Drew Brees broke Johnny Unitas' record for consecutive games (48) with a touchdown Sunday night with a picture-perfect 40-yard touchdown pass to Devery Henderson in the first quarter. Brees threw three more touchdowns in a 31-24 victory. His performance was magnificent, but it was hard to overlook the circumstances. That was the first Saints win of the season, and the bounty scandal still haunts the team, with Sean Payton forced to watch the game from the old isolation chamber from "The $64,000 Question," lest he send some telepathic signals to his players.
It would have been nice for Brees to break the record with a game-winning touchdown to give the Saints home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, or at the end of a 35-31 shootout against Tom Brady. Then again, records are often broken under less-than-ideal circumstances. Here are some facts about how Johnny Unitas broke the previous consecutive touchdown record, which had been set by Cecil Isbell in 1942.
1. Johnny Unitas missed two games with bruised ribs just weeks before breaking Isbell's record in 1958. Those missed games gave birth to a second version of the consecutive touchdown streak -- one with no interruptions for injuries -- that Brett Favre set with 36 in 2004 and Brees broke last September.
The two missed weeks seem trivial now and were not dwelled upon much back then, but if there had been an ESPN2 back in 1958, talk show personalities would have ranted about a "tarnished" record and demanded respect for Isbell, who set the record under harder conditions than Unitas faced. (It was World War II, for heaven's sake!)
Astute observers have also noted that Unitas actually threw touchdowns in 49 consecutive games counting the playoffs, and that Brees broke that record (modern quarterbacks have the opportunity to play many more playoff games) in the season opener. Streak records can give you a headache when you worry about what does and doesn't count; it is best to pick some arbitrary set of rules, then defend them to the death as sacrosanct.
2. The Colts went 1-1 with Unitas hurt, and backup George Shaw (the first overall pick in the 1955 draft and the Colts starter before Unitas) played well enough in those two games that Weeb Eubank had to quell speculation about a quarterback controversy while Unitas recovered. That reminds us that Unitas was more of a hot up-and-comer than a Hall of Famer when he broke Isbell's record. It also shows that even in the Eisenhower era, people got carried away with their backup quarterback infatuations.
3. Unitas broke the record in a meaningless game against the Rams. The Colts had clinched the playoffs, and the Rams were out of it. Still, 100,202 fans showed up to watch the game at the L.A. Coliseum, a figure that makes Zygi Wilf, Dean Spanos and Shahid Khan beat each other senseless in the luggage department of Boscov's.
4. The Colts lost 30-28 in the record-breaking game, with Unitas throwing two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. Newspaper game reports gave Unitas' record the "by the way" treatment. People did not get too excited about the NFL record book back then. Most fans at the time may have been shocked to learn that the league even had a record book.
5. The following week, Unitas kept his streak alive by throwing a fourth-quarter touchdown with the Colts trailing 21-6. In other words, a meaningless touchdown in meaningless game. There has been scuttlebutt about some of the ways Brees kept his streak alive (a garbage-time touchdown in a loss to the Rams last year is the most notorious example), but Unitas has a little padding on his résumé, too.
Unitas went on to lead the Colts to the 1958 NFL Championship after breaking Isbell's record. You may have read a book about it; the Dewey Decimal System reserves the numbers 850-899 for the "Greatest Game Ever Played" genre. Unitas then became one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, and one of the most significant figures in pro football history. None of the facts listed above are meant to disparage Unitas or his legacy. He was incredible, and his streak was incredible.
The facts above simply remind us that Unitas was a flesh-and-blood quarterback who sometimes threw pick-6s, got hurt and had to deal with quarterback controversies. We don't do his memory any favors by turning him into an infallible bronze bust, because we don't really remember him by doing that. And it is hard to appreciate Brees' achievement without knowing the real story behind the cherished record he broke: Unitas, like Brees, battled ups and downs, good seasons and frustrating seasons, won a championship and came just short of others.
