Talking Football In an interview more than two decades after his last game, the old pro showed the passion of an All-Pro still in his prime

September 22, 2002

Almost 40 years later it still bothered John Unitas, the idea that
people had accused him of gambling at the end of the overtime
drive that beat the Giants in the most famous of all pro football
games, the 1958 NFL Championship. Sitting on the porch of his
home in Baldwin, Md., on a spring day in 1998, Johnny U was off
on one of his favorite topics--the way a quarterback can influence
a defense, almost bend it to his will. "Gambling?" he snorted.
"Some gamble."

The play was the seven-yard pass to tight end Jim Mutscheller
that put the Baltimore Colts on the one-yard line, setting up
Alan Ameche's game-winning plunge. The thinking was, Why did
Unitas throw the ball and risk an interception when all the Colts
needed was a field goal to win?

"It wasn't a gamble," Unitas said. "They didn't see what I saw.
Nine times out of 10 Emlen Tunnell, the strong safety, would be
on Mutscheller. This time it was Cliff Livingston, the
linebacker, trying to take away the inside. So I checked off to a
diagonal outside. Who's there to cover him? Lindon Crow, the
cornerback, and he's got to worry about Lenny Moore. Not a
gamble. An educated move."

The quarterback's ability to set up a defense, to craft his own
sequence of plays, was a big part of the game then. Very little
came in from the sideline. It was his show, and Unitas was
determined that we should understand this element of pro
football, which has been lost in today's era.

"Look, you're the strong safety," he said. "I'm going to
overload, put three men in a two-man area, then go back
weakside. What do you do? If I want you to come up and play the
run, I split the guard out farther. If I want the cornerback to
play the run, I tighten the splits. You see, I've got you doing
what I want you to do."

Throughout his career Unitas maintained this dogged adherence to
the idea of control. His message: Don't mess with me. I'm running
the show.

Physically he had it all--the whiplike delivery, the athletic
ability, the great sense of timing and, oh, man, the courage. He
had to do it the hard way. The NFL hadn't liberalized the passing
rules. His receivers could get mugged downfield. Defensive
linemen could head-slap their way into the backfield, and when
they homed in on a quarterback they could hit him any way they
wanted. None of today's cellophane-wrapper protection from the
officials.

And Unitas got hit plenty. He'd snarl and wipe the blood off his
face and lead his team down the field on another of his great
scoring drives, operating in that hunch-shouldered way of his,
with the herky-jerky setup and deadly accuracy. Eighteen years of
that.

"I weigh 270 pounds," Merlin Olsen, the Los Angeles Rams' great
defensive tackle, once said, "and I don't know if I could absorb
the punishment he takes. I wonder if I could stand there, week
after week, and say, 'Here I am. Take your best shot.'"

Yes, Unitas was the best I ever saw. He got the game plan on
Wednesday, but once the whistle blew, it was his game to run in
whatever way he chose. "I charted the tendencies of every
defensive back in the league," he said. "I could tell you how Lem
Barney would react to a certain pattern, or how Jesse Whittenton
would play a certain zone coverage. Raymond Berry and I put in
our own set of audibles, based on the tendencies of the coverage
guys."

Coaches were an annoyance to Unitas. He'd get a little help from
the press box "just to let me know about the other team's blitz
tendencies," he said. "Otherwise, just leave me alone." How would
he feel having a radio in his helmet, getting messages from the
sideline before every play? "I'd get very deaf all of a sudden,"
he said. "My radio would be permanently out of service."

Unitas had the good fortune to play much of his career for Weeb
Ewbank, one of the few coaches who had a great feel for the
quarterback position and knew enough not to mess too much with
the exceptional young man he had playing for him. But the two did
have their occasional disagreements, and I reminded Unitas about
a famous quote of his, one that stuck with me for years: "You
don't become a real quarterback until you can tell the coach to
go to hell."

"Oh, sure, I remember that," Unitas said, laughing. "I loved
playing for Weeb, but sometimes I'd just ignore what he told me.
Early in my career he'd try to limit where I could throw against
certain people. He had tremendous respect for Night Train Lane.
He'd tell me, 'Don't throw the ball in his area.' Well, hell, I
wasn't going to give him the day off. So I'd throw at him, and
maybe he'd pick one off, but we could do things against him, too.

"Jack Butler of the Steelers was another guy Weeb had deep
respect for. We played them in an exhibition game, and Weeb told
me to stay away from him. Lenny Moore said, 'Weeb, I can get open
in the deep middle.' Weeb said, 'There's no way you'll get behind
him.' So next time we're in the huddle, I tell Lenny, 'Damn,
let's do it.' We hit the deep post for six points two times. It
proved one thing to me: I could do what I wanted out there. After
the game Weeb came over to me and said, 'John, I'm never going to
tell you what to do again.'"

The end came in 1973, 15 years after that great championship
game. Unitas was 40, his body wracked by injuries, playing out
the string on a hopeless San Diego Chargers team that had one
major asset, a fine rookie quarterback named Dan Fouts.

