A few hours after John Unitas died of a heart attack last week,
Dan Marino was having dinner with the on-air talent and staff of
HBO's Inside the NFL at a midtown New York City restaurant.
Unprompted, Marino lifted his glass of merlot and said, "A toast
...to Johnny U."
Marino's tribute to the man might have also served as a farewell
to what Unitas did so wonderfully: direct the offense. In today's
NFL it's clear that there will never be another Unitas. Another
rifle-armed clutch quarterback might come down the pike (maybe
even with a crew cut), but he won't have the control over
play-calling and substitutions and the game plan that Unitas had.
The game has become too complex, the defenses too specialized,
the substitutions too numerous. Never again will a quarterback
say to one of his coaches, as Unitas once said to offensive
assistant Don McCafferty before a big game, "Just sit back and
enjoy the game. I won't need any help."
Quarterbacks still call some plays in the two-minute or no-huddle
offense, but not since Jim Kelly's final season with the Buffalo
Bills, in 1996, has a quarterback called his own plays for an
entire game. "So many factors work against a quarterback ever
having that chance again," says Kelly, who was inducted into the
Pro Football Hall of Fame in August. "You have to have a coach
willing to put his job and the jobs of all his assistants and
players on the shoulders of the quarterback; Marv Levy did that
with me. You have to have a team that doesn't change much,
because you all need to be on the same page to eliminate the
mistakes, and I don't think that's going to happen now with all
the free-agency movement. And you have to have a quarterback with
big enough shoulders to handle all that pressure."
Kelly called most of his own plays under Levy, and together they
developed the Bills' K-gun and no-huddle offenses. In the first
half of the 1996 season, the Bills' plays were called by
offensive coordinator Tom Breshnahan and quarterbacks coach Jim
Shofner. The offense struggled, and the team went 5-3. Then Levy
handed the reins back to Kelly, who ran his beloved K-gun--no
huddles, few substitutions, three wideouts, one tight end and one
back. Buffalo had big wins over the Washington Redskins at home
and the Philadelphia Eagles on the road, finished 10-6 and made
To show how difficult it is for a quarterback to call his own
plays, Kelly recounted what he had to do once a play ended and
the 40-second play clock started. "Say it was second-and-eight,"
he said. "I'd hold a finger in the air, like a gun, so the
sideline knew I wanted K-gun personnel if it wasn't already on
the field. Then I'd look to see if [the defense] was subbing. If
they weren't, I'd yell, 'Eight! Eight!' Tight end right with one
wideout, and a slot receiver and split end to the left. Then I'd
yell, 'Cow! Cow!' My hot read [the emergency receiver] would be
to the tight end side. Then I'd yell, 'Ninety-three!' Outside
receivers would run 10-yard outs and inside receivers six- to
eight-yard option routes. Then I'd yell, 'Louisville!' The snap
would be on three. Then I'd look over the defense. If I didn't
like what I saw, I'd audible at the line. I was so lucky, because
I had the smartest center in the world, Kent Hull, who could make
every line call to account for [defensive] guys moving around, so
I'd never have to worry about that. And I knew the tendencies of
every one of my guys. I knew what worked. You think I'd have
wanted to call my own plays with new guys to break in every year?
Could any quarterback in the league today do it? "Maybe two
guys," Kelly said. "Brett Favre, because he has the kind of guts
I had, and Peyton Manning, because he's got the entire playbook
in his head. But I doubt it'll ever happen. The game's just too
In the 1960s teams would play series after series with the same
11 men on the field. Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves, whose
career (as a running back) overlapped with Unitas's, said that
while the substitution patterns are vastly different--the New
England Patriots, for instance, used 18 defenders on one series
against the Pittsburgh Steelers in their season opener--the
sophistication of defenses is the real killer. "John might have
faced two defenses and three coverages in a game," Reeves says.
"Now teams have defenses for practically every down and distance.
Why make a quarterback think about that when he has coaches on
the sideline who can do it for him?"
It used to be that quarterbacks wanted the authority to call all
the plays. Terry Bradshaw politicked for it in Pittsburgh and
finally got the authority from coach Chuck Noll midway through
his career. But you don't hear quarterbacks ask for it today. "A
couple of years ago at the Super Bowl, somebody in the media
polled all the starting quarterbacks in the league and asked if
they wanted to call their own plays for the whole game," recalls
Kelly. "The majority said no. There's just too much to see."
And we haven't even mentioned the financial imperatives. Miami
Dolphins offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who has worked under
demanding owners Jerry Jones, Daniel Snyder and Alex Spanos,
knows that the pressure from above cannot be ignored. Snyder is
paying Redskins coach Steve Spurrier and six offensive assistants
a total of about $6 million this year. How nutty would it be for
Shane Matthews to even intimate he wants to call his own plays?
"These teams sell for $700 million now," Turner says. "Scrutiny
is intense. There's so much on the line, and there are only 16
games. Do you want one player--maybe a young player who doesn't
have nearly the information at his fingertips that the coaches on
the sideline have--making the decisions that could determine
whether all those people keep their jobs?"
The answer is no. But that's just one reason why there will never
be another Johnny U.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN D. HANLON IN COMMAND Not even his coach questioned Unitas's authority during a game.
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. JUMP START Unitas helped put Don Shula, who would retire as the NFL's winningest coach, on track for success.
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. UNTOUCHABLE From 1956 through '60 Unitas threw a touchdown pass in 47 straight games, a record that still stands.
BEFORE ONE GAME UNITAS TOLD A COACH, "JUST SIT BACK AND ENJOY. I
WON'T NEED ANY HELP"