Friday, May 6, 2016

Johnny Unitas Week: Records, Touchdowns and Happy Birthday Johnny U

By Chris Willis, NFL Films

All week Pro Football Journal has looked back at the career of Johnny Unitas. Today, on May 7th, Unitas would’ve celebrated his 83rd birthday and PFJ wraps up its week-long celebration of Johnny U.

When looking at the passing numbers of Unitas they pretty much speak for themselves. When he retired from the NFL following the 1973 season Unitas was first in every major passing category.

Most Passes Attempted

5,186 Johnny Unitas
4,491 John Brodie
4,449 Fran Tarkenton

Most Passes Completed

2,830 Johnny Unitas
2,469 John Brodie
2,459 Fran Tarkenton

Most Yards Passing

40,239 Johnny Unitas
33,248 Fran Tarkenton
31,548 John Brodie

Most Touchdown Passes

290 Johnny Unitas
249 Fran Tarkenton
244 Sonny Jurgensen

Most 300-Yard Games Passing, Career

26 Johnny Unitas
24 Sonny Jurgensen
20 Joe Namath

He also held the king of all NFL records with a Touchdown Pass in 47 consecutive games. His honors included:

10 Pro Bowls (1957-1964, 1966-1967)
6 AP, UPI, NEA 1st Team All-Pro (1957-1959, 1964-1965, 1967)
4 AP,  UPI, NEA NFL MVP (1957, 1959, 1964, 1967)

Unitas made 194 career starts (185 regular season and 9 post-season) and finished with a record of 124-66-4. He won three World championships- back-to-back in 1958-1959 and 1970. He led the league in Passing Yards and Touchdowns four times; and led the league in Yards Per Attempt and Passer Rating three times. Today all of Unitas’s passing records have been broken. Looking at his current rankings you would not be impressed. 

Attempts- 22th
Completions- 27th
Yards- 17th
Touchdowns- 10th

His career passer rating of 78.2 is 78th All-time in NFL history. Any person who knows anything about football knows that there weren’t 77 other quarterbacks better than Johnny Unitas.

Johnny Unitas was much more than his numbers. He was the standard for all quarterbacks at a time when the NFL was going from the back pages of newspapers to the black-and-white screens of television. He called his own plays and he ran the two-minute offense to perfection.
Johnny Unitas
Credit: Marvin Newman, Sport Magazine

In 1969 when the NFL conducted a vote on the NFL’s All-Time Team for its 50th Anniversary season, the voters selected one quarterback. That quarterback was Johnny Unitas. Twenty-five years later the NFL conducted a similar vote for its 75th Anniversary. This time they selected four quarterbacks- Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas.

If you had to pick just one quarterback to win you a game or a Super Bowl the name of Johnny Unitas would certainly be in the conversation. To say he was the greatest of all-time is tough, since eras and the game has changed in different ways, but his name would be in that conversation too.
Johnny Unitas Artwork from NFL's First 50 Years Book
Credit: George Bartell
The one thing Unitas loved to do most was put his team in the end zone. Points on the scoreboard was the most vital part of the game. During the regular season Unitas threw 290 touchdown passes. He is the only quarterback in NFL history to have led the league in touchdown passes for 4 consecutive seasons (1957-1960), out dueling more modern-day gunslingers like Dan Marino, Steve Young and Brett Favre:

Johnny Unitas- 4
Dan Marino- 3
Steve Young- 3
Brett Favre- 3

Johnny Unitas 290 Career Touchdown Passes (Regular Season)

Unitas’s 290 career touchdown passes in the regular season went to 32 different receivers. Long-time favorite Raymond Berry leads the way with 63 scores, with Lenny Moore coming in second at 43.
  1. Raymond Berry- 63
  2. Lenny Moore- 43
  3. Jimmy Orr- 41
  4. John Mackey- 32
  5. Jim Mutscheller- 31
  6. Alex Hawkins- 10
  7. Willie Richardson- 9
  8. Tom Matte- 9
  9. Tom Mitchell- 6
  10. Roy Jefferson- 6
  11. Ray Perkins- 5
  12. Alan Ameche- 4
  13. Eddie Hinton- 4
  14. L.G. Dupre- 3
  15. Dee Mackey- 3
  16. R.C. Owens- 2
  17. Jerry Hill- 2
  18. Tony Lorick- 2
  19. Jerry Richardson- 2
20-32) Dick Bielski, Butch Wilson, Sam Havrilak, Preston Pearson, Royce Womble, Jim Thaxton, J.W. Lockett, Joe Perry, Jack Maitland, Mark Smolinski, Billy Pricer, Bob Thomas, Gary Garrison- all 1.

Out of the group that caught one from Unitas, three of them it would be their only TD catch ever in the NFL.

On December 18, 1960 Colts back Billy Pricer caught a 13-yard scoring strike from Unitas in a tough 34-10 loss to the 49ers. Pricer would only catch 15 career passes and this one was his only TD catch.

