Heirs to U

There may be QBs as tough as John Unitas, but in today's NFL none have the same freedom to run the offense--nor can they expect to get it
August 06, 2006

On Dec. 28, 2001,New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi made the call that he made everyyear on the anniversary of the Baltimore Colts' 1958 NFL Championship Gamevictory--to John Unitas, the mastermind of that historic win. "You knowwhat today is, don't you?" Accorsi asked. Unitas knew. He always knew. Andthat day, Unitas, who watched football every Sunday, went on a rant.

"I couldnever play the way these quarterbacks play today," he said. "I couldnever play like a robot. That's what these guys are--robots."

"John,"Accorsi said, "you wouldn't have a choice."

"Then Iwouldn't play," Unitas replied.

Accorsi grew up aColts fan and in 1970 became the team's p.r. man. He and Unitas remained goodfriends until the quarterback's death in September 2002. "I'll never forgetthat conversation because it was the last great football conversation wehad," Accorsi said last Friday. "He was adamant that the quarterbackshould run the game. He felt the quarterback was the guy who had the game inhis hands, and it shouldn't be run by coaches on the sidelines."

Accorsi recallsan anecdote from 1964, Don Shula's second year as Colts coach. Shula sentbackup wide receiver Alex Hawkins into a game with a play, but when Hawkins gotto the huddle, Unitas asked him gruffly what he was doing there. Hawkins saidShula wanted to run a specific play, 65 Flare Outcut. Unitas called a timeoutand walked to the sideline. "You want to run that play?" he said toShula. "You go in and run it." Battle won. Unitas called a play hewanted.

Asked which oftoday's quarterbacks remind him of Unitas, Accorsi thought for a while."Troy Aikman did," he said of the Dallas Cowboys' three-time Super Bowlchamp who retired in 2001. "He had the same personality on the field:cold-blooded, steely. He won a Super Bowl with a concussion, which is somethingUnitas would have done. Other than that ... well, maybe [the New EnglandPatriots'] Tom Brady. Their stories are similar--late draft choices, backupsearly, really smart. But that's it."

The advent ofsituation substitution on both sides of the ball in the late 1970s has madecalling plays as Unitas did nearly impossible. Except in some two-minutedrills, the last quarterback to even have the opportunity was Jim Kelly, whoran the Buffalo Bills' offense a decade ago. While one of today's passers wouldbe formulating the next play in his head, a new package of players--his own andand the defense's--would be running onto the field.

Accorsi thinksthe NFL was better when it was a matchup game of 11 men against 11 for anentire series, not a scheme game with coaches on the sideline and high in thestadium boxes controlling the action. "They say everything is cyclical, andI hope I live to see the return of that kind of football," Accorsi said."But I doubt it. It's like in baseball--with the pitch count, you're notgoing to see pitchers throw like they used to. Same thing in football. This isthe generation we raised. This is the game today."

PHOTOBETTMANN/CORBISWhile Ewbank ruled the film room,Unitas called the shots on the field. PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERAIKMAN PHOTOJOHN BIEVERKELLY PHOTOJOHN BIEVERBRADY

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