By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts 1:42 AM researcher
Peyton Manning is off to the greatest start by a quarterback in the history of the NFL, no question about it, right?
While it’s easy to assume that the forward pass was invented in the early 1980s, the technique has indeed been popularly employed for eight decades.
But in 1966, it wasn’t too effective.
The average passer rating that season was 64.2, a far cry from the average of 85.2 this season.
Which makes what Don Meredith did in the first four games of ’66 that much more incredible.
Meredith’s story is a unique one in some ways and a common one in others. He was the first star Dallas Cowboys quarterback in what became a line of many.
He was also the Tony Romo of his day – charming, mobile … and generally thrown under the bus by the fans and media when he failed to bring the Dallas Cowboys to glory.
What was odd was that he retired in 1968 while at an elite level, for a number of reasons – didn’t mesh with coach Tom Landry, didn’t like the way the fans treated him, wanted to take a shot at Hollywood.
His second act was a great one, with Monday Night Football glory and a long career as a superstar.
But his football legacy never took hold.
Maybe part of his problem stemmed from those first four games of 1966, when he set the bar so high that the solid play to follow was a disappointment.
Meredith in the first four games of 1966 completed 53 of 94 (56.3%) for 1,089 yards – an amazing 11.59 yards per attempt – with 14 touchdowns and no picks.
His passer rating of 136.9 was more than double the season average.
What Manning is doing now is remarkable. What Meredith did then was sorcery.
Dallas won the first four games that year 52-7, 28-17, 47-14 and 56-7, an average of 45.8 PPG that tops Denver’s output of 44.8 PPG this year. Meredith also ran for a TD, adding spice.
His TD rate of 14.9 percent (14 in 94 attempts) through four games dwarfed Manning's 10.2 percent (16 in 156 attempts).
As it turned out, Week 5 ended the run for Meredith pretty abruptly. In an ugly 10-10 tie at St. Louis, Meredith was 15-of-34 with three picks and no INTs; he followed with a four-INT game in a loss at Cleveland.
The promising season ended in desperate and disappointing fashion against Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers in the 1966 NFL championship game: Meredith drove the Cowboys to the Green Bay 2 in the final moments of a thriller at the Cotton Bowl, but his last-second pass into the end zone was picked off by Green Bay DB Tom Brown.
Green Bay won, 34-27. The Packers, not the Cowboys, went on to represent the NFL in and win the first Super Bowl. The Packers beat Meredith and the Cowboys again in the 1967 NFL championship game, the famous Ice Bowl.
Dallas lost to Cleveland in the 1968 playoffs, in Meredith's final NFL game, the proverbial team and QB that "couldn't win the big game."
And that was that.
But it’s a shame that his run of 1966 didn’t become the stuff of enduring legend – when he passed away in 2010, his 1966 meteor was at best an afterthought to his post-football life.
So we toast Dandy Don now.
Mr. Meredith, almost 50 years ago, you set the bar higher than even Peyton has here in 2013, and you deserve a belated round of applause. The high-powered, explosive performances by Meredith and the Cowboys in 1966 remains a major reason why the franchise earned a reputation as a star-studded "America's Team."
As to the greatest four-week span of the modern era? That was turned in by another Dallas quarterback of the 1960s, Craig Morton. In Games 2-5 of 1969, Morton was 50-71 for 869, no picks, 10 TDs and a 151.3 rating that’s as close to perfect as anyone’s ever been.
In our research, some of the other top contenders for greatest four-game runs (thanks to the search engine at pro-football-reference.com):
Dave Krieg, Seattle, Games 13-16 in 1986: 62-90-1000-1-10 (138.2). Another forgotten gem. The league’s passer rating was 71.1 this year, and Krieg wasn’t a whole lot better than this at 80.4 when the Seahawks hit the three-quarter pole at 6-6. And all he did was play as well as anyone in league history over four games to get Seattle to 10-6 … which wasn’t, as it turned out, enough to get them into the playoffs.
Brett Favre, Green Bay, Games 10-13 of 1995: In a so-so passing season for the league (77.7 rating), his 95-128-1152-1-14 (134.6) stood out as the Packers won all four games with ease.
Kurt Warner, St. Louis, Games 2-5 in 1999: 67-89-1019-1-12 (147.4). Hopefully this run by Warner will never be forgotten – remember that Warner was a complete unknown, essentially a rookie, when he completely turned the NFL on its ear. Great as he was, he’d never be that great again.
Tom Brady, New England, Games 7-10 in 2007: 102-134-1288-2-17 (138.9) Brady added two rushing touchdowns to go up three on Manning, with a slightly better passer rating and higher PPG (45.3).