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Direct Snap: How does Drew Brees stack up against legendary NFL passer Johnny Unitas?

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

What a simply fantastic week for sports records.

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Drew Brees looks for a receiver during last Sunday's game against the Packers. (AP)

Days after Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera became the first man in 45 years to win the Triple Crown in baseball (and anyone who has seen Cabrera hit knows he's officially the greatest hitter of this era), New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees will take his shot at breaking Johnny Unitas' 52-year-old mark of 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass.

While some people have compared Unitas' mark with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, they're really not that close. Since DiMaggio set the record in 1941, only one man (Pete Rose in 1978) has even gotten to 40 consecutive games. Meanwhile, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is currently only 11 games back of Unitas' and Brees' mark.

Nonetheless, what Brees is doing is fantastic and leads to a great discussion over which achievement is more impressive. First, here's a look at the stats of each quarterback during their streaks, as compiled by the Elias Sports Bureau.

QB Comps Atts Yds TDs INTs Rating W-L
Unitas 697 1,298 10,645 102 61 87.6 31-16
Brees 1,302 1,891 14,803 114 50 101.2 33-14

Those numbers also tell a great story about the NFL as a whole. Unitas, for instance, averaged 27.6 attempts per game during his streak from 1957 to 1960. Brees has averaged nearly 50 percent more throws per game at 40.2 attempts. The disparity speaks to how the NFL has changed to a throwing league as the rules on coverage have changed.

That has obviously helped Brees' chase of Unitas. Throw in more rules about protecting the quarterback and this record was bound to fall. If you have ever seen some of the gruesome pictures of Unitas and other fabled passers like Y.A. Tittle or Tommy Kramer of the 1970s, you know the game is much different for quarterbacks today.

This isn't to suggest, though, that the game is now easier for quarterbacks. From all the different offensive formations to the changes in defensive strategy, the game is far more like chess than ever. Quarterbacks are expected to process more information in far less time than during Unitas' era.

Still, it's pretty clear that what Unitas did back then was much more game-changing than Brees. Unitas, of course, was the quarterback for Baltimore in the 1958 NFL championship game known as The Greatest Game Ever Played. But his streak goes beyond historical trivia.

[More: Winless Saints are a wreck without Sean Payton]

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Johnny Unitas with the Colts in 1970. (US Presswire)

What Unitas did was mythologize the quarterback position more than any of his predecessors. He went beyond Sid Luckman, beyond Sammy Baugh and beyond Otto Graham. He was, in a sense, the John Wayne of quarterbacks (yes, another John Wayne reference this week), both tough and talented. His ability to throw gave coaches ideas about how to change the game because he was so much better than anybody else.

For all of Brees' greatness, he's not the best quarterback of all time nor perhaps the best of his era. You could have a great discussion of Brees vs. Brady vs. Peyton Manning vs. any number of passers from the past 12 seasons.

In statistical measures, Unitas' quarterback rating during the streak was 87.6. That seems mundane, but the combined rating for all NFL quarterbacks during that time was only 61.4 percent, including Unitas'. In other words, Unitas' rating was 42.7 percent better than the rest of the league.

[More: Suspended Saints officials will be on hand to watch Brees try to break record]

Brees, whose rating is consistently over 100 the past four years, is roughly 27.9 percent better than the rest of the league.

So whether you believe in mythology or stats, Unitas' streak (and his pure presence) still rank ahead of Brees. At least in terms of quality.

KICKING EXPLOSION

Through the first four weeks of the season, there is a fascinating trend both continuing and developing … if you like field goals, that is.

So far this season, there have been 33 field goal attempts from 50 yards or longer. That puts the league on pace to match the record 140 long-distance attempts that it had last season. That was already a huge jump from the previous 10 years and even a huge jump from the previous record of 120 attempts in 1993.

In contrast, the first year of the 16-game schedule in 1978, there were 34 attempts from 50 or longer … for the entire season.

Even more staggering is that kickers have combined to make 26 of those 33 attempts, a 78.8 conversion rate. There was a time not long ago that teams were content if their kickers had an overall percentage that was that good.

[NFL power rankings: Undefeated pair of birds switch places]

And for those of you who think this is some statistical anomaly related to noted long-range Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski, sorry, that's not the case. Janikowski has made his only attempt from 50 this year and is being threatened by many in the battle for Prince of Distance.

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Greg Zuerlein (4) is congratulated after kicking a 60-yard FG vs. the Seahawks. (AP)

Contributing most so far is Cleveland Browns veteran Phil Dawson, who is four-of-four from 50 this year, but a trio of rookie kickers (Justin Tucker of Baltimore, Greg Zuerlein of St. Louis and Blair Walsh of Minnesota) is right there. Zuerlein, who hit from 60 and 58 last week, and Walsh are each three for three and Tucker is two for two.

Throw in veterans Connor Barth of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (three for three), Stephen Gostkowski of the New England Patriots and Matt Prater of the Denver Broncos (each two for two) and you have a total of seven kickers around the NFL who have combined to go 19 for 19 from 50 or longer this season so far. In fact, David Akers of San Francisco, who set the NFL record for total field goals in a season with 44 a year ago, is one of only two kickers in the league to attempt more than one and miss from that distance.

While upcoming cold weather is obviously going to have an impact on some kickers, delivering from long distance has progressed at a staggering rate the past two seasons. Prior to 1992, long-distance conversion rates hovered somewhere between 30 and 40 percent. It wasn't until 1992 that the league made 50 percent of all attempts (36-of-72 that season).

