Unitas We Stand

I’m watching this Falcons-Packers game right now and they’re talking about how it’s Aaron Rodgers’ 100th start. They mentioned the whole bit about how he sat behind Brett Favre for so long and how patient he was, etc. etc. you’ve heard all that.

But it got me wondering: Aaron Rodgers has gotta be pretty high on the all-time TD passing list by now. Passing offenses in this era are crazy inflated, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s top 25 by now, you know? So I looked, and it’s not quite true — he’s got 220 as of today, good for 29th.

Not bad, right? 29th in NFL history in just 100 games? For comparison, the guy two places behind him, Terry Bradshaw, had 212 TDs in 158 starts. The guy in front of him, Carson Palmer, has 224 in 143. Not terrible company by any means.

But are you ready to have your brains blown so hard that they’ll cause a sonic boom that blows other peoples’ brains? Go look at that list again. Anyone jump out at you?

It’s Johnny Unitas, sitting at 9th all time — 290 TDs in 185 starts.

That. Is. Insane.

Those numbers — again, just in case, still good for 9th all time — are ridiculous. Those came during a career that spanned 1956-1973. I’ll have to double check, but I’m 90% sure most teams were still wearing leather helmets and running the T-formation. For comparison, in Dan Marino’s first 184 games (from 1983-1995), he threw 352 TDs. That’s only about 4.7 more per season — not an immaterial difference, but again, the eras were so different.

For reference, here’s the average number of TD passes thrown by decade:


So from the 50s to the 70s, the league leaders in TD passes per year threw 22, 29 and 24, roughly — in Dan Marino’s era, the averages were 31 and 34. In short, passing offenses really took off from about the 1980s onward.

Yes, this is hardly a rigorous study, since the better way would be to compare each to league average and measure how much better they were than that — agreed. But I’m not trying to prove who’s “better” here, I’m just trying to point out how crazy it is that a QB who played predominantly in the 1960s is still top ten all-time. Hell, even Fran Tarkenton is still 6th! (Although he also started like 239 games, which is good for 16th all time at ANY position! How does that happen? Seriously, I’m asking, I know nothing about Fran Tarkenton.)

In any case, Unitas probably isn’t long for this list — the average league leader in the 2000s threw nearly 36 TDs a game; Manning, Brees and Brady are already ahead of him, while Eli, Roethlisberger and Rivers are within striking distance. Still, let’s hear it for Johnny Unitas. I always mocked you for being overrated simply because the older crowd that actually saw you play wouldn’t shut up about you, but that’s actually pretty impressive. Kudos.

Unitas We Stand

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