You may have heard Drew Brees is set to make more NFL history this Sunday night in New Orleans when he takes on the San Diego Chargers.
Brees needs one touchdown pass to move past Johnny Unitas’ record streak of 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass, which Unitas compiled from 1956 through 1960. It is the NFL equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
One of the longest-standing records in NFL history, this one is so big that Brees asked the NFL if suspended Saints coach Sean Payton, G.M. Mickey Loomis and assistant coach Joe Vitt can attend the game.
But the strange thing no one has been talking about is this: Brees has already had the record by himself since the first quarter of Week 1.
Do not forget the postseason
How does Brees already have the record? Simple. All you have to do is add the six playoff games since 2009 that have come during the streak, which began in Week 6 that year — and Brees was sitting at 49 games before the start of this season. That is the exact same number as Unitas, who had touchdown passes in both the 1958 and 1959 NFL Championship wins in addition to the 47 regular-season games.
When Brees threw his first touchdown of the season in Week 1 versus the Washington Redskins, that was his 50th consecutive game with a touchdown pass, setting the record right there.
Yet no one has seemed to look at it that way. Meanwhile, one of the other most-cherished records in NFL history, Don Shula’s seemingly unbreakable 347 wins as a head coach, does include the postseason (19 wins).
Which do you know best as the longest winning streak in NFL history: the 2003-2004 New England Patriots’ 21-game streak (including playoffs), or the 2008-2009 Indianapolis Colts’ 23-game streak (regular season only)?
Finally, you have those fourth-quarter comeback numbers. When the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos started compiling those numbers for Roger Staubach and John Elway, they included playoff games.
If we are supposed to put so much stock into what happens in playoff games, then why does the NFL want us to ignore them when it comes to most consecutive streaks? We have seen Brees throw a touchdown in 53 consecutive games, not 47.
Brett Favre’s incredible iron-man streak of 297 consecutive starts is selling him short of the 24 playoff games — an equivalent of 1.5 regular seasons — he also started during that run. The record should be known better as 321 consecutive starts.
Speaking of consecutive streaks, what about the fact that Brees (one) and Unitas (two) missed games during their touchdown streaks? It seems odd to say the streak was alive by ignoring games they missed, but not including playoff games they played and threw a touchdown during.
Some records you would want to keep the postseason separate for, such as most receptions in a season or any counting stat for that matter. But when it comes to a streak, when is a playoff game not logically another game that is part of the streak?
If San Diego does the unthinkable and keeps Brees’ receivers out of the end zone on Sunday night, do not think he only tied Unitas for the record. It is his and his alone.
At least until the next quarterback soon challenges it.
Why such a long-standing record?
Johnny Unitas revolutionized the quarterback position in his day, but it is still incredible to see the record last for 52 years. When Unitas broke the record, it was held by Green Bay’s Cecil Isbell, and that was a streak of 22 games (some sources suggest 23). Despite 60 drop backs, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford just had his streak of 21 consecutive games with a TD pass snapped on Sunday against Minnesota. Another one bites the dust.
Just the increase in short (1-to-3 yard) touchdown passes in favor of the run alone should be enough to make this record fall. When NFL teams average more than a touchdown pass per game, any elite quarterback should be stringing together dozens of games on their way to this streak, right?
But until this season, that has not been the case. Keep in mind some of the common factors that would prevent a quarterback from losing out on this streak: injury (especially early in the game), being pulled early from a game for “playoff rest”, and how one manages garbage time.
We may not be talking about this right now had it not been for a meaningless drive in game 35 of the streak (39 including playoffs) against the St. Louis Rams last season. Down 31-14 and facing eminent defeat in a shocking upset, Brees started a drive with 2:51 left. He had to convert a 4th-and-9 play to extend the drive, and finally threw an 8-yard touchdown to Lance Moore with just six seconds remaining. Just in the nick of time.
Had Brees not been working on such a long streak, Sean Payton may have played things a little differently at this point of the game, but you could tell they really wanted the touchdown pass to salvage an otherwise poor performance.
That’s not to say Unitas never had his close calls, but the St. Louis game is one the detractors (the jilted Unitas fans) will remember for Brees should he not extend this record out to an absurd number.