On October 25, 1970 Colts back Jack Maitland, who played three years in the NFL (41 games), caught a 5-yard touchdown from Unitas in a 27-3 win over the Patriots.

On September 30, 1973 Chargers back Bob Thomas caught a 8-yard touchdown pass from Unitas in a 20-13 loss to the Bengals. This would be Unitas’s 290th and last career TD pass. Thomas played in only 48 career games and this was his only TD catch.  
Johnny Unitas
Credit: Neil Leifer, October 1967 Sport Magazine
More Touchdown Numbers

Unitas’s Longest Touchdown pass came on October 30, 1966 in the L.A. Colisuem against the Rams. In the first quarter of a scoreless game Colts cornerback Lenny Lyles recovers a Dick Bass fumble deep in Colts territory. From the eleven yard-line Unitas has the Colts offense line up in a two tight end, one back formation with Tony Lorick in the backfield. Raymond Berry lines up as the tight end on the left and John Mackey on the right. Halfback Tom Matte flanks just off of Berry’s hip. Unitas then takes a seven step drop near his own goal line. Right before getting clobbered in the face by Rams linebacker Maxie Baughn he fires a pass down the middle of the field to a wide open Mackey. On film Mackey outruns Rams safety Chuck Lamson who clearly has missed playing his assignment. 89 yards for a touchdown. The longest touchdown pass in Unitas’s career helped the Colts win 17-3.

More Touchdown Numbers: 
Career High: 32 (1959)

Home: 165
Road: 125

1st Quarter: 59
2nd Quarter: 89
3rd Quarter: 52
4th Quarter: 90

3 Yards or Less: 26
4-9: 53
10-19: 65
20-29: 38
30-or-more: 108
Against Opponents:

49ers: 40
Lions: 40
Rams: 39
Packers: 34
Bears: 33
Vikings: 26
Redskins: 24
Falcons/Browns: 7
Bills/Cowboys/Patriots: 6
Eagles: 5
Saints/Jets/Dolphins: 3
Giants/Oilers/Cardinals: 2
Steelers/Bengals: 1

Milestone Touchdowns:

1st TD: Jim Mutscheller, 36 yards (10-21-1956 vs Bears, Loss)
50th TD: Lenny Moore, 5 yards (12-6-1958 vs Rams, Loss)
100th TD: Raymond Berry, 21 yards (11-6-1960 vs Packers, Win, Unitas throws 4 TDs in game)
150th TD: John Mackey, 32 yards (9-15-1963 vs Giants, Loss)
200th TD: Raymond Berry, 5 yards (10-31-1965 vs 49ers, Win)
250th TD: Alex Hawkins, 17 yards (11-19-1967 vs Lions, Win)
290th TD: Bob Thomas, 8 yards (9-30-1973 Chargers vs Bengals, Loss, Unitas last TD pass)

The Passing of Johnny U

Johnny Unitas Special Commemorative Newspaper Issue from the
Baltimore Sun, published after his death in 2002

On September 11, 2002, on the one year anniversary of 9-11, Johnny Unitas died of a heart attack while working out at Kernan Physical Therapy Center in Timonium, Maryland. He was 69 years old. The tragic news shocked the country, as well as the city of Baltimore.

“Unitas put Baltimore on the map. Before he came along, I think people just thought it was the halfway point between Philadelphia and Washington. But then here come that team in 1958, and suddenly it’s a whole different deal,” said former teammate Ordell Braase.

Raymond Berry reflected on Unitas. “I have to classify as the best break I ever got in my career. He was the toughest competitor you could hope for. The type of quarterback he was, the leader he was, he was totally focused on moving the ball, scoring points and winning. “

“He’s the greatest thing to ever happen to this city,” remarked Art Donovan.

Johnny Unitas Statue outside of M & T Bank Stadium in Baltimore

In Sports Illustrated Baltimore native Frank Deford wrote a tribute to one of his boyhood idols.

“Somehow, he could win. He would win. It almost didn’t matter when he actually couldn’t. The point was that with Johnny U, it always seemed possible. You so very seldom get that, even with the best of them. Johnny U’s talent were his own. The belief he gave us was his gift.”

Today, May 7th, we celebrate the birthday of number 19- Johnny Unitas.

Pro Football Journal has hoped you've enjoyed reading all week about the career of Johnny Unitas.


  1. Wow! some of your best work Chris. Having seen Johnny Hightops play in person, and many, many times on TV....he was simply the best of his generation, and one of the few men who could be considered the best of all-time. He was decisive & accurate as a passer....what else would you want?

  2. Thanks for the post and its really interesting to read your interesting blog. People who are really concerned about their experience may take help from the  latest sport news to know about the ongoing sports and know what's going on these days as well as happened in past.

  3. A wonderfully informative article with many fresh insights and perspectives -- and that's some challenge given all the ink that's been printed on the immortal Johnny U.