Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass in an NFL-record 48th-straight game last night in the Saints’ 31-24 win over the Chargers in New Orleans last Sunday night. That record was previously held by the great Johnny Unitas who revolutionized the quarterback position over the course of three decades.
The record had stood for 52 years. That record had stood throughout rule changes, the AFL-NFL merger, and multiple total upheavals in offensive strategy. Which means one thing: no other quarterback had been that consistently good week after week for over half a century. No matter how you slice it, this record being broken is a very big deal.
Johnny Unitas held every significant career passing record when he retired. His records for attempts, completions, yards, and touchdowns were all eclipsed by Fran Tarkenton, Dan Marino, and Brett Favre. The records once held by Unitas will continue to be eclipsed constantly just because of the way the general makeup of football has changed over the last five decades. Football is a passing game now more than ever, and will continue to be a passing game for the foreseeable future because people like to see points on the scoreboard. Any franchise quarterback who stays around long enough will match Unitas’ career marks. Throughout the last half-century, the records for quantity in the passing game have continued to fall, but records for consistency have not. The only exception to this that I can find is Brett Favre’s record of 297 consecutive starts. Brett Favre could always be counted on to show up and play every week, but not necessarily to do it well.
Let’s take a look at Brees’ streak. Forty-eight straight games with a touchdown pass is exactly three regular seasons. At a minimum of one touchdown pass per game, that means the Saints’ offense was guaranteed to have sixteen touchdown passes by the end of the year. There were fifteen teams that didn’t average throwing one touchdown pass per game, let alone come close to doing it consecutively. They were:
- Seattle (15 touchdown passes)
- Indianapolis (14)
- Cleveland, Kansas City (13 each)
- Jacksonville (12)
- Saint Louis (9)
- Seattle, Minnesota (14 each)
- Cleveland (13)
- Arizona (10)
- Carolina (9)
- Jacksonville (15)
- Saint Louis, New York Jets (12 each)
- Oakland (10)
Another amazing thing about this record is that Brees and Unitas had to be throwing touchdown passes in defeat. Every team loses and every quarterback has their off days, but it is really impressive when they are able to still throw touchdowns on their or their team’s off days. Look at the Saints’ losses over the 48-game stretch (not including week 17 of 2009 because Brees didn’t play).
- 40-32 vs. Washington
- 35-27 @ Carolina
- 27-24 vs. Kansas City
- 28-27 @ Green Bay
- 42-34 @ Green Bay
- 26-20 @ Tampa Bay
- 31-21 @ St. Louis
- 27-24 vs. Atlanta
- 30-20 @ Arizona
- 30-17 vs. Cleveland
- 30-24 @ Baltimore
- 23-13 vs. Tampa Bay
- 24-17 vs. Dallas
- 20-17 vs. Tampa Bay
The Saints average scoring 22.6 points in their losses by an average margin of 6.8 points. They were in every game they played. Even when they didn’t play well enough to win, they were scoring points and extracting their pound of flesh from their opponent. Even this year, the Saints are not an easy win, losing four games by an average margin of five points per game.
Look at the top ten list of consecutive games with a touchdown pass. It may surprise you.
- Drew Brees – 48 games (current streak)
- Johnny Unitas – 47 games
- Tom Brady – 37 games (current streak)
- Brett Favre – 36 games
- Dan Marino – 30 games
- Dave Kreig – 28 games
- Chris Chandler / Peyton Manning – 27 games
- Daryle Lamonica – 25 games
- Frank Ryan / Daunte Culpepper – 24 games
- Cecil Isbell / Sonny Jurgensen / Kurt Warner / Brian Griese / Steve McNair / Phillip Rivers – 23 games
I find it very interesting that of those quarterbacks on the top ten list, only four are still playing today (Brees, Brady, Rivers, and Manning). I kept hearing on various sports talk radio shows all week that the only reason this record was broken is because of the liberalization of the passing rules, starting in 1978. If that were the case, how come names like Lamonica, Isbell, and Jurgensen are still on this list? Isbell set the record in 1942 (not bad for playing in the antiquated single-wing offense), which Unitas broke in 1960. How come I don’t see Dan Fouts and “Air Coryell” on this list? They were certainly explosive enough to put up numbers, but they didn’t necessarily do it every week consistently.
The other surprising names on this list are Dave Kreig (one of my all-time favorites), Chris Chandler, Steve McNair, and Brian Griese. Kreig had his streak early in his career, from 1983-85, with the help of running back Curt Warner (with the exception of the ’84 season when Warner was out for the year with a torn ACL), and after the Chargers and Raiders had reached their peak and before Elway single-handedly took over the AFC. Chandler had his with the Falcons, from 1997 and 1999, when they got hot and went 14-2 en route to the Super Bowl in 1998. McNair’s streak is the most baffling of the bunch, between 2001-02, after the Titans had peaked as a team in 1999 (the Titans were 7-9 in ’01 and 6-4 when the streak ended in ’02, on their way to an 11-5 season after starting 1-4).
For passing and receiving records, career records will continue to be eclipsed. In twenty years, Joe Montana probably won’t even be in the top twenty in yardage (he is currently number thirteen behind Kerry Collins and in front of Unitas).
Consistency is a different animal. The rule changes may make it easier to pile up numbers and yards, but they don’t insure that quarterbacks show up prepared to play physically or mentally week after week. That’s why Brees’ new record is so impressive. The game is so much tougher to play mentally today than it was fifty years ago. Even the bad teams will confuse great quarterbacks, and Brees came to play well enough to throw a touchdown pass every week for three straight seasons.
Breaking this record is like climbing Mt. Everest. Once one person proves that it can be done, the flood gates will open, and it will be much more accessible to future pros.