Let’s take a look at some of the great quarterbacks who have came the closest, and why they never did what Unitas and now Drew Brees have done.
Tom Brady (36 games, 9/12/2010-present)
You read that right. Brady has an active streak that could see him hit 48 consecutive regular-season games in Week 17 this year. So not one, but two quarterbacks can surpass Unitas this season. Brady’s streak is tied with Brett Favre for the third longest in NFL history.
If we were counting the playoffs, Brady’s active streak would only be five games after the Baltimore Ravens shut him out in the 2011 AFC Championship. However, Brady did get a consolation prize: he scored the game-winning touchdown on a quarterback sneak.
Brett Favre (36 games, 11/4/2002-11/29/2004)
The man with the most touchdown passes (508) ever made it 36 games — 39 including playoffs — and it did not happen during his reign as league MVP (1995-1997).
Favre could have had a streak of 44 regular season games, but he did not throw a touchdown versus Washington on October 20, 2002. That day Favre attempted just 14 passes and had to leave the game in the third quarter with a sprained left knee.
Had Favre stayed in the game, he may have had a touchdown. If his streak was at 44 games, then being that close to the record, the Packers likely would have handled their blowout loss, 47-17 to the Eagles on December 5, 2004, differently. Trailing 35-3 at halftime and 47-3 in the fourth quarter, backup Craig Nall came into the game and threw a pair of touchdown passes, ending Favre’s official streak at 36 games.
Finally, had Favre made it through the injury in Washington and blowout in Philadelphia, he would have been at 49 games at the end of the 2004 season. The Packers were held out of the end zone in their season-opening 17-3 loss at Detroit in 2005.
Dan Marino (30 games, 11/10/1985-11/22/1987)
The prolific Marino was set up to do this early in his career when he was at his best. In fact, he threw a touchdown in 26 of his first 27 games, but only 19 consecutively.
After his 48 touchdown passes in 1984, Marino was shut out in the first game of 1985. It would happen two more times in the season before he started his streak that would last 30 games. Extending his streak from either end point would give Marino no better than a streak of 36 consecutive regular season games.
Those 0’s became too frequent later in his career to ever seriously threaten the record again.
Peyton Manning (27 games, 9/27/1998-12/19/1999)
Believe it or not, Manning’s longest streak started in his rookie season, and is tied with Chris Chandler (1997-1999) for the seventh longest streak. Even Seattle’s Dave Krieg had a longer streak of 28 games from 1983-1985.
Similar to Marino, Manning started hot, throwing a touchdown in 29 of his first 30 games. The streak ended in Cleveland where Manning had a completion to the 1-yard line before Edgerrin James scored a touchdown. Had the streak continued, Manning had a consecutive game without a touchdown to end the 1999 season.
Manning’s best streak really should have started in 2005. He did not throw a touchdown in the last two games, because he sat out roughly seven quarters to rest for the playoffs. Playing those games fully would have likely given him 13 games ending 2005 and 12 more to start 2006 (25).
In his next “0” game at Jacksonville in 2006, Brandon Stokley dropped a perfect pass in the end zone on the opening drive. In the fourth quarter, Manning had a completion down to the 1-yard line, and ran in the touchdown himself.
Given what would happen in the next games, this would have been 38 in a row before a sluggish 2007 game versus Kansas City where Manning kneeled three times in the red zone to set up a game-winning field goal. With such history at stake, maybe we see a pass there instead to win the game. You never know.
That would have been game 39. Manning again left early in Week 17 for playoff rest without throwing a touchdown (game 45). He started 2008 with five straight games, which would have been 50 before getting legitimately shut out in Green Bay.
Manning’s current streak is only 11 games, though he has thrown multiple touchdowns in 10 of those games. That is actually not far off from the record — the one he was the first to set in 2004 — of 13 consecutive games with multiple touchdown passes. Not bad for someone “past their prime.”
No one else has had a streak of more than 25 regular season games, which is impressive, but you can see how easily someone can slip up, especially through events out of their control. Like many records, a little luck is also required.
Perhaps one of the most amazing facts about these streaks is that Joe Montana’s longest was 14 games, which is topped in San Francisco history by Steve Young’s 18-game streak (Young also had a 15-game streak).
When you add the three best streaks in San Francisco history together, you get 47 games. Imagine that.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
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