"The coach, Harland Svare, asked me to work with Danny," Unitas
said, "and Dan was all excited about it. Then after five or six
games the offensive coach, Bob Schnelker, came over to me and
said, 'The coaches had a meeting last night, and we'd rather you
didn't work with him anymore.' Who knows why? Anyway, I told
Fouts, and oh, boy, he was hot. So I said, 'What the hell, we'll
keep doing it. They're not smart enough to know what's going on
anyway.'"

I didn't want the afternoon with Unitas to end. When it was time
to say goodbye, the hand he extended was crippled and twisted.
"Carpal tunnel," he said. "When they operated on it, they cut a
nerve. Now I can't rotate the thumb to pick up anything."

How many more things like that were there? "In '68 I tore muscles
in my arm," he said. "Two nerves were dead. I lost feeling in my
fingers, and I haven't completely regained it. Let's see, two
knee replacements, and then the triple bypass."

That's what finally got him, the heart, the one that had been the
biggest and most spirited in the game.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. POINT MAN Though not known as a scrambler, Unitas didn't hesitate to tuck the ball under his arm and run with it. COLOR PHOTO: MARVIN E. NEWMAN VAN BROCKLIN COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER NAMATH B/W PHOTO: AP BAUGH COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER(2) MONTANA COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER(2) ELWAY COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA FOUTS COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER YOUNG COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER AIKMAN COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS MARINO COLOR PHOTO: RICH CLARKSON DAWSON COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO FAVRE COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. UNITAS

The U Ratings

We consider Johnny Unitas the best quarterback ever to play the
game, so what better way to honor his memory than to introduce
the U Ratings? Using six statistical measures supplied by Elias
Sports Bureau and five subjective quarterback rankings provided
by our resident expert Paul Zimmerman, we checked to see how 16
quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and five others
who are headed for Canton stack up against Unitas. The
comparison was based on each quarterback's performance over his
best stretch of 125 NFL games (with a minimum of one pass thrown
in each game; that's why you won't find Otto Graham, Sid Luckman
and Bob Waterfield--who had no such stretch--in the ratings).
The quarterbacks were ranked 1 to 22 in each of the 11
categories, with points assigned to their ranking (one point for
first, two points for second, etc.).

JOHN UNITAS

GAME MANAGEMENT 1
TWO-MINUTE DRILL 1
TOUGHNESS 1
ACCURACY 2
ARM STRENGTH 7
PASSING YARDS PER GAME 7 (222.2)
PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT 4 (8.13)
COMPLETION PERCENTAGE 17 (55.0)
PASSING TDS PER GAME 3 (1.77)
PASSES PER TD 3 (15.47)
PASSES PER INTERCEPTION 13 (22.20)
U RATING 59

JOE MONTANA

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 6
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 2
[TOUGHNESS] 11
[ACCURACY] 1
[ARM STRENGTH] 18
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 4 (246.0)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 7 (7.78)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 2 (63.7)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 4 (1.75)
[PASSES PER TD] 14 (18.06)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 3 (38.40)
[U RATING] 72

STEVE YOUNG

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 14
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 5
[TOUGHNESS] 13
[ACCURACY] 3
[ARM STRENGTH] 12
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 8 (210.1)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 1 (8.32)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 1 (66.6)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 9 (1.52)
[PASSES PER TD] 5 (16.62)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 1 (43.85)
[U RATING] 72

BRETT FAVRE

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 19
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 7
[TOUGHNESS] 3
[ACCURACY] 19
[ARM STRENGTH] 2
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 3 (250.2)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 18 (7.25)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 5 (60.6)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 2 (1.97)
[PASSES PER TD] 11 (17.53)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 5 (33.17)
[U RATING] 94

DAN FOUTS

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 3
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 8
[TOUGHNESS] 20
[ACCURACY] 6
[ARM STRENGTH] 9
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 1 (265.4)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 6 (7.96)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 6 (60.5)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 5 (1.70)
[PASSES PER TD] 18 (19.57)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 12 (24.66)
[U RATING] 94

DAN MARINO

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 11
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 3
[TOUGHNESS] 21
[ACCURACY] 4
[ARM STRENGTH] 19
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 2 (262.3)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 13 (7.50)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 9 (59.2)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 1 (1.98)
[PASSES PER TD] 12 (17.63)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 6 (31.45)
[U RATING] 101

Y.A. TITTLE

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 4
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 12
[TOUGHNESS] 6
[ACCURACY] 11
[ARM STRENGTH] 6
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 15 (177.2)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 8 (7.74)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 15 (56.7)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 13 (1.37)
[PASSES PER TD] 7 (16.74)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 17 (18.58)
[U RATING] 114

JOHN ELWAY

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 18
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 6
[TOUGHNESS] 12
[ACCURACY] 15
[ARM STRENGTH] 1
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 5 (226.4)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 16 (7.31)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 8 (59.2)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 12 (1.38)
[PASSES PER TD] 21 (22.52)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 4 (37.61)
[U RATING] 118

