Green: Johnny Unitas edges out Tom Brady as GOAT

By Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News
New England quarterback Tom Brady is shooting for a sixth Super Bowl championship.

Atlanta — He wore solid black high-top boots, and he tippy-toed backward to unleash his forward passes. They were low trajectory passes, thrown as darts.

Many savants of his era referred to Johnny Unitas as the greatest quarterback of all time.

Before him by a decade, there was Sid Luckman, who could flip the football left and right and straight ahead and when he aimed could hit a pinhead. One Sunday Luckman piloted the Bears to a 73-0 victory in an NFL championship game over Washington.

That was before Super Bowls defined what is great and what isn’t. But that Sunday, Luckman outshot Sammy Baugh, who claimed legitimately his membership among the great quarterbacks. Savants of the day anointed Luckman as the greatest quarterback of all time.

Tom Brady does not play quarterback in high-tops. He does not tippy-toe. He glides into  his drop back. Often, he rolls to his right or his left and flings his passes. Sometimes he scrambles, runs ahead and then slides baseball fashion. He has the great knack of pulling his team to victory after it seemed doomed.

This past Super Bowl week, numerous 21st century savants have declared Tom Brady The Greatest ever. Today, with the emoji culture, Brady is referred to in New England as GOAT — Greatest Of All Time.

That is after Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana and even Peyton Manning were recognized as the greatest QBs in the 99-year history of the NFL by the same character assassins.

These are sports journalism wizards who never saw Unitas play remarkably with total control for the Colts — or watched Luckman perform with aplomb for the Bears out of the revolutionary T-formation.

No character limit

No emojis back in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. No internet. No bloggers. TV in its bare infancy.

Just basically newspapers — and word of mouth.

“Opinions are like rear ends,” Abe Gibron, then coach of the Bears, told me decades ago in a cleansed version.

“Everybody has one.”

So true.

So true, also: Brady has won five Super Bowls and is taking his second shot at No. 6 Sunday in Super Bowl LIII.

Based purely on the total number of Super Bowl championships, Brady is the GOAT.

But back in the 1960s, Bart Starr won five ultimate championships for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. It happened during the blurred period of the NFL’s player conflict with the upstart American Football League, the merger of pro football leagues in a shotgun marriage, and the creation of the offspring — the AFL-NFL World Championship Game.

That unwieldy moniker very quickly was reduced to Super Bowl.

Starr won the first two Super Bowls against the Chiefs and Raiders — after winning the then-NFL championship games. Before winning the first Super Bowl in 1967, the Packers won three NFL championships — certainly the ultimate back then.

In all Starr was the most victorious quarterback of the 1960s, with five NFL championships plus Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II.

Then Lombardi retired.

The Packers entered what now could be called a rebuild mode.

So, were Starr’s quarterbacking or Lombardi’s coaching wisdom the catalyst for the Packers’ championships? And now are Brady’s quarterbacking or the coaching of Bill Belichick responsible for the Patriots’ dynasty?

In both cases, both coach and quarterback and their teammates.

Everybody has an opinion.

There are multiple opinions even in NFL inner sanctums.

Hit and miss

Particularly the varied opinions of the general managers, the scouts, the directors of player personnel.

Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas (19) of the Baltimore Colts throws a pass during the Colts 28-24 victory over the Los Angeles Rams on December 15, 1968 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California.  (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

Brady just happened to be selected at the end of the sixth round. The brainy gentlemen of the NFL front offices picked 198 athletes before the Patriots drafted Brady — as a possible No. 2 quarterback.


The front-office talent appraisers passed Starr over 199 times before the Packers selected him on the NFL’s 17th round of the 1956 draft. Starr went to Green Bay also as a No. 2 quarterback. He became a No. 1 when the Packers traded Tobin Rote to the Lions.

Lombardi inherited Starr.


Bill Walsh, supposedly a genius, drafted Montana at the end the third round for the 49ers in 1979. That year, the NFL – now including the old AFL teams — essentially snubbed Montana. And Joe, who would win four Super Bowls, was selected after 81 other athletes were deemed superior


Then there was Unitas.

Bobby Layne, who won two NFL championships with the Lions, told me generations ago, that when he went to the Steelers they used the Street & Smith football magazine to make their draft picks.

In 1955, the Steelers drafted Unitas in the ninth round out of Louisville in 1955. The NFL front-office marvels drafted 101 players before Unitas. Johnny could not make the Steelers’ roster behind starter Jim Finks.

So Unitas became a construction worker. On weekends, he played quarterback, safety and punter for the Bloomfield Rams on his hometown Pittsburgh sandlots. He was paid six bucks a game.

The Baltimore Colts discovered him on the sandlots, as the legend goes.

Johnny U would win three NFL championships in his high tops for the Colts. He was the Colts’ starter in victorious Super Bowl V, first after the actual merger with its franchise reshuffling in 1970. Unitas was injured before halftime.

He was voted the NFL’s most valuable player three times. And his pro record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass existed for 52 years.

Drew Brees — a second-round draft choice — surpassed Unitas’ TD record in 2012.  

Quarterbacks are precious and hugely publicized. Some drafted first off the board fail to pan out, some become mediocre and rich.

In my opinion, the draft is a grab-bag. Terry Bradshaw, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning — and also Joe Namath — were drafted first off the board.

Matthew Stafford was, too.

So who is the GOAT — Unitas, Luckman, Brady, Bradshaw, Montana, Starr, Manning?

My opinion — Johnny U, plucked off the Pittsburgh sandlots. It is an opinion subject to change Sunday night.

Jerry Green, a retired sportswriter, has covered every Super Bowl for The Detroit News.

Super Bowl LIII

Patriots vs. Rams

Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta

Line: Patriots by 2.5