A phenomenal quarterback broke a phenomenal quarterback's record on Sunday night. Let's celebrate Unitas and Brees for both their accomplishments and their humanity.
Blame the Weather
Autumn weather arrived suddenly on the East Coast this weekend as a balmy, humid Saturday gave way to chilly rain on Sunday. Teams responded to the mildly drippy conditions as if they were playing on skating rinks covered in rice pudding during a monsoon. If you liked sloppy, low-scoring football, this was your kind of Sunday.
In the Meadowlands, Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw fumbled on the first play from scrimmage, setting the tone for a day of slippery-when-wet silliness. Browns return man Josh Cribbs later fumbled at the end of a long return for Cleveland, and Eli Manning threw an interception when a ball bounced out of Victor Cruz's hands and into Usama Young's. The Giants beat the Browns 41-27, but you could almost hear Tom Coughlin's blood pressure spiking whenever his team got careless with the ball, which was often in the first half.
There were many cases of Slippery Ball Syndrome in the Meadowlands that did not show up in the stat sheet. Late in the game, Brandon Weeden had two passes batted back into his face on the same drive. The second time, Weeden caught the ball and decided to throw it again, a sure sign that the quarterback needed to get a grip. The second Weeden pass of the play caught the Giants' defense off guard, what with it being completely illegal and all.
Browns receivers, who normally handle the football like a bar of soap in a warm washtub, were surprisingly sure-handed in the North Jersey rain, which is made up mostly of water. That is just proof that Browns receivers have "anti-hands."
In Pittsburgh, several shotgun snaps flew over Ben Roethlisberger's head, both Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown dropped catchable passes and Jerricho Cotchery slipped while running for what looked like a sure touchdown. You remember Cotchery. The Jets let him go a few years ago. He is now the fourth receiver for the Steelers. If he were traded back today, he would be the Jets No. 1 receiver, No. 2 cornerback and not far from consideration at quarterback.
The Steelers' miscues were easy to overlook in their 16-14 victory over the Eagles because Michael Vick was coughing up the football as if fumbling were the key to happiness. Vick has always been a fair-weather quarterback, reacting to the thinnest sheen of frost on the ground as if it were his first time on roller blades. But the conditions in Pittsburgh, as in New Jersey, were more misty than miserable. You could have mowed your lawn if you absolutely had to. Vick's three fumbles (plus a fourth that was overturned because he was down by contact) made it seem like it was raining petroleum jelly.
Conditions were not quite as wet in Washington, but Mike Shanahan left nothing to chance, buttoning up his offense with an archconservative game plan that only allowed Robert Griffin III to throw for 91 yards through three quarters. Then Griffin suffered a mild concussion, Kirk Cousins entered the game to protect a narrow 10-7 lead against the Falcons and Shanahan decided to let 'er rip. Cousins did throw a touchdown, but he also threw two picks and took a sack as a soggy slog of a game became a back-and-forth nail biter in the final minutes. At least Cousins was bad enough to throw cold water onto any speculation about a quarterback controversy.
Cam Newton could give Vick, the Wicked Witch of the West, and an ice sculpture at a June wedding runs for their money when it comes to melting in a light spritz. Newton was 12-of-29 for 141 yards and four sacks in a 16-12 loss to the Seahawks, and his performance was not even as good as those numbers. Newton threw to a variety of sideline photographers and to spots on the field about six yards from Steve Smith. He only avoided an interception when Seahawks safety Earl Thomas could not get his hands around a ball that hit him in the belly.
Conditions in Charlotte were not even that bad: There was no significant precipitation, and the official temperature at kickoff was 63 degrees. But it felt colder. Sideline cameras showed backup Seahawks receiver Charly Martin huddled in a wool cap, its glow-in-the-dusk green trim making him look like he was dressed for a night of trick-or-treating by an overprotective parent.
