Stats & Info: Johnny Unitas

Adjusting for eras, Brees far from Unitas

October, 4, 2012
AP Photo/NFL PhotosJohnny Unitas and Drew Brees are tied for the NFL record with touchdown passes in 47 straight games.
Drew Brees is currently tied with Johnny Unitas for the longest streak of games with at least one touchdown pass in NFL history.

With Brees set to eclipse Unitas’ mark of 47 on Sunday night in New Orleans, we thought it would be interesting to compare the two streaks by taking into account the different eras in which they occurred.

Unitas’ streak encompassed five seasons from December 1956 to December 1960 and came at a time when passing was much less common than it is today.

In 1956, for example, pass plays were less than 40 percent of a team’s overall plays, and the average team threw for less than 150 yards per game. Unitas threw only nine touchdown passes that season but was tied for seventh in the NFL, with only Green Bay’s Tobin Rote (18) recording more than 12 passing scores.

While league-wide passing increased significantly in the short span of Unitas’ run – pass plays were up to nearly 50 percent frequency in 1960, when Unitas led the league with 25 touchdowns through the air – it was nowhere near what we see today.

Nowadays, teams look to throw nearly 60 percent of the time, they average well over 200 passing yards per game, and about 10 quarterbacks a year throw for 25 scores.

To compare the two 47-game streaks more directly, we can look at how likely it is for a team to have at least one passing touchdown in a given game today, and how likely it was back during the late 1950s. This is not specific to Unitas and Brees, but rather the eras that they each played in.

NFL teams recorded at least one passing touchdown in 73 percent of all regular season games from 1956 to 1960, compared to 79 percent from 2009 to 2012 (the span of Brees’ streak). Essentially, it’s easier to pass for a touchdown in a game now than it was back then.

Given the lower rate of passing touchdowns, we can calculate that a 47-game touchdown pass streak was 43 times more unlikely in the late 1950s than in today’s NFL.

This basic calculation ignores aspects of longer seasons or careers, that there are more quarterbacks around to chase the record, and that there may be a different level of variation in skill among the best quarterbacks. Nevertheless, this simple era adjustment shows just how statistically different these two streaks are despite their identical length.

In fact, given the likelihood of passing touchdowns in the last four years compared to the Unitas days, a 63-game streak today is about as likely as a 47-gamer back in the late 1950s. By that measure, Brees still has a season’s worth of work to do.

So while Drew Brees should be applauded when he breaks Johnny Unitas’ mark this Sunday, keep in mind that statistically speaking, Unitas’ streak is still much more impressive given the era in which it came.
The Denver Broncos won the AFC West and a playoff game in 2011 with Tim Tebow as their starting quarterback.

Peyton Manning
However, based on 10,000 season simulations by AccuScore, the 2011 Broncos -- with Tebow as their starting QB -- made the playoffs in only 17.1 percent of simulations. With Peyton Manning under center, not only would the Broncos have been favored to win the AFC West, but their playoff chances would have increased to 83.8.

AccuScore also projects that Manning would have thrown for 3,936 yards and 30 touchdowns.

Peyton's Payday
If the terms being reported are accurate, Manning would be the highest paid player in the NFL. His average annual salary of $19.2 million eclipses what New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady averages annually.

It's also nearly $3 million more than what younger brother Eli earns with the New York Giants ($16.3M).

Denver's Latest Odds
Denver initially opened at 75-to-1 odds to win the 2013 Pro Football Championship, but has made a remarkable jump since Monday’s announcement by Manning. According to MGM Resorts International, Denver moved on Monday to 10-to-1 after Manning instructed his agent to negotiate with the Broncos. That number now is at 8-to-1. Green Bay remains the favorite at 5-to-1.

2012 Milestones Within Reach
Manning has won a record four AP NFL MVP awards. Now that he’s a Bronco, Manning is the fifth different player (all quarterbacks) to join a new team after winning multiple MVP awards with one team. He’s the first to change teams since three-time MVP Brett Favre was traded from the Green Bay Packers to the New York Jets before the 2008 season.

The other three quarterbacks to change teams after winning multiple MVP awards with one team: Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Kurt Warner.

• Manning's next touchdown pass will be the 400th of his career, only Favre (508) and Dan Marino (420) have more in NFL history.

• Manning and Marino share the record for most 300-yard passing games with 63.

• He has 22 career games with at least four touchdown passes, one shy of the record held by Favre.

Class of '98
Manning and Hines Ward were drafted by the Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively, in 1998. Manning is about to become a Denver Bronco and Ward on Tuesday announced his retirement.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there is only one player from the 1998 draft class who remains with the team that selected him: Bears long-snapper Patrick Mannelly, who was a sixth-round pick out of Duke.

Tom Hauck/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning and the Colts will head their separate ways for the 2012 season.
The Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning will reportedly part ways on Wednesday, with the Colts declining a roster bonus that will make Manning a free agent.

This will end Manning’s association with the franchise with which he made his mark in the NFL. Let’s take a look at the news from a few statistical perspectives.

What Manning meant to the Colts
From 1984 to 1997, the Colts won less than 40 percent of their regular-season games and just one division title. With Manning at quarterback from 1998 to 2010, they won nearly 70 percent of the time, won their division eight times, and won a Super Bowl.

The Colts tied an NFL record with nine straight playoff appearances from 2002 to 2010, matching the mark set by the Dallas Cowboys from 1975 to 1983. Their run of nine straight seasons with at least 10 wins in that span is tied for the second best in NFL history, behind the San Francisco 49ers' run of 16 straight from 1983 to 1998.

Manning’s 54,828 passing yards and 399 touchdown passes for the Colts are the third most in NFL history by a quarterback for a single team. He trailed only Brett Favre’s contributions to the Green Bay Packers and Dan Marino’s totals for the Miami Dolphins in both of those stats.

Career in historical perspective
Manning is tied for the NFL’s all-time record for most career games with at least 300 passing yards with 63 and holds the NFL mark for most seasons of at least 4,000 yards passing with 11. His 141 wins as a starter are the fourth most in NFL history, 45 behind Favre.

Manning is the only player in NFL history to win four NFL MVP awards, as voted on by The Associated Press.

Manning started the first 208 games of his NFL career. That’s the second-longest streak by a quarterback at any point in his career in NFL history, behind only Favre’s 297.

Manning’s Future

Manning will turn 36 on March 24. How have quarterbacks fared in their “age 36 season” (meaning they were 36 by Dec. 31)?

There were 34 quarterbacks with at least 300 pass attempts at age 36:
- 16 led their team to the postseason
- 15 threw at least 20 touchdown passes
- 12 threw for more than 3,000 yards.

The Elias Sports Bureau provided us with a list of notable passing stats for any quarterback since 1970 who played in the NFL, then missed at least one entire season, and then returned to the NFL.

Of those, Gary Danielson had the most passing yards (3,223) and most wins (9) after returning, doing so for the 1980 Lions.

One of the key questions when Manning returns will be about his ability to throw the deep ball. Over the three seasons from 2008 to 2010, Manning rated below average on pass attempts of 20 yards or more, completing just 32 percent. That ranked 28th among the 47 quarterbacks with at least 50 such throws in that span.

The Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins and New York Jets are among Manning’s rumored suitors. The Dolphins have had 16 starting quarterbacks since the start of the 2000 season, tied with the Bears for the most in the NFL in that span.

Manning figures to be a Hall of Fame inductee when his career is done. Only three Hall of Fame quarterbacks have won the Super Bowl with one team, than finished their career with another -- Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath and Joe Montana.