SAMMY BAUGH

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 7
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 16
[TOUGHNESS] 4
[ACCURACY] 13
[ARM STRENGTH] 5
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 21 (150.5)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 12 (7.50)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 11 (58.3)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] T-15 (1.32)
[PASSES PER TD] 2 (15.20)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 20 (15.97)
[U RATING] 126

JOE NAMATH

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 12
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 4
[TOUGHNESS] 2
[ACCURACY] 9
[ARM STRENGTH] 4
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 10 (206.1)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 11 (7.58)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 20 (50.6)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] T-17 (1.30)
[PASSES PER TD] 20 (20.98)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 18 (17.25)
[U RATING] 127

SONNY JURGENSEN

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 8
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 10
[TOUGHNESS] 19
[ACCURACY] 8
[ARM STRENGTH] 10
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 12 (192.3)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 20 (7.22)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 13 (57.6)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] T-7 (1.54)
[PASSES PER TD] 10 (17.24)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 11 (25.21)
[U RATING] 128

JIM KELLY

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 13
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 11
[TOUGHNESS] 16
[ACCURACY] 16
[ARM STRENGTH] 16
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 6 (223.3)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 15 (7.45)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 4 (60.7)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] T-7 (1.54)
[PASSES PER TD] 17 (19.41)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 8 (28.60)
[U RATING] 129

NORM VAN BROCKLIN

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 2
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 13
[TOUGHNESS] 17
[ACCURACY] 12
[ARM STRENGTH] 8
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 14 (177.9)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 3 (8.14)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 18 (54.0)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] T-17 (1.30)
[PASSES PER TD] 8 (16.85)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 19 (16.06)
[U RATING] 131

ROGER STAUBACH

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 9
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 9
[TOUGHNESS] 8
[ACCURACY] 17
[ARM STRENGTH] 13
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 13 (178.2)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 9 (7.65)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 14 (57.1)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 19 (1.22)
[PASSES PER TD] 16 (19.15)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 9 (27.21)
[U RATING] 136

BART STARR

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 10
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 17
[TOUGHNESS] 9
[ACCURACY] 10
[ARM STRENGTH] 15
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 20 (160.0)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 2 (8.30)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 7 (59.2)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 22 (1.05)
[PASSES PER TD] 15 (18.38)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 10 (25.89)
[U RATING] 137

TROY AIKMAN

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 15
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 15
[TOUGHNESS] 18
[ACCURACY] 5
[ARM STRENGTH] 11
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 9 (209.9)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 19 (7.25)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 3 (62.9)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 21 (1.10)
[PASSES PER TD] 22 (26.41)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 2 (39.76)
[U RATING] 140

LEN DAWSON

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 16
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 19
[TOUGHNESS] 14
[ACCURACY] 14
[ARM STRENGTH] 21
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 16 (176.3)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 5 (7.96)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 16 (56.3)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 6 (1.62)
[PASSES PER TD] 1 (13.64)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 16 (19.91)
[U RATING] 144

FRAN TARKENTON

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 5
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 14
[TOUGHNESS] 10
[ACCURACY] 18
[ARM STRENGTH] 17
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 11 (195.7)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 21 (7.18)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 12 (58.1)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 14 (1.36)
[PASSES PER TD] 19 (20.03)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 7 (31.24)
[U RATING] 148

TERRY BRADSHAW

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 20
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 18
[TOUGHNESS] 7
[ACCURACY] 20
[ARM STRENGTH] 3
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 17 (176.1)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 14 (7.48)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 19 (53.3)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 11 (1.41)
[PASSES PER TD] 6 (16.72)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 15 (20.29)
[U RATING] 150

BOB GRIESE

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 17
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 20
[TOUGHNESS] 15
[ACCURACY] 7
[ARM STRENGTH] 22
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 22 (149.0)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 10 (7.61)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 10 (58.6)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 20 (1.15)
[PASSES PER TD] 9 (16.99)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 14 (20.56)
[U RATING] 166

BOBBY LAYNE

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 21
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 21
[TOUGHNESS] 5
[ACCURACY] 21
[ARM STRENGTH] 14
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 18 (172.8)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 17 (7.30)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 21 (49.3)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] T-15 (1.32)
[PASSES PER TD] 13 (17.93)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 21 (15.82)
[U RATING] 187

GEORGE BLANDA

[GAME MANAGEMENT] 22
[TWO-MINUTE DRILL] 22
[TOUGHNESS] 22
[ACCURACY] 22
[ARM STRENGTH] 20
[PASSING YARDS PER GAME] 19 (167.1)
[PASSING YARDS PER ATTEMPT] 22 (6.93)
[COMPLETION PERCENTAGE] 22 (48.6)
[PASSING TDS PER GAME] 10 (1.51)
[PASSES PER TD] 4 (15.95)
[PASSES PER INTERCEPTION] 22 (14.70)
[U RATING] 207

"YOU DON'T BECOME A REAL QUARTERBACK UNTIL YOU CAN TELL THE
COACH TO GO TO HELL"

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)