With the NFL playoffs now well underway, I had intended to review the recently-published Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas by sportswriter Tom Callahan. But given my tardiness, our Hillsdale correspondent calls our attention to this assessment by George Weigel, papal biographer, resident of Maryland and long-time Colts fan. A fan of the real Colts, that is, not the faux version now inhabiting Indianapolis.
I planned to explore the two most interesting themes of the Callahan’s book. First, the widely accepted view (probably exaggerated, according to Callahan) that the Colts were the first sucessful melting pot in professional sports. The ties of team and community supposedly bonded the Colts’ blacks with the blue collar sons and grandsons of Italian and East European immigrants. Unitas, for instance, grew up in the ethnic Lithuanain coal-working communities of western Pennsylvania.
Second, Unitas is indisputably the man who defined the position of modern professional quarterback. First and foremost the modern quarterback is a leader, tough, cool under pressure, especially the pressure of the playoffs and critical end-of-game situations. He is a precise timing-and rhythm passer, working in subtle choreography with his receivers based on countless hours of practice; yet he is able to improvise on the fly. He is a conservative gambler who takes calculated risks based on experience and feel for the game and his teammates. He is the master of the audible and the two-minute drill, when the game takes on a pick-up quality.
Unitas combined these attributes in the most famous and important professional football game ever played, the 1958 NFL championship against the New York Giants. He drove the Colts to the tying touchdown late in the game, improvising a critical pass with Raymond Berry. He then took the team on a winning TD drive in overtime, including a calculated gamble on a pass when the team was already in field goal range. Before Starr’s Drive and Elway’s Drive, there were Unitas’s Drives.
The quarterbacks in today’s playoff games will all be measured by these standards. But many around professional football – including Unitas before his death in 2002 – believed that the sport, and especially the quarterback position, suffered mightily since his heyday. Fellow Hall of Fame Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen says that it was once the players’ game, but now it is the coaches’ game. Bureaucracy rules. Coaches, not quarterbacks, call the plays, a change that Unitas and his playing peers absolutely hated. Teams normally script the first 15 or so plays. They rely on computers to uncover patterns in the opposing teams’ pass coverage and blitz schemes. Increasingly sophisticated, aggressive and athletic defenses have led to increasingly sophisticated and micro-managed offenses, with much less room for on-field improvision and feel.
According to Unitas, the centralization of the game in the hands of the coaching staff robbed the quarterback of his essential attribute – his ability to command the game by commanding the huddle. Callahan tells the story of Dallas coach Tom Landry, the first coach to popularize calling plays from the sideline. Landry actually wanted to go one better by rotating his quarterbacks, Roger Staubach and Craig Morton, play by play. Landry preferred Morton because he was much more of a predictable system quarterback than the charismatic, athletic, improvisational Staubach. But Landry eventually had to give way because, he realized, the team played much harder for Staubach. Irrationally so, Landry thought. But that was something that a coach could not control.
One can discount a good bit of this “I used to walk to school six miles, uphill, both ways" argument. Unitas would have excelled in today’s game. The top QBs of the present generation would have been Pro Bowlers at any time. The essentials of modern quarterback play, as defined by Johnny U, have not changed. Unitas lives on in the precision, timing and rhythm of Peyton Manning; in the toughness of Bret Favre; and in the big-game leadership of Tom Brady. Things may be coming full circle. Manning has virtually become his own offensive coordinator. He chooses from a menu of plays at the line of scrimmage, depending on the alignment of the defense. Other teams are beginning to adopt this opportunistic, quarteback-centered approach.
The coaching profession itself may be changing. Gregg Easterbrook recently challenged the sainthood of big-name coaches.) Brian Billick, the coach of the current Baltimore franchise and a former Super Bowl winner, was on the verge of being fired at the end of last season after finishing 6-10. Instead, according to the Washington Posts Les Carpenter, Billick and the Ravens’ front office decided that he would adopt a new inclusive “management” style, similar to the trendy theories now governing business. Billick would accept a flattening the corporate structure and encourage input from his employees and mid-level management (i.e., the players, assistant coaches and scouts). This runs counter to the Bill Parcels model of centralized coaching, in which the head coach controls all aspects of “football operations” – he not only cooks the meals, he shops for the groceries.
After a few games Billick also fired his good friend and offensive coordinator, Jim Fassel, and assumed these duties himself. How this decision fits into the new theory is not clear. At the end of the day the coach, like the captain of the ship, cannot shirk the ultimate responsibility. He may be reluctant to leave the bridge no matter how skilled the helmsman and navigator.