That's how it is with the first cold snap of autumn: 63 degrees suddenly feels like 33 degrees, and the slightly damp ball feels like it is coated with Caesar salad dressing. Coaches love making players practice in 90-degree heat during training camp, preparing them for "the elements." Most football games are played on 55-degree days, not 90-degree days. Coaches should make their teams practice in a car wash, or perhaps the produce section of an upscale supermarket.
The elements have long been a factor in Peyton-versus-Brady games, and sure enough it was damp and cool in Foxboro, though my on-site contacts sent me typical New Englander weather reports: "It's really warm, about 54 degrees." The Broncos fumbled twice, including an epic feat of sloppiness in which Demaryius Thomas had the ball batted from his hands by Sterling Moore while running for an apparent touchdown. The elements did not affect the Patriots in the 31-21 win, because elements do not affect the Patriots.
The cool weather did not extend to Jacksonville, where it was 88 degrees and humid and the Jaguars -- get this -- wore their black jerseys. Yep, common sense really does whistle past Jaguars headquarters, doesn't it? The black jerseys turned out to be appropriate outerwear for what turned into a funeral for the Jaguars: They gained just 189 total yards of offense in a 41-3 loss to the Bears. When they travel to Buffalo on Dec. 2, they should wear white jerseys so it is easy to pretend we cannot see them.
Everywhere but Florida, the autumn wind is, indeed, a raider. Even when the Raiders are on bye.
Monday is Columbus Day, a time to reflect on a discovery that changed the course of world history. Of course, Christopher Columbus was totally wrong about his discovery: He went to his grave thinking the Caribbean was just east of China, which makes him one of the most geographically lost humans ever to walk the planet. Also, the millions of indigenous peoples in the Americas weren't waiting around to be discovered. And then there are the uncomfortable truths about the legacy of colonialism. But anyway, there is no mail delivery on Monday, and Columbus is why.
In the spirit of commemorating Columbus' achievement, let's discover some things that many people already know and are probably wrong, then explore the new worlds that open up because of our new (possibly self-evident or dead wrong) knowledge:
Discovery: Christian Ponder must be taken seriously. Ponder threw his first two interceptions of the season on Sunday, but he was also 25-of-35 for 258 yards with two touchdowns, plus 31 rushing yards. In previous games, Ponder played a lot of handoff-and-rollout football, letting Adrian Peterson, the defense and the special teams most of the work. This week, he made a lot of fine throws and decisions from the pocket, and the Vikings graduated from squeaking out wins against bad opponents to convincingly beating bad opponents.
Terra Nova: Let's not climb on the Ponder bandwagon just yet, but the quarterback and his team are doing enough things well to keep the Vikings in the conversation until late in the season. Ponder and Blaine Gabbert were lumped together as suspect second-year starters when the season began; they will never again share a lump.
Discovery: Bruce Irvin is the next Jared Allen. Irvin had two sacks against the Panthers to go with the two he registered against the Packers. His most impressive sack came in the second quarter, when Irvin ran Cam Newton down from behind. The reach of the draft now looks like the steal of the draft.
Terra Nova: The Seahawks are determined to make every game end with a score like 16-12 or 14-12, usually with the game decided on the final play. Under those circumstances, every sack counts.
Discovery: Ravens + road game + awful opponent = football travesty. The team that brought you a 12-7 loss in Jacksonville last year tried to one-down itself in Kansas City this week, but it is hard to limbo under the Chiefs. Throw for just 165 yards, and they will throw for 124. Give up four sacks, and they will be thrown for a loss on 10 -- 10! -- rushing plays. The official game time for the Ravens' 9-6 win was two hours and 54 minutes, which equates to zero thrills per 10,440 seconds.
Terra Nova: The wise guys have figured out how badly the Ravens play on the road, particularly against weak opponents. When they travel to Cleveland on Nov. 4, the Ravens will be 47-point underdogs. And they will win 9-6.
Discovery: The Titans' best offensive plays are special teams plays. The Titans' lone win of the season was the result of two kick-return touchdowns, and their most exciting offensive play of the 30-7 loss to the Vikings was an odd little fake punt: Safety Jordan Babineaux took a short snap on fourth-and-inches while the Vikings stared at the empty patch of turf where the punter normally stands. A hard-earned first down secured, the Titans handed off to Chris Johnson on the next play. Johnson fumbled.
