50 years since Unitas’ last pass: Some things you might not know about No. 19
(Editor’s note: This article is the latest in an ongoing series looking at quarterbacks’ achievements that have aged well over the past 80 NFL seasons.)
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the day JOHNNY UNITAS threw his last NFL pass.
Unitas’ toss, good for 7 yards on his only attempt that afternoon, came in back-up duty on an otherwise forgettable day for him and the host San Diego Chargers — a 19-0 loss to the rival Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 4, 1973.
Everything that preceded that pass, however, accounts for one of the greatest careers in the history of professional football.
Considered by many to be the “godfather of the modern-day quarterback position,” Unitas’ back-story is familiar to many fans.
Undrafted in 1955, he joined the Pittsburgh Steelers but was cut before throwing a pass in a pro game. He played semi-pro ball for a year, then signed with the Colts in 1956, eventually winning three championships in Baltimore (1958, 1959 and 1970).
During the 1958 NFL Championship Game — dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever Played” — Unitas laid the foundation for the modern-day two-minute drill. The Johnny Unitas-to-RAYMOND BERRY connection proved to be unstoppable, leading the Colts to a 23-17 overtime victory against the New York Giants.
By the time of his retirement, Unitas held the NFL’s all-time records for pass completions (2,830), passing yards (40,239) and touchdown passes (290).
He was a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection in 1979, solidifying his place among the greatest to play the position.
What more is there to say — 50 years later — that hasn’t been said many times already?
Turns out, quite a bit.
Postseason success and career records for Johnny Unitas
The story of Unitas-to-Berry during the “Greatest Game Ever Played” has been told many times. Did you know in that same game, Unitas broke a record that stood for 22 years?
During his rookie season, Hall of Fame quarterback SAMMY BAUGH set an NFL Championship game record with 335 passing yards against the Chicago Bears on December 12th, 1937. Against the Giants, Unitas broke Baugh’s record by throwing for an unprecedented 349 yards.
He was even better in the 1959 NFL Championship game, completing 18 of 29 passes (62.1%) for 264 yards, two touchdown passes, one rushing touchdown, zero interceptions and a 114.7 passer rating. There was no sudden death overtime that go-around, just a dominant 31-16 victory at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Unitas led the NFL in passing yards that season (2,899) and it would take 63 years before another quarterback led the NFL in passing yards and won the league Championship in the same season (Patrick Mahomes, 5,250 in 2022).
During the 1970 postseason, Unitas threw for 390 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions against the Bengals and Raiders in-route to leading the Colts to the first AFC Championship victory in NFL history.
Against the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V, Unitas completed a then Super Bowl record 75- yard touchdown pass to Hall of Fame tight end JOHN MACKEY before exiting the game with a rib injury. The Colts would go on to win 16-13.
While it is well known that Unitas retired as the NFL’s all-time passing leader, you might be surprised to know that prior to suffering a devastating elbow injury that would impact his health for the remainder of his career, Unitas was already the NFL’s all-time leader in pass competitions (2,261), passing yards (33,021), touchdown passes (252) and passer rating, min. 500 attempts (82.9) following the 1967 season, at the age of 34.
Indeed, that same elbow injury would keep Unitas out of action for the majority of the 1968 season. Although he made a late appearance in relief of Earl Morrall in Super Bowl III, leading the Colts to their only touchdown drive of the game, it was too little, too late. The Colts fell 16-7 to JOE NAMATH and the New York Jets.
Johnny Unitas’ Act III
During his last full season as a starter in Baltimore, Unitas led the Colts to the 1971 AFC Championship game before falling to the DON SHULA'S Miami Dolphins, 21-0.
He would go on to end his career with the San Diego Chargers in 1973. Although a shell of his former self, Unitas threw for 175 yards (9.7 YPA), two touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 125.9 passer rating in his San Diego home debut, defeating eventual NFL MVP O.J. SIMPSON and the Buffalo Bills, 34-7. The next week vs. the Cincinnati Bengals, Unitas became the first player in NFL history to eclipse 40,000 career passing yards.
