Remember when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s MLB record for consecutive games played? Fans had been counting down to that moment for months, if not years.
One of the game’s all-time good guys was about to break a hallowed record held by one of the game’s legendary figures. When the mantle was passed, time stood still. For the baseball purist, it was a goosebumps moment.
So why don’t we feel that same breathless anticipation as New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees closes in on Johnny Unitas’ NFL record for consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass?
It’s the same situation: One of the game’s all-time good guys is about to break a hallowed record held by one of the game’s legendary figures. Compared to the way baseball fans react to records being broken, the lack of enthusiasm for the history that is unfolding before our eyes is astonishing.
“It has been underplayed a little bit,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, who knows what it’s like to have Brees break one of his records. “Johnny Unitas did that years ago and nobody’s done it since, so it’s a special record.”
I've always felt that the Unitas streak of 47 games with a TD pass was among the most unbreakable records in all of sports. Unitas’ streak ended in 1960 and it hasn’t been seriously challenged until now. Brees is the only other player in NFL history to take his streak into the 40s.
After his three-TD effort Sunday against the Chiefs, Brees is amazingly one game shy of tying Unitas. If he keeps the streak going in Week 4 at Green Bay, he’ll have a chance to pass Unitas in a Week 5 home game… against his former team, the Chargers. Thank you, schedule-makers.
And yet, the reverence for this impending achievement just isn’t there.
You have to go back to Oct. 4, 2009 for the last game in which Brees did not throw a touchdown pass. Perhaps what is most telling about Brees’ competitive nature and his drive for excellence: A week after being shut out by the Jets, he ripped apart the Giants to the tune of 23-for-30 for 369 yard, 4 TDs and no picks.
Mark of excellence? Better believe it.
“To me it’s all about consistency,” said Marino. “The one thing you can count on from Drew Brees is being out there every week and knowing you’re going to get a high level of play on a consistent basis. It’s a mark of consistency.”
There are two reasons this accomplishment isn’t getting enough attention: First, the Saints’ bounty mess has sucked all the fun out of this pursuit (both for Brees and the fans). New Orleans is 0-3, and that’s arguably a direct result of the distractions and suspensions.
“Maybe a little bit,” Marino concurred. “The issues with the team and that the head coach isn’t there and they lost the last (three) weeks has something to do with it. But I’ll be sure to be talking about (Brees) next week.”
The second reason might be even bigger. Football fans just don’t romanticize numerical milestones the way baseball fans do.
In baseball, the number 56 is magical, conjuring images of Joe DiMaggio. The number has meaning in football, too, but only as a jersey number, as in No. 56, Lawrence Taylor, flying in around the left tackle for a sack. But 47? Nothing.
Now, 420, that was something. That was Marino’s record for career touchdown passes – broken by Brett Favre in 2007. Fans made a big deal out of that – though it may have had more to do with the media frenzy around Favre at the time.
Then again, 5,084 was another big football number. That was Marino’s mark for most passing yards in a season, and it stood for 27 years before it was shattered in 2011 – by Brees.
Marino has been passed over by Brees and Favre and Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. But this Unitas record has stood since 1960.
Marino? His best streak was 30 games in a row with a TD pass. Favre got to 36. Brady, as a matter of fact, has an active streak that just reached 35. Add Unitas and Brees and that’s a total of five quarterbacks who have ever thrown TDs in at least 30 straight games – and all five are current or future Hall of Famers.
It’s comparable to baseball, where only six players have ever hit in at least 40 straight games – four are Hall of Famers (DiMaggio, Willie Keeler, George Sisler, Ty Cobb), while one should be (Pete Rose) and the other played in the 1800s (Bill Dahlen).
“The hitting streak, I’m not as familiar with the baseball side of it,” said Marino. “But this is something you can look back on. With the way they’ve been throwing the football around the last 15-20 years, it may not be around as long as it was before, but it’s pretty special.”
So Brees has his place in history regardless, but this should be a time for him to truly bask in the spotlight. When he broke the single-season yardage record last year, he had all the momentum in the world, but the bounty scandal and 0-3 start have brought that momentum to a screeching halt.
Still, let’s not lose focus of what Brees has accomplished. He needs to be included, without question, in the Brady/Manning mix. Since joining the Saints in 2006, here are his regular-season numbers:
Total games: 98
Games with 0 TD passes: 10
Games with 2 or more TD passes: 33
Oh, and if you want to talk playoffs, Brees has a career postseason mark of 22 TD passes and 4 interceptions.
So what’s the point? It is not enough to put Brees in a class with the NFL’s best quarterbacks. And while you don’t have to call him the best ever, you do need to acknowledge that what he is about to accomplish buys him football immortality.
Brees’ accomplishments go far beyond numbers and records. This year’s start notwithstanding, he has been the catalyst for a glorious string of success for a once laughingstock franchise.
But when you can break a 52-year-old record held by an NFL legend, well, that needs to be shouted from the rooftops.