Johnny Unitas was one of the best quarterbacks to ever take an NFL snap. Still mentioned by many in conversations that involve the league's greatest players, Unitas set records that went largely untouched for over a generation. One such mark was most consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass. Beginning on December 9, 1956, and spanning through December 4, 1960, Unitas threw a score in 47 straight games during his storied career with the Baltimore Colts. It was a record that stood for an incredible 52 years, with the closest threat being only Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers coming as close as eleven games (36) between 2002-04. Unitas had an iconic career with the Colts that would ultimately land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He would end his career though unceremoniously, stumbling around as a washed-up 40-yr. old backup for the San Diego Chargers in 1973. The Chargers franchise would, ironically, play a pivotal role in one of the most impressive records in NFL history being broken.
Current New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, now 40 years old, began his career as a 2nd round draft choice of the Chargers. After a productive but up and down five seasons with San Diego, Brees was signed as a free agent by the Saints and their new coach Sean Payton. Brees would forge his own Hall of Fame career over the last 13 years in New Orleans, setting several passing records himself and winning a championship in Super Bowl XLIV. He began his own march to Unitas' touchdown record during that championship season on October 18, 2009, with four scoring passes in a rout over the New York Giants. Entering the 2012 season, Brees had thrown a touchdown in every game he'd played spanning three seasons and 43 contests, the second longest streak of all time.
The 2012 season was a difficult one for even the most hardcore Saints fan, and certainly for the team. New Orleans had lost a heartbreaking divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers the previous postseason, which as it turned out was only a harbinger of things to come in an awful offseason. The Saints were accused of running a pay-for-play program in their locker room from 2009-12. The scandal came to be known as "Bountygate", and turned into a witch hunt by the league office against the entire organization. After a shoddy "investigation", the league would suspend multiple Saints defensive players, assistant coaches, and strip the team of multiple draft picks. Included among the punishments was a season long suspension to head coach Sean Payton, who was not allowed at the team facilities or to have contact with any players or coaches for one year. Shorthanded and demoralized, the Saints would stumble to an 0-4 start to 2012. The offense was still able to produce, averaging over 27 points per game, but was not enough to overcome a putrid defense that allowed nearly 33 points per game and failed miserably in the 4th quarter of every contest. Brees was his normal prolific self, averaging 333 yards passing and throwing 10 touchdown passes. A first quarter scoring throw from Brees to Marques Colston during a week four loss at Green Bay would mark the 47th straight game that he threw a touchdown pass, tying Unitas' 52-yr. old record. The stage was now set for history, and was scheduled for prime time Sunday night football for the nation to watch. The league office even relented, and allowed Sean Payton to attend the game, watching from the press box, to watch his quarterback make history. The Saints opponent? None other than the team that Unitas took his final NFL snap with, and the team that Drew Brees threw his first professional pass. The San Diego Chargers.
Sunday October 7, 2012
Mercedes Benz Superdome
The New Orleans defense started the game well, forcing the Chargers to punt on the game's opening possession. Following a Saints punt on their first possession, the Chargers rolled through the home team's defense for the game's first score. The 91-yd. San Diego drive was highlighted by two long passes to receiver Malcolm Floyd totaling 71 yards from quarterback Phillip Rivers, who had replaced Brees as Chargers quarterback in 2006. The drive was punctuated by a 15 yard scoring toss from Rivers to former Saint Robert Meachem for a 7-0 first quarter lead. Brees and the Saints would answer immediately, with the quarterback completing 4 of 6 throws to put his team just across midfield to the San Diego 40-yd. line. Facing a 3rd and 6 with 3:05 remaining in the quarter, Drew Brees would notch his name into the NFL record book yet again.
Brees would take the shotgun snap from an empty set. A masterful shoulder pump fake would freeze the San Diego defensive backs momentarily as Brees released the ball down the right side. Wide receiver Devery Henderson had broken open six yards behind coverage, gathered in Brees' perfectly thrown pass at the 11-yd. line, and sprinted into the end zone for the record breaking and game tying touchdown. Drew Brees had now thrown a touchdown pass in an NFL-record 48 consecutive games.
The Saints would win the game 31-24 for their first victory of the season, thanks to 17 unanswered points in the second half to overcome a ten point deficit. Brees was again brilliant this night, throwing for 370 yards and four touchdowns. Devery Henderson and Marques Colston embarrassed the Chargers defense, combining for 17 receptions, 254 yards, and 4 scores. Unfortunately, New Orleans was never able to rebound from a poor start to the 2012 season, floundering to a 7-9 record and missing the playoffs for the first time in four years.
Brees would throw a touchdown pass in six more consecutive games, bringing his record mark to 54 straight games with a scoring toss, until his streak finally came to an end during a week 13 loss at Atlanta. He would ultimately embark on another streak the following week (also against the Giants) that would span another 45 straight games with a touchdown that lasted until November 25, 2015. Amazingly, Drew Brees would throw at least one touchdown pass in 99 out of 100 straight games he played.
Bountygate decimated the Saints Super Bowl hopes before the 2012 season ever started. Brees would throw for 5,177 yards and 43 touchdowns that season, at the time the second most prolific year of all time, but just couldn't make up for the defense's shortcomings. The Saints would rebound a bit with the return of Payton to the sidelines in 2013, finishing with an 11-5 record and going back to the playoffs. A shortage of draft picks, coupled with poor draft and free agent decisions, would cause the team to tumble into mediocrity with three straight 7-9 finishes between 2014-16. Before all that though, no suspension, no scandal, no mediocre record, and no commissioner (who wouldn't even show his face for this historic moment) could take away the record accomplishment by Drew Brees on October 7, 2012.