Johnny Unitas' single-season records
While Unitas was well known for his career records, he also broke a number of significant single-season records along the way.
In 1956, Unitas broke Charlie Conerly’s rookie record for pass completion-percentage (54.2% in 1948) at 55.6%.
In 1960, Unitas broke Baugh’s single-season record for passing yards (2,938 in 1947) at 3,099.
In 1963, Unitas broke SONNY JURGENSEN'S single-season record for pass completions (235 in 1961) at 237.
In 1964, Unitas broke Jurgensen’s single-season record for yards per passing attempt, minimum 300 attempts (8.9 in 1961) at 9.3.
Most impressive of all, in 1959, Unitas broke SID LUCKMAN'S single-season record for touchdown passes (28 in 1943) at 32. He threw 12 more touchdowns than the runner-up (BOBBY LAYNE, 20).
That’s 1.6 times the quarterback in second place, a rate that exceeds every single holder of the single-season touchdown pass record dating back to Luckman in 1943:
- 1959: Unitas (32), Layne (20) = 1.6x
- 1984: DAN MARINO (48), Dave Krieg (32) = 1.5x
- 1961: Jurgensen (32), Billy Wade (22) = 1.45x
- 1962: Y.A. TITTLE (33), Unitas (23) = 1.43x
- 2013: PEYTON MANNING (55), Drew Brees (39) = 1.41x
- 2007: Tom Brady (50), Tony Romo (36) = 1.38x
- 1963: Tittle (36), Charley Johnson (28) = 1.28x
- 2004: Manning (49), Daunte Culpepper (39) = 1.25x
- 1943: Luckman (28), Baugh (23) = 1.21x
It would be as if Brady threw 57.6 in 2007 or if Manning threw 62.4 in 2013.
Manning’s 55 touchdown passes in 16 games would equal 58.4 in a 17-game schedule. Second place Brees’ 39 would come to 41.4.
1.6 times 41.4 would equal 66.2 — adjusted for era.
That is what Mahomes, or any of today’s quarterbacks would have to put up in today’s game to equal what Unitas did in 1959.
Despite Marino’s 1984 season getting most of the attention when it comes to holders of this single-season record, you could argue that Unitas’ 1959 was the most impressive of them all.
It would be impossible to capture all of Unitas’ accomplishments in one article. I could tell you about him leading the NFL in fourth quarter comebacks during five different seasons (1958, 1961, 1962, 1965 and 1967), but that could be another retrospective in and of itself. In case you were wondering, Manning led the NFL in fourth quarter comebacks three times (1999, 2008 and 2009), Brady two times (2007 and 2013) and Montana once (1987).
Unitas wasn’t just great, he was even better than that. On this day, 50 years since he last threw an NFL pass, his legacy remains immortal here in Canton, Ohio.
Ryan Michael is statistician, sportswriter and contributor to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You can follow him on Twitter: @theryanmichael .
This article is the latest in an ongoing series highlighting noteworthy quarterback play over the past 80 seasons. Information from Pro-Football-Reference.com’s database helped make the research possible.
More of this series
- Analysis: Charlie Conerly’s giant accomplishments hold up as eras pass
- Y.A. Tittle’s journey from San Francisco to New York
- Analysis: An appreciation of Sammy Baugh’s historic 1943 season
- Legendary seasons for Sid Luckman, Peyton Manning separated by 70 years
- Looking back at TB12’s historic 2011 season 12 years later
- Russell Wilson’s decade of dominance in Seattle remains elite
- Roger Staubach’s 1971: The greatest season you’ve never heard about
- Silver anniversary: Randall Cunningham’s solid gold season with Vikings
- 50 years since Unitas’ last pass: Some things you might not know about No. 19
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