On Dec. 28, 2001,
New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi made the call that he made every
year on the anniversary of the Baltimore Colts' 1958 NFL Championship Game
victory--to John Unitas, the mastermind of that historic win. "You know
what today is, don't you?" Accorsi asked. Unitas knew. He always knew. And
that day, Unitas, who watched football every Sunday, went on a rant.
never play the way these quarterbacks play today," he said. "I could
never play like a robot. That's what these guys are--robots."
Accorsi said, "you wouldn't have a choice."
wouldn't play," Unitas replied.
Accorsi grew up a
Colts fan and in 1970 became the team's p.r. man. He and Unitas remained good
friends until the quarterback's death in September 2002. "I'll never forget
that conversation because it was the last great football conversation we
had," Accorsi said last Friday. "He was adamant that the quarterback
should run the game. He felt the quarterback was the guy who had the game in
his hands, and it shouldn't be run by coaches on the sidelines."
an anecdote from 1964, Don Shula's second year as Colts coach. Shula sent
backup wide receiver Alex Hawkins into a game with a play, but when Hawkins got
to the huddle, Unitas asked him gruffly what he was doing there. Hawkins said
Shula wanted to run a specific play, 65 Flare Outcut. Unitas called a timeout
and walked to the sideline. "You want to run that play?" he said to
Shula. "You go in and run it." Battle won. Unitas called a play he
Asked which of
today's quarterbacks remind him of Unitas, Accorsi thought for a while.
" Troy Aikman did," he said of the Dallas Cowboys' three-time Super Bowl
champ who retired in 2001. "He had the same personality on the field:
cold-blooded, steely. He won a Super Bowl with a concussion, which is something
Unitas would have done. Other than that ... well, maybe [the New England
Patriots'] Tom Brady. Their stories are similar--late draft choices, backups
early, really smart. But that's it."
The advent of
situation substitution on both sides of the ball in the late 1970s has made
calling plays as Unitas did nearly impossible. Except in some two-minute
drills, the last quarterback to even have the opportunity was Jim Kelly, who
ran the Buffalo Bills' offense a decade ago. While one of today's passers would
be formulating the next play in his head, a new package of players--his own and
and the defense's--would be running onto the field.
the NFL was better when it was a matchup game of 11 men against 11 for an
entire series, not a scheme game with coaches on the sideline and high in the
stadium boxes controlling the action. "They say everything is cyclical, and
I hope I live to see the return of that kind of football," Accorsi said.
"But I doubt it. It's like in baseball--with the pitch count, you're not
going to see pitchers throw like they used to. Same thing in football. This is
the generation we raised. This is the game today."