• Sal Maiorana

Johnny Unitas: The original touchdown maker

LOS ANGELES (Dec. 11, 1960) - At the time, Johnny Unitas put a line in the NFL record book that seemed most likely unbreakable, but several decades later, the former Baltimore Colts great was perplexed as to why his streak of 47 straight games throwing at least one touchdown pass hadn’t yet been broken.

“When you throw 30 to 40 times a game, you would think you’d throw a touchdown pass somewhere in there,” Unitas, who died in 2002, once said in the mid-1990s. “Nowadays, 300-yard games are something to crow about, but it’s easy to do it when you’re throwing 45 or 50 times. Back when I played we threw it 20 to 25 times a game.”

And rarely has a quarterback made better use of those 20 or 25 attempts than Unitas. Unitas’ touchdown streak began on Dec. 9, 1956, his first season as the Colts’ starting quarterback and one year removed from playing on a semi-pro team in his native Pittsburgh for $6 a game while he worked on a pile-driving crew.

It ended at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Dec. 11, 1960 when the Rams put together a superlative defensive performance and throttled the two-time defending champs, 10-3, as Unitas completed just 17 of 38 passes for 182 yards.

Despite a record-setting collegiate career at Louisville, Unitas lasted until the ninth round of the 1955 draft, and then couldn’t convince Steelers’ coach Walt Kiesling to give him a look in his first training camp. Unitas couldn’t beat out Jim Finks or Ted Marchibroda and was cut, and after a year playing semi-pro ball, he hooked on with the Colts in 1956.

“That call cost us 80 cents,” said Don Kellett, the Colts’ general manager at the time.

Less than a month into that season, Unitas wrested the starting job away from George Shaw, and held that position for most of the next 17 years on his way to the Hall of Fame.

The Colts had been a NFL doormat since being absorbed into the league when the old AAFC folded in 1949, but Unitas’ arrival injected life into the team. After a mundane 1956 rookie season, Unitas topped all passers with 2,550 yards and was named the league MVP in 1957 as the Colts contended for the Western Conference title.

Over the next two years Unitas threw a TD pass in every game Baltimore played, and the Colts won 20 of 24 on their way to back-to-back NFL championships. During the 1959 season Unitas set a league record with 32 touchdown passes, and then in 1960 he became the first pro quarterback to surpass 3,000 yards passing in a single season, which then consisted of only 12 games.

When the streak was finally ended, Unitas said, “To tell you the truth I never concerned myself with it. I was more interested with winning games. Whether we scored by passing or running, it didn’t matter to me. The stats never really concerned me. Winning and losing is what mattered, and that day we didn’t score a touchdown and we lost.”

The Rams were struggling through a year that saw them finish with a 5-6-1 record when they traveled to Los Angeles, but led by Lou Michaels, Les Richter, Gene Brito and John Baker, the Rams defense stifled Baltimore’s running game (91 yards) and forced three turnovers including an interception of Unitas, and a late fumble by Alex Hawkins that ended the Colts’ last drive at the Rams 19.

“When they came up against Baltimore they always played through their hats,” Unitas said of the Rams. “They had good linebackers, they were a good football team. We couldn’t run very well against them.”

Good defense was the order of the day, but the Colts suffered a complete breakdown on one play, and it was all the Rams needed. Five minutes into the third quarter Los Angeles quarterback Billy Wade rolled out to his left and rather than throw a pass, he took off on a designed quarterback keeper. The Baltimore defense was fooled, and no one touched Wade as he rumbled down the left sideline which happened to be where the Colts’ bench was located.

Using a key block by fullback Joe Marconi and an escort by receiver Red Phillips, Wade cruised into the end zone to complete a 66-yard touchdown run that brought 75,461 at the Coliseum to their feet, most of them stunned by what Wade had just done.

No one came close to breaking the record until the threesome of Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady between 2012 and 2014. Brees ultimately shattered the mark by stretching it to 54 games between 2009 and 2012. Brady almost broke that mark, but he was stopped at 52 in 2013. And then Manning gave it a run before being stopped at 51 in 2014. Unitas’ streak still sits at No. 4 all-time.

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