When Drew Brees surpasses Johnny Unitas’ consecutive touchdown record in two weeks, his accomplishment will be met with a little celebration, a lot of confusion, some ambivalence, a dash of indifference and a surprising amount of derision.
One of the most admirable figures in the sports world will reach a milestone once thought unattainable, but as many people will shrug or scoff as celebrate. The line to downplay or denigrate Brees’ achievement will be at least as long as the line to pat him on the back.
Brees is certain to receive backhanded blessings for throwing a touchdown pass in his 48th consecutive game -- besting Unitas’ 47-game streak that extended from 1956-60 -- because he went down the same road just 10 months ago. Brees blew past Dan Marino’s record for single-season passing yards last year, and some experts acted like he burned down an orphanage. Brees had it easy, not like the legends of yesteryear. His new record wasn’t so much tarnished as dismissed, a non-event, the residue of modern passing promiscuity. No one puts asterisks in record books anymore, and why should we, when it is so much easier to brush off the whole concept of breaking a record as irrelevant, or even counterproductive, to the all-important task of winning?
This is the way NFL records fall -- not with a celebratory bang but muttered whimpers of contrarian reasoning and misplaced nostalgia.
Reluctant Record Breaker
I wrote several articles defending Brees last season, though I never quite understood why he needed defending. I also participated in a television debate with another football writer during the height of the Brees-Marino “controversy” in December, though what controversy we were debating was highly debatable.
Brees smashed Marino’s record, fair and square. The Saints got pass-happy at the end of one meaningless game in an attempt to hasten the record’s fall, but that only sparked outrage among people determined to get a good outrage sparking. Brees is no Barry Bonds -- he is about as opposite Barry Bonds as two professional athletes can be -- so cries of poor sportsmanship or foul play were never going to stick. There was never any drama or negativity surrounding Brees, just a vague uneasiness about the march of progress, mixed with football culture’s knee-jerk rejection of statistics themselves. But those anxieties were enough to create a backlash that made breaking Marino’s record look less like an achievement than an affront.
The hardline, traditionalist stance among many columnists and sports-talk personalities can be exaggerated (slightly) as follows: Quarterbacks have it easy these days, with their helmet radios and screen passes and penalties that prevent linebackers from throwing them facemask-first down a flight of stairs. Marino threw for 5,084 yards uphill in the snow in 1984, an era of leather helmets and horse-drawn carriages. Under modern conditions, passing for 5,000 yards is easy; after all, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford also did so in 2011. Marino is a folk hero of a mythic era; Brees is just a good quarterback in a favorable set of circumstances.
None of these talking points were arguments so much as grievances aired for the public record. Boiled down to their essence, they were all variations on two of football’s most notorious canards: Players aren’t as good (tough, manly) as they used to be, and stats are for losers. Both of these old saws cut through everything in their paths; Brees has a habit of getting in front of the blades. If people got misty-eyed for the Marino days of wine coolers and parachute pants, imagine what emotions Unitas’ Eisenhower-era feats will inspire. How dare we compare a pint-sized dink-and-dunker like Brees to a man whose every 50-yard, black-and-white newsreel bomb to Raymond Berry crackles with the grainy energy of a nation humming with post-war optimism and industriousness? How dare we?
When defending Brees on television, I sputtered as if futilely explaining to my mother why ATMs are truly better than drive-up teller windows. I stumbled through a few facts. Offensive levels increased from Marino’s era to the present, but only by a few percentage points. Marino had Dan Fouts and Neil Lomax (?!) hot on his statistical heels when he set the record, just as Brady and Stafford chased Brees, and traditionalists railed against elevated offensive levels in 1984 louder (and with more valid evidence) than they did in 2011.
I never quite managed to articulate the Grand Unification Theory of Records, Streaks and Circumstantial Nitpicking: Records are set by extraordinary players under extraordinary circumstances. That is how Brees sets them. That is how Marino set them. That is how Unitas set them.
The Milestone Man
Unitas’ consecutive touchdown streak is nothing like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941. It is more like if DiMaggio had invented the smart phone in 1941.
When Unitas led the NFL with 32 passing touchdowns in 1959, Bobby Layne finished second with only 20. In 1957, when Unitas led the league with 24 passing touchdowns, the Chicago Bears threw for just seven touchdowns the whole year. The Bears were not an anomaly with an awful passing game; the Browns threw just 12 touchdowns in 1957, and they went 9-2-1 and played in the NFL Championship Game with a little help from Jim Brown. Most teams just didn’t throw the ball very much back then.
