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The Arms Race

The NFL has seen its share of great passers, but who's the best? We crunch the numbers for the top 10 of all time
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

(continued from page 5)

Johnny Unitas holds a permanent place in football lore for a mother lode of reasons. The Horatio Alger thread in his life is one of football's best tales. The ninth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955, he was cut and played semipro for a year. In 1956, the Colts signed him as a free agent and he got his chance when regular quarterback George Shaw was injured in the fourth game.

Just two years later, Unitas directed the Colts to victory in the ultimate mix-it-up drive in sudden death in the 1958 championship game against the Giants at Yankee Stadium. That drive, and that game, is considered by some to be the best ever and catapulted the NFL to hitherto unseen success.

Unitas followed his masterful drive with a repeat title performance at Baltimore the following year, dunking New York, 31-16. He also played in title games in 1964, 1969 and 1971.

He threw touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games (an NFL record) and had an impressive 7.76 YPA. For many, this was a result of Johnny U's singular gift: an uncanny ability to read defenses. "The game was a science to Unitas," said Bill Walsh. "He was so detailed, so disciplined, and he could unload the ball quicker and more accurately than anyone who every played."


#7 John Elway: 6.68

Did any defense want any part of John Elway with three minutes to play and 80 yards to go? Probably not. Equipped with a rifle arm, Elway may have been the most athletic quarterback of his generation, save for Steve Young.

Elway's route to NFL success was circuitous. He attended Stanford University because "it was the only school that encouraged me to play baseball." Playing in the outfield for a New York Yankees farm team in Oneonta, New York, in 1982, he earned $140,000 for 42 games. As inconsequential as that sounds, baseball gave him bargaining power in football. The Colts picked him first overall in the 1983 draft, but he threatened to play full-time for the Yankees if he wasn't traded to a western team. Thus, Baltimore traded its rights to Elway to Denver.

His first defining moment came in 1986 in what is known as "The Drive." In the American Football Conference championship game, Denver was trailing Cleveland, 20-13, with 5:32 remaining and the ball on its own two-yard line. With a mix of runs and passes—culminating in a five-yard bullet to Mark Jackson—Elway tied the game. A field goal in overtime clinched it.

Elway led the Broncos to the Super Bowl three times from 1987 to 1990. In those games, against the Giants, Washington, and San Francisco, Denver lost all three by a combined score of 136-40—an average score of 45-13. As if nursing his wounds, Elway didn't return to the Super Bowl for another eight years. Denver upset Green Bay in 1998 and defended its title with a victory over Atlanta in 1999.

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