor sex-addicted bastard was stricken with sudden laryngitis as the crucial football sequence played out (in slow motion naturally).

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:

YearCompAttComp %YardsTDIntRating

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:

YearCompAttComp %YardsTDIntRating

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:

CompAttComp %YardsTDIntRating

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:

Baltimore 42-11-3
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

Tom Brady
Brett Favre
John Elway
Dan Marino
Johnny Unitas
Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham
Joe Montana
Bart Starr


Mike said...

I love how both football AND "Star Trek" made it into that post. Pal, you're a genius. (and a true geek)

Bulldog Mitchell said...

Totally Agree...saw your article as I was researching writing mine most recently in light of the Mannic Depresent, being Peyton.

Top Ten QB’s ...remember the goal is to win Championships…NOT RECORDS or have the highest stats and all that other secondary stuff…to me that is a different category. My perspective is that they did this w/o the necessary aid of a dominate running game (e.g. John Elway needed Terrell Davis to win.)

While some of these QB’s may have had great backs it was them who won it!) and no a one time SB wonder doesn’t make you the best ever…just that year…however I will give honorable mention to Phil Simms because he put Hostetler in position to win where he should have had 2.

I have also kept into account the strength of competition they faced.

1. Joe Montana 4 -simply the best and won it w/o Roger Craig…bet you can’t name the other backs, only the WR’s he made great

2. Terry Bradshaw 4 -It was his passing that won those games not all Franco’s running…ohh the Swann and Stallworth catches and the comebacks in the big game make him #2

3. Bart Starr 5 -Highest passing percentage in post season EVER! Johnny who in that era? And he did it with 3 different backs- Jim Taylor, Carroll Dale and Paul Hornung.

4. Troy Aikman 3- yes had the line and Smith but it was his pinpoint passes to Irvin and Harper and clutch 1st downs to Novacek that made difference

5. Tom Brady 3- perhaps lucky to get their 2x with the uncalled fumble and penaltys. Used his RB’s in uncanny ways in order to win…below Aikman because he needed his Kicker to win in all those games

6. Sammy Baugh 2- was the RB…and kicker…and punter…and the team…in fact he epitomized the forward pass at that time

7. Roger Staubach 2- only the Steelers and perhaps Jackie Smith prevented him from getting more

8. Bob Griese 2-without big stars he did the job when the games counted as teams keyed on Csonka

9. Otto Graham 4-simply a legend of the 50’s

10. Jim Plunkett 2-hard to put him over Stabler, but he won 2 and the snake only 1

The only bigger Chockers than Marino, Kelly, Tarkenton or even Fouts is…yes, Peyton Manning…It pains me to say it as an avid loyal Colts fan for over 30 years but he is the M.U.E. (Most Underachieved Ever). Call it a Colts curse…I’m going to give Johnny Unitas #11...yes he technically won 3, well 2 because the last one was 6-6 and we have to give Morall that win. His only good one was in ‘58 and that was only because Frank Gifford’s first down run spot was misplaced by an official which would have ended the game and the series of Raymond Berry throws that followed…he won in ‘59 against a lesser Giants team…but in the 1960’s he did squat…underachieved…he had a 7x pro bowler in Lenny Moore and couldn’t get it done…was also hurt and eventually replaced…if Baltimore fans want to say that was the reason, ironically theres a guy in Green Bay that would say, “Cry me a river”. In fact he lost the ‘64 championship without scoring a point and not completing a pass in the second half (Tony Eason numbers and he wasn’t playing the ‘85 Bears). Eventually in SB X he played a Dallas team that he should have shredded like cheese, but his only TD was a lucky deflection and the thing is he did have a running game. No one is saying he is not one of the greatest regular season QB’s ever, he like Manning, he just should have won more, like the others did…you either do or you don’t…bottom line…is it fair to them to list them underneath just because they didn’t have great 4th quarter comebacks.
I always knew this and I finally found a great source and summation of Johnny U, so check it out for yourself and see what kind of post season dismalness he had. People like to blow their heroes out of proportion. With all the criticism that Favre and McNabb come under now, in 20 years they will have staues of them in their respected cities and people will talk about them as they were semi-gods in this era.

As for the “Coward”…that’s how Terry Bradshaw defined Elway because he didn’t go to the team that drafted him and TB has the clout to say it. Elway would have did nothing without Terrell Davis, who may have been one of the top 5 RB’s of all time if it wasn’t for his devastating knee injury. It cracks me up how the media sensationalizes his one lone run in that SB vs. the Packers while TD fought through a severe migrane headache to carry him as he struggled. Also, let it be a reminder that he beat a Atlanta team that should’ve have been there the following year. Elway with his great arm is more of a best loser at 2-3. And who cares about some drive by a happless Cleveland team that never got anywhere outside the regular season, that played a zone prevent defense without a blitz. I don’t mind giving someone credit but lets keep it real and in perspective.

Anonymous said...

Just a little correction: Unitas had an elbow injury, not a hand injury in 1968. In fact, he was already having a lot of elbow pain before that season. I wonder if his poor late season performances in 1967(3 TD's and 8 INT's in the last five games)were the beginning signs of his loss of arm strength.

Anonymous said...

What game did he score 3 td's after the final 2 min warning to win? It was in 1964-5-or 6.