The announcers on Monday Night Football spent the entire Colts – Jaguars game comparing the Patriot’s Tom Brady and the Colt’s Peyton Manning, trying to decide which quarterback was the best ever. Late in the game, discussing Manning, they wandered off the game, already safely in the Colt’s win column, and showed a few film clips of John Unitas in action.
As a 49er fan, since 1954, I am sure the greatest quarterback of all time is Joe Montana. But if I had to put Joe aside and pick another, I would pick John Unitas with no hesitation.
For a whole bunch of good reasons that have nothing to do with statistics. In Unitas’ day only 12, later 14, games were played each season, compared to 16 now. Today talent flows through free agency to the best and/or richest teams. Tom Brady is the same quarterback this year as he was last year, but the Patriots (7 wins, 0 losses) have Randy Moss, Donté Stallworth, and Wes Welker for him to throw to this year. The quarterbacks for the Raiders (2-4), Eagles (2-4), and Dolphins (0-7) don't anymore.
But getting to basics, it was a lot harder to pass in the days of Unitas. Receivers were mugged from the moment the ball was snapped until it was in the air. A quarterback had to be able to throw with precision, yet make adjustments instantaneously.
Then be able to take tremendous punishment after each pass, because quarterbacks in the good old days were considered just another football player, and to be called for roughing the passer you really had to flagrantly hit him or run into him after he released the ball. Being penalized for patting the quarterback’s head, or bumping into him while trying to pull up, protect today’s quarterbacks far more than their predecessors.
His offensive linemen had to block pass rushers with their hands firmly clutching their own jerseys, not in the arms extended Sumo wrestler slapping style you see today. The old rules used to heavily favor the running game over passing.
In fact, it was widely known in the NFL of the1950s that holding by offensive linemen was frequently called on passing plays, and rarely on runs.
And as Terry Bradshaw would mention, “You know, we called our own plays too.”
Comparisons are an apples and oranges thing anyway, considering the changes in football over the past fifty years.
However, I know that if Johnny Unitas played today, with the abilities he had fifty years ago, he would be a great player. I have sincere doubts that the top quarterbacks today could have done as well if they played fifty years ago.
Although I must admit, Peyton Manning reminds me a lot of Unitas, except he is nowhere the runner Johnny U was.