December 11, 2010

1960: Unitas’ 47-Game TD Pass Streak Comes to End as Colts Lose to Rams

The Baltimore Colts had won back-to-back NFL championships in 1958 and ’59, and seemed a good bet to win three straight when they got off to a 6-2 start in 1960. However, Head Coach Weeb Ewbank’s club sputtered at that point. Age and injuries began to catch up to the Colts, most significantly a torn Achilles tendon suffered by FB Alan Ameche that proved to be career-ending.

Of course, the Colts still had their star quarterback, Johnny Unitas (pictured above), who was playing with a bad back but was still effective. The running game was not nearly as productive without Ameche, though, and defenses were adjusting to concentrate on stopping the passing attack.

Baltimore had lost two straight games, including a stunning, last-minute 20-15 defeat at the hands of the Lions (one of the contenders chasing the Colts in the Western Conference) the previous week. They were now 6-4 and in trouble as they traveled to Los Angeles to take on the Rams on December 11.

Los Angeles had a new head coach in ’60, former star quarterback Bob Waterfield. The club lost its first four games (including one at Baltimore), but was 3-6-1 by the time the Colts arrived. Some younger players were getting opportunities to play, among them Frank Ryan at quarterback in place of veteran Bill Wade.

There were 75,461 fans at the Memorial Coliseum, and they saw a low-scoring defensive battle. The Colts looked impressive initially, taking up most of the first quarter with a 17-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a nine-yard field goal by Steve Myhra. But that was it as Baltimore held on to a miniscule 3-0 lead at halftime.

Ryan started at quarterback for the Rams but left with a shoulder injury, bringing Wade into the game. Del Shofner, normally a split end, saw action in the defensive backfield and was also the team’s punter until he went down with a leg injury. FB Joe Marconi took over the punting and had an excellent game, kicking six times for a 47.8 average and thus keeping the Colts from starting drives in good field position.

Wade made the biggest play of the game in the third quarter when he rolled out to his left and proceeded to run 66 yards for the only touchdown. He got a good block from Marconi and eluded CB Milt Davis at the 10 yard line on the way to putting the Rams ahead by 7-3.

Danny Villanueva added a 32-yard field goal for LA in the fourth quarter. In the closing minutes, Unitas moved the Colts from their own three yard line to the Rams’ 20, but a fumbled handoff to HB Alex Hawkins was recovered by Los Angeles DT George Strugar, nailing down the 10-3 win for the Rams.

While the Colts outgained LA by 272 yards to 248, they were held to 91 yards on the ground. They also fumbled five times, losing two of them. HB Lenny Moore gained 44 yards on 18 carries (by far his most attempts of the year) while the replacement for Alan Ameche, FB Billy Pricer, ran the ball 8 times and accumulated only 11 yards.

Stars on defense for the Rams included MLB Les Richter, DE Lou Michaels, DE Gene Brito, and DT John Baker. Michaels and the 35-year-old Brito were playing hurt, making their contributions all the more significant.

But the biggest story was that Johnny Unitas failed to complete a touchdown pass, breaking a string of 47 consecutive games stretching back to the eighth contest of the 1956 season (ironically, against the Rams at the same venue). As remarkable as the streak was at the time, it has grown in luster over the intervening years.

The streak occurred at a time when teams were not as prone to passing, and prior to rules changes (most notably in the 1970s) that opened up the aerial game and encouraged teams to throw the ball far more often. The closest any quarterback since has come to the 47-game streak is 36 by Green Bay’s Brett Favre from 2002-04. Dan Marino ranks third, with a 30-game streak in 1985-87.

Along the way, Unitas threw for multiple touchdowns in 33 of the 47 contests (including every game in 1959 and the six leading up to the contest against the Rams), with a high of four that he reached on seven occasions (three times in ’60). The Colts went 31-16 during the 47 games (Unitas missed two complete games to injury in 1958. The streak does not include the two NFL Championship games, in both of which Unitas threw TD passes).

The third straight defeat for the Colts effectively knocked them out of title contention and they ended up losing a fourth to close out the 1960 season with a record of 6-6, placing them fourth in the Western Conference. The Rams were farther behind in sixth place at 4-7-1.

While his touchdown passing streak ended and the team failed to remain on top in the NFL, the 27-year-old Unitas still was among league’s best passers. He set a new record for passing yards with 3099 (he in fact broke Sammy Baugh’s previous record of 2938 in the Rams game) and led the league in pass attempts (378), completions (190), and touchdowns (25). However, he also was second in interceptions thrown (24) due to defenses hanging back to stop the pass once they no longer feared the Colts’ running game (12 of the pickoffs occurred during the last four losing games of the year, including one by the Rams).