In an era when Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle would soon chase Babe Ruth, Unitas was Babe Ruth. Pro football of the previous generation had been a plodding trench war, and the early NFL was not very fussy about keeping statistics. What numbers had accumulated through the 1930s and 1940s were easy to surpass in Unitas’ era of predictable schedules, offensive-and-defensive platoons and no world wars. A passing superstar of the 1940s like Sid Luckman might throw for 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns in a signature season, milestones within easy reach of Unitas and his contemporaries.
Unitas and the Colts were a step ahead of the other 1950s offenses. They were innovative and daring. Coach Weeb Ewbank built the most pass-oriented offense of his era around the strengths of Unitas and weapons like Berry, Lenny Moore, Alan Ameche and Jim Mutscheller. Unitas set his consecutive touchdown record in a five-year peak during which he led the NFL in most passing categories every year, routinely set new single-season passing records won two championships and kept the Colts in contention for several others.
Of course, all of those things can be said about Brees: ahead-of-the-curve strategies, skill-position riches, a place at the vanguard of a new offensive era, numerous records, a championship. This is how the NFL evolves, how records are broken, how all-time greats become all-time greats.
Stats are for Winners
Unitas’ statistical dominance, and the pass-heavy offense he led, is not often talked about, because a) most football historians don’t like statistics and b) Unitas’ statistics do not look dominant or pass-heavy to modern eyes.
These two phenomena go hand in hand. When the NFL expanded its season to 16 games and rewrote the rulebook to liberate the passing game in 1978, the entire record book immediately fell under siege. At a time when baseball was dipping a toe into sabermetric waters and embryonic rotisserie-fantasy sports games were introducing fans to the fun side of statistics, pro football traditionalists watched in horror as Unitas’ generation got pushed down the all-time leaderboards by “ordinary” quarterbacks with extraordinary numbers.
One of those new-era quarterbacks was Dan Marino, who would later become the traditionalist’s favorite.
Football always had a built-in skepticism about statistics -- this is the sport of bloody knuckles and broken teeth, of manhood, not bookkeeping -- and a proliferation of 32-touchdown seasons by the likes of Lynn Dickey made the dismissal of statistics into a mainstream philosophy. Football historians became a kind of Village Gridiron Preservation Society, extolling the virtues of Slingin’ Sammy and the Flying Dutchman by scoffing, sometimes explicitly, at the milestones set by modern players. The repercussions of this backlash from two or three decades ago can still be felt every time Cris Carter’s name comes up in a Hall of Fame vote: Don’t bother us with overwhelming statistical evidence, we are after something purer.
Because of statistical inflation, it was easy to rewrite the narrative of a player like Unitas: He did not win because of his statistics, but despite them. His numbers look so ordinary now that we don’t perceive him as a numbers guy. One reason NFL fans don’t cherish historic milestones is because there are almost no historic milestones for them to cherish. In the past five years, Brees, Brady and Peyton Manning have annexed every significant single-season record like Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin carving up Europe at Yalta. Brett Favre holds all the all-time records. Unitas’ consecutive-touchdown streak miraculously survived Favre and Manning, but it could not last forever, and losing this last vestige of statistical excellence works in Unitas’ favor. He is now an eternal champion, rugged and indomitable, who was great in a way that can never be equaled by today’s stat-compiling whippersnappers.
Such is the nature of football discourse. Baseball fans can talk freely of Triple Crowns and MVP awards -- Joe Posnanski has been doing so daily here at Sports on Earth -- but the “stats don’t matter” attitude clouds football reasoning. When great players like Brees achieve the earmarks of greatness, they are almost expected to apologize for them.
Tomorrow’s Legends Break Yesterday’s Records Toda… in Two Weeks
And now, with the Saints reeling from the Bounty scandal and playing poorly, there is a risk that they will be 0-4 when Brees breaks the record. Brees will become football’s greatest anathema: a guy shooting for a record, not a winner winning with extra winner sauce. Brees’ Super Bowl ring and sterling reputation will deflect much of the criticism, but if the record-breaking touchdown comes in the final moments of a 24-10 loss, the asterisk gang will howl about a “hollow” accomplishment. Unitas’ streak ended in the middle of a four-game losing skid that ended a forgettable 6-6 Colts season, but that doesn’t matter, because men were men back then. This is now, and if a record is set amid the wreckage of a lost season, we will not be too polite to dwell on it.
We should, of course, cherish the memories of Unitas and other legends. But we cannot do so at the expense of the present. Drew Brees is an all-time great at his prime. We must appreciate him while we have him. Every time we lapse into nostalgia, it’s a backhanded insult to a legacy that is still growing.
Brees did not push Marino away, and he is not pushing Unitas away. He is nudging them aside so he can take his rightful place next to them. Let’s welcome him instead of begrudging him. These are tomorrow’s good old days. Let’s celebrate them today.