Unitas' touchdown streak last remnant of historic 1960 season
The last reminder of a landmark NFL season is gone. On Sunday night in New Orleans, Saints quarterback Drew Brees broke Johnny Unitas' 52-year record by throwing a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game.
Unitas' streak of 47 games with at least one touchdown pass began in 1956 when pro football played second fiddle to the college game. By time it concluded in 1960, the NFL was poised to take over the national sporting landscape. This was due, in no small part, to the achievements of Johnny U., particularly his performance in the Baltimore Colts' historic overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship Game that made Unitas a household name.
Baltimore retained its NFL title in 1959 and was favored to become the first team in the NFL's playoff era to win three straight championships. That 1960 season, however, changed the Colts� and pro football� in ways that reverberated for decades
Sports historians often cite the '58 Colts-Giants overtime game, the 1966 season that culminated with the first Super Bowl and the 1970 merger of the NFL and the newer American Football League as the seminal building blocks in the growth of professional football. Yet there's an equally strong argument that it was the 1960 season that positioned the NFL to become the most popular sports league in North America.
Some elements of the '60 season recalled the past. It was the last with a 12-game schedule and the last time the NFL title game was played on a Monday. The league once had this quaint notion that no games should be played on a Christmas Sunday.
And in that Monday game the old tradition of two-way players was revived one final time as Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik played 58 minutes at center and linebacker in the Philadelphia Eagles' championship win.
Nearly everything else in pro football foreshadowed as much change as President-elect John F. Kennedy's call for a New Frontier.
One year earlier there were only two pro teams west of the Mississippi, the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams. The '60 season drastically altered the pro football map. The expansion Dallas Cowboys opened for business in the Cotton Bowl, the Chicago Cardinals moved to St. Louis and the new AFL brought pro franchises to Denver, Houston, Oakland, Buffalo and Boston. There also would be AFL competition for NFL teams in New York, Dallas and Los Angeles, although the Dallas Texans eventually became the Kansas City Chiefs and the L.A. Chargers moved down the road to San Diego.
A first-year NFL commissioner named Pete Rozelle, only 34, ultimately would marry pro football's growing popularity with lucrative television contracts and sponsorship deals to create a sports behemoth. Vince Lombardi, then in his second season, would realize the first fruits of a budding NFL dynasty with the Green Bay Packers.
That '60 season also saw Packers Hall of Fame running back/placekicker Paul Hornung shatter the NFL's single-season scoring record with 176 points, nearly 50 points better than Doak Walker's old mark. Hornung's record lasted nearly as long as Unitas' streak, until 2006 when San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson scored 186 points. Tomlinson, however, needed 16 games to set the record, four more than Hornung.
As these larger forces began to play out the Colts kept winning and Unitas kept throwing touchdown passes. After nine games Baltimore stood 6-3 with a one-game lead in the Western Conference over the 49ers and the suddenly potent Packers. Unitas' streak was at 46 games.
In Baltimore's home finale Dec. 4 against Detroit, the Colts struggled, trailing 13-8 in the final minute. But with eight seconds left Unitas threw a 38-yard TD to a diving Lenny Moore, who made perhaps the most spectacular catch of his Hall of Fame career. Delirious Colts fans rushed the field not realizing it would be the last TD pass of Unitas' streak.
The Colts were about to be 7-3, still in first place with only two games to play, including one with the 3-6-1 Rams. After the kickoff the Lions had the ball on their 35 with four seconds to play. Baltimore's secondary guarded the sidelines, figuring Detroit would try to stop the clock.
Instead, Lions quarterback Earl Morrall, the Colts' future goat of Super Bowl III and a surprise hero in Super Bowl V, called for tight end Jim Gibbons to run down the middle. Morrall hit him for a 65-yard touchdown and the Lions won, 20-15. Memorial Stadium fell silent.
"Slowest man on the field scores the touchdown," Moore said on the 50th anniversary of Unitas' streak in 2010. "Everybody thought the game was over. All we had to do was close it out. We kind of let up and that's something you can't do."
During the Colts' three decades in Baltimore, perhaps only Super Bowl III delivered a more devastating defeat. With the Packers and 49ers both winning, there was a three-way tie for first in the West. But Baltimore was done. The Colts traveled across the country a shattered team.
Not even a crowd of 75,461 in the L.A. Coliseum, the third largest in the NFL that season, could revive the Colts on Dec. 11. Playing against a Rams defense that allowed 25 points per game they couldn't even manage a touchdown in a stunning 10-3 defeat. Their hopes of a third straight championship were gone� and so was Unitas' streak.
Unitas and the Colts would not win another world championship until the early 1970s. Instead, Western Conference and ultimately NFL supremacy would pass to the Packers.
One day before Unitas' streak died, Green Bay defeated the 49ers 13-0 to all but clinch its first conference title in 16 years. The Packers lost the '60 NFL title game to Eagles, 17-13, in front of 67,000 fans at Franklin Field the Monday after Christmas, but they were primed to dominate one of the most consequential decades in pro football history.
Lombardi's Packers did not lose another playoff game. They won the world championship in 1961 and '62 and became the first NFL team to win three titles in a row in 1965-67, including the first two Super Bowls.
By time of the NFL and AFL officially merged for the 1970 season there was little question about pro football's supremacy among U.S. sports.
Unitas' streak passed into history. The record was rarely discussed, mainly because no quarterback came close to challenging it. Only Brett Favre (36) and Dan Marino (30) reached the 30s.
Brees, however, taking full advantage of coach Sean Payton's spread offense while playing the majority of his games indoors� and enjoying far more liberalized passing rules than in Unitas' era -- pushed ahead. He survived a scare on Oct. 30, 2011, when he didn't throw a TD pass until the final six seconds against St. Louis, and claimed the record Sunday night.
As NFL fans salute the new record holder they should also pause to recall 1960, the season that set the table for what pro football is today.