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The Unitas Factor
Tom Callahan
August 07, 2006
Every young NFL quarterback owes a debt to Johnny U, who in 1956 showed how a skinny rookie could take charge of a middling team and lay the foundation for a champion
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August 07, 2006

The Unitas Factor

Every young NFL quarterback owes a debt to Johnny U, who in 1956 showed how a skinny rookie could take charge of a middling team and lay the foundation for a champion

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The Colts beat the Los Angeles Rams in Baltimore (Unitas completed 18 of 24 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns), but they mostly lost the rest of the way. "When it came time to play a postponed Redskins game," Snyder said, "everybody in town knew Weeb's job was on the line." It was an odd-feeling game, the only one scheduled in the league that day, two days before Christmas, in the buffer week between the end of the season and the championship game.

"It was a lousy, rainy day," Mutscheller said. With 15 seconds left, the Colts had the ball on their 47-yard line, losing 17-12. "In the huddle," Mutscheller said, "John didn't call a play. He just gave the pass-blocking numbers and told me, 'Go deep, Jim, and then loop back. It'll be there.' I was split right. I ran as fast as I could to the goal line, turned and came back a step, and there it was. Three Redskins and I jumped like basketball players going up for a rebound. I don't know how, but I tipped the ball [or it bounced off Norb Hecker's head] and then caught it on the way into the end zone as the gun went off. We won 19-17. Because no other games were played that day, and the weather was so bad all over the East, everybody was watching. I got a million phone calls."

Ewbank's job was saved. Unitas's position was officially secured. It had been unofficially secured six weeks earlier when, walking through the clubhouse, equipment man Fred Schubach had wondered aloud when Shaw would be coming back, and Marchetti replied, " Shaw ain't coming back." John's 55.6 passing percentage for the season (110 completions in 198 attempts for 1,498 yards and nine touchdowns) was the best by a rookie quarterback in the 38-year history of the NFL.

The Colts of 1956 were much better than their five wins and seven losses, but they didn't know it yet. As a matter of fact, they were only one great pass blocker away. In Moore, who succeeded Ameche as the NFL's Rookie of the Year, they had the most explosive offensive weapon in the league. Nobody noticed, of course, but with that 53-yard heave to Mutscheller, John had passed for a touchdown in three straight games. Come the opener of 1957, he would throw another touchdown pass to Mutscheller, one to Berry and two to Dupre. One hundred and two touchdown passes later, on Dec. 11, 1960, the streak would end at 47 games.

"There was no crash of thunder early on when I thought to myself, This is going to be the great Johnny U," said Moore. "No. I could see that he was improving. But I was improving. Raymond was improving. Nobody really singled John out yet as being the reason we all were improving. But he was the reason. John was the first one of us to think in terms of being world champions. He made us rally around him. We didn't have a choice. Going into the second half of our rookie year--John's and mine--I had started to settle in. Hey, man, I thought, you can handle this after all. One morning before practice, JU looked over at me and said, 'You're feeling pretty happy with yourself, huh?' You see, he could read your mind. I told him, 'I know I've still got a lot to learn.' He smiled and said, 'Let's learn it together.'"

Rechichar was famous for staying up all night, but only once did he do it in Unitas's company. "We roomed together in Los Angeles just one day near the end of the '56 season," Rechichar said, "so he could teach me the middle guard position. Somebody was injured, and even though I weighed only about 215, I was usually the guy who filled in for everybody. All through the night John drew up different formations, telling me where I was supposed to drop back to, and so forth. The Rams' quarterback was a kid named Rudy Bukich. 'Always watch the quarterback's eyes,' John said. 'Nine times out of 10, he'll telegraph the play.' I never did see the film of that game, but I had a pretty damn good day."

Ewbank could be decisive at important junctures, but his tendency to become flustered and tongue-tied under pressure combined with his cartoon build and fondness for pregame oratory to make him a figure of fun among the players. They all told Weeb stories. "Weeb was scared stiff of thunder and lightning," Artie Donovan said. "Sometimes, just by looking up at a dark sky, you might get him to call off practice. Years later, when I referred to Weeb as a 'little weasel bastard' in my book, he called me up. 'What's the idea of calling me a weasel bastard?' he asked. I said, 'Weeb, I meant it affectionately.'"

In those days the quarterback called most of the plays. Alex Sandusky said, "We're in the huddle late in a game. It's third down, three or four yards to go. We need a TD. And here comes a play from the sideline; you know, a message from God. 'John, Weeb says to get the first down.' We're all trying not to laugh, but holy hell. Weeb sometimes would actually send in the play, 'Tell John to score a touchdown.'"

Unitas laughed along. He recalled this sideline exchange: "'Do you have anything for me?' I asked Weeb during a timeout. 'Nope.' 'Does anybody else?' I said. He checked with his assistants. 'Nope.' 'Nope.' 'Nope.' 'Honestly,' I said, 'I don't know why I even come over here.'" But the truth was, there were plays to get first downs and there were plays to get touchdowns. John knew what Weeb meant.

They started out laughing at the coach, but as the players grew closer, the joking was spread around, even to John. "Always, at some point in the game," Sandusky said, "Unitas would come up to you and say, 'Do you need anything? Should we run a draw play to get this guy off your ass? How can I help? What can I do?' At the same time, one of us might say, 'Hey, John, a trap should work pretty soon.' He'd inventory it. Invariably he'd get around to using it. Of course, we did all of our talking before the huddle formed. Unless he asked you a question, only John spoke in the huddle."

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