January 22, 2010
On January 22, 1973 the 17-season Baltimore Colts career of legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas officially came to an end. He was traded to the San Diego Chargers for unspecified future considerations. The deal was not a complete surprise, since it was clear during the 1972 season that Unitas’ tenure in Baltimore was coming to an end; the arrival of Joe Thomas as general manager assured that a big overhaul of the team was in the works. But the dispatching of Unitas in particular marked the end of a very significant era in the franchise’s history.
The Colts had a new owner, Bob Irsay, who in turn brought in Thomas to make changes. The club had been a perennial contender since the late 50s under Weeb Ewbank as head coach, followed by Don Shula and, after Shula moved to Miami, Don McCafferty. They had won the Super Bowl following the 1970 season and had made it to the AFC Championship game in ’71, where they were shut out by Shula’s up-and-coming Dolphins. The new general manager believed it was time to replace aging veterans with new talent.
Unitas began the season as the starting quarterback, and in one memorable performance against Joe Namath and the New York Jets passed for 376 yards and two touchdowns. But the Colts lost that game, and were 1-4 when Thomas fired McCafferty. McCafferty had refused to bench Unitas, but Thomas ordered the interim coach, John Sandusky, to do so. Unitas found himself second on the depth chart behind mediocre Marty Domres, and the team ended up with a 5-9 record. He appeared in the fourth quarter of his final home game against Buffalo in the 12th week, and threw two passes that included his last TD pass in a Colts uniform – a bomb that covered 63 yards to WR Eddie Hinton. Unitas left the field to an ecstatic ovation from the 55,390 fans in attendance.
The San Diego Chargers had decided to break ties with their veteran starting quarterback, John Hadl, as well. Hadl was an outstanding passer and, in the years when the Chargers featured the aerial game under Head Coach Sid Gillman, that made him a good fit. But Harland Svare was now the coach, and his offensive philosophy was run-oriented. Hadl didn’t take well to the change and was traded to the Rams. With a void at quarterback, San Diego decided to gamble that Unitas, at age 40, still had something left.
The 1973 Chargers season was chaotic and unsuccessful. The record dropped from 4-9-1 in ’72 to 2-11-1 for a second consecutive last place finish in the AFC West. Svare didn’t make it to the end, resigning after the eighth contest (although he did remain the GM). Unitas didn’t last even that long. The arm that had made him an all-time great was worn out, and he played in a total of five games. The high points were two TD passes in a 34-7 win over Buffalo and 215 yards through the air in a loss to the Bengals.
By the second half of the season rookie Dan Fouts had taken over the starting job and, when Unitas was deactivated for the season finale, he went back to Baltimore to watch the Colts play. He retired during the 1974 training camp.
Unitas played at least a couple of years too many, but the bulk of his long career attests to his having been one of the greatest quarterbacks in pro football history (arguably the greatest, period). Almost completely overlooked after his college career at Louisville, he came out of nowhere (and semi-pro ball after failing to make the Steelers) to lead the Colts to back-to-back championships in 1958 and ’59 and a Super Bowl-winning season in 1970.
Along the way, Unitas set 22 NFL passing records, retiring with 40,239 yards through the air and 290 TD passes. He was a three-time league MVP and was named to 10 Pro Bowls. His 47-game streak with at least one TD pass hasn’t come close to being broken, even with rules changes and the development of sophisticated passing offenses that have encouraged teams to throw far more often and thus changed the complexion of the game. Unitas won 119 of his starts and set a standard with 26 three-hundred yard passing games that few have surpassed in the years since. The list can go on and on, right up to his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Johnny Unitas personified the cool, gunslinger-style quarterback and had great mechanics, a quick release, and an excellent touch on his passes from any distance. In an era when quarterbacks typically called their own plays, Unitas was considered an outstanding tactician with a rare gift for improvisation on the field. And his toughness is attested to in his starting 92 consecutive games at one point in his career, a record at the time, and when quarterbacks weren’t protected by the officials nearly to the degree that they are now.
The departure from Baltimore was shabby and the final year in a Chargers uniform was nothing more than a footnote, but they do not dim the overall career that was one of the best in pro football history.