From 1992 to 2010, the rate hovered from roughly 50 percent to a high of 63.5 in 2008 (66 of 104). Last year, there was not only the huge jump in attempts (140), but the percentage hit an all-time high at 64.3 (90 makes). This season, the trend has jumped again, although you can expect the aforementioned decline with inclement weather in many places.

Overall for the season, kickers have hit 89.5 percent of kicks, which is up from the 82 percent of the previous two years. All of that brings up the question of whether the league should narrow the goalposts in order to further suppress field goal percentage and, transitively, attempts.

But that's a discussion for another time. In the meantime, even if (like most fans) you hate kickers, you have to admire what they're doing.

TOP FIVE

1. 1. Houston Texans (4-0): Jets fans, if you thought last Sunday was ugly, wait till you see what Houston does to you.
2. Atlanta Falcons (4-0): Was RB Michael Turner's last performance a momentary blip or a true renaissance?
3. Arizona Cardinals (4-0): Sorry Cards fans, but this is almost unsustainable when you average 4.3 yards per play.
4. San Francisco 49ers (3-1): They have everything for a title run, except an effective deep passing game.
5. Baltimore Ravens (3-1): Can't wait for the Oct. 21 showdown in Houston. Possible AFC title game preview.

BOTTOM FIVE

28. Carolina Panthers (1-3): On a positive note, QB Cam Newton is averaging a stunning 9.5 yards per pass attempt.
29. New Orleans Saints (0-4): Making the transition from a Gregg Williams D to a Steve Spagnuolo D is really hard.
30. Kansas City Chiefs (1-3): A lot of KC's numbers are really good … except that negative-13 turnover margin.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-3): The worst offense in the league gets to host Chicago this week. Oh God, be merciful.
32. Cleveland Browns (0-4): Jury is still out on QB Brandon Weeden, but RB Trent Richardson is unquestionably the man.

[More: Cam Newton has to find a better way to handle his disappointments]

THIS AND THAT

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Sean Payton watches the second round of the Zurich Classic golf tournament. (AP)

As noted earlier in this week, New Orleans is going to have an issue down the road in how coach Sean Payton's contract is interpreted. Prior to the 2011 season, Payton signed a four-year contract extension through the 2015 season. According to several sources, Payton's suspension will not count against him the same way it would for a player. Players who are suspended for a season have their contracts "toll," which means that if the deal was supposed to run out in 2015, it would now run out in 2016. The question regarding Payton is whether notoriously hardline owner Tom Benson will push for some type of compensation from either the league or Payton. Remember, this is the same Benson who allowed Payton to take a $500,000 pay cut to help hire defensive coordinator Gregg Williams prior to the 2009 season (though Payton ultimately got the money back). Yeah, Williams has since been the center of controversy in the bounty scandal, but he was worth it overall when you consider the Super Bowl title along the way.

[More: Seven biggest disappointments of young NFL season]

One of the more interesting but vastly overlooked plays of last Sunday was a deep throw San Francisco backup (and second-year) quarterback Colin Kaepernick made in the direction of wide receiver Randy Moss in the first half against the New York Jets. While the pass was broken up by safety LaRon Landry, there are a couple of things to take away from that play. First, anybody who saw the play noticed that Moss still has plenty of deep speed. He was open on the play and could have had a touchdown if the pass wasn't underthrown. Second, Kaepernick, despite the underthrow, has a strong arm. Combine that with Kaepernick's running ability (he had five carries for 50 yards, one TD) and you have the makings of a serious quarterback controversy in San Francisco pretty soon. It may not happen this year, but it's hard to imagine Kaepernick, a second-round pick in 2011, not getting a serious chance to start by next season.

[More: Bold statements from the first quarter of the 2012 NFL season]

Having mentioned Landry, he has a clause in his contract that he can't be franchised at the end of this season, which is going to be interesting. Landry is showing that he's completely healthy after two injury-plagued seasons. If Landry's not re-signed by season's end, the Jets could possibly lose two of their starting defensive backs (Landry and cornerback Darrelle Revis) the next two offseasons because each has a no-franchise clause.

And now having mentioned Revis: For anyone who thinks Revis' knee injury this year will affect his value in free agency after the 2013 season (or his value if the Jets sign him to an extension before that), don't count on it. Unless Revis has some type of recovery snafu, he's going to make big money. For proof, consider what happened with Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams. Williams missed the final 11 games of last season with Houston. but received a six-year, $100 million contract from Buffalo, including $50 million guaranteed.

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Michael Vick signed with the Eagles in '08 after being reinstated by the NFL. (AP)

While I'm far from a Michael Vick apologist, I have to say that the headlines this week that say Vick has "blown" through approximately $29 million since returning to the NFL are just downright wrong. As the stories show, Vick hasn't wasted the money (as the word "blown" would indicate). He has been paying off his bankruptcy debt. Vick doesn't deserve a medal for that, but he does deserve a better choice of words in a headline.

If there is a silver lining to the Jets' injury situation (and that's a faint lining, to say the least), at least wide receiver Santonio Holmes won't be around to bring it down further. Holmes, who's very talented, is a notoriously mercurial personality. Several people who know him well have called him "childish" over the years and that hasn't changed. In short, Holmes is a weathervane-type of person. When things are good, he's great. When things are bad, he's awful.

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