Terra Nova: Say, Jake Locker is pretty athletic and inaccurate. Maybe when he gets healthy the Titans should use him as a personal protector on punts! Then, opponents will be so focused on the threat of the fake that it will affect their preparation, and yadda yadda yadda …
Discovery: The Redskins have another rookie sensation on their hands. No, not Kirk Cousins. That poor kid looked like he spent all his time on the sideline soaking up wisdom from Rex Grossman. Running back Alfred Morris has played well all season, but his 18-carry, 115-yard effort against a solid Falcons defense was a revelation. Morris averaged more yards per rushing attempt than Griffin averaged per pass attempt, though his performance was not perfect: He failed on a pair of third-and-short conversions and whiffed on a block or two in pass protection.
Terra Nova: If Griffin misses time, Morris will be the rookie Redskins fans can watch without hands over their eyes.
Discovery: Players with uniform No. 61 cannot catch passes. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw two short passes to reserve offensive lineman Joe Hawley, who lined up as an eligible blocking tight end on a few plays. Both times, Hawley reacted as if Ryan had just tossed him a shopping bag full of dead raccoons and rusty saw blades.
Terra Nova: Let's not be too hard on the Falcons, who are undefeated after gutting out another tough win, and who have never been able to master the finer points of the basic screen pass in the Mike Smith era. But c'mon: Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Joe Hawley … one of these things is not like the others. At least Hawley has the, "I'm a lineman for cripes' sake!" excuse. Michael Turner, who has hands like kitchen countertops, caught two of his five pass targets, for two yards. Oh, brave new world that has such bumbling receivers in it.
Discovery: The Rams' front four is pretty good. This observation is left over from Thursday night, when the Rams recorded nine sacks against the Cardinals. Robert Quinn is now among the NFL leaders with six sacks, while Chris Long and rookie Michael Brockers allow the Rams to generate plenty of pass pressure without blitzing, though that does not stop the Rams from blitzing.
Terra Nova: The NFC West now has four teams that can generate serious pass pressure. Those of us who don't often watch the Rams learned that Long has a tattoo of the state of Virginia on his arm so accurate that Captain John Smith could have used it for safe navigation into the Chesapeake Bay. Seriously, one of Long's veins perfectly follows the path of I-64. Users of new iPhones hoping to get directions from Newport News to Roanoke are better off skipping the applications and just asking Long to flex.
The enduring image from this NFL week will not be Drew Brees hugging Devery Henderson after breaking Unitas' record, or Tom Brady meeting Peyton Manning on the field one more (last?) time. It will be Reggie Wayne holding up a whiteboard with "CHUCK STONG" scribbled on it in the final seconds of the Colts comeback against the Packers.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano spent Sunday's game in a University of Indiana hospital receiving treatment for leukemia. He sent his team an inspirational email before the game, imploring them to concentrate on winning for their own sake, not as a tribute to him. "My condition will not determine my position," Pagano wrote. "I understand the condition but choose to focus on my position. That is to stay positive and serve."
Pagano inspired his team, though speculating on what part that inspiration played in their comeback trivializes Pagano's condition and the complexity of emotions shared among coworkers and friends. There is no doubt, however, that Pagano and the Colts inspired tens of thousands of fans in Lucas Oil stadium and millions more around the country. Football has the power to remind us of our highest ideals and greatest goals, and to provide us with the symbolic victories that give us the strength to fight more serious battles.
Through their comeback victory, the Colts inspired Pagano. Owner Jim Irsay and general manager Ryan Grigson brought a game ball to Pagano in the hospital. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star quotes Irsay: "We walked in, [Pagano got up, we all embraced and shed some tears and Chuck said, 'You know, I don't feel so sick right now.'"
That's all the inspiration any of us need.