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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Unitas played a different game

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 06:27 PM
TAMPA -

Len Dawson listened to the question and tried not to laugh.

He almost pulled it off.

The Hall of Fame quarterback worked last week's matchup between the Bucs and Kansas City in the broadcast booth of Raymond James Stadium as a radio analyst for the Chiefs, the franchise he led to an NFL championship in Super Bowl IV.

"How has the passing game changed?'' Dawson repeated. "You've got to be kidding me. How many times do you think teams used four wideouts in the 1960s and 1970s, when I played? It was basically run the ball on first down and sprinkle in some passes.''

When Drew Brees leads the Saints against the Bucs this afternoon, he won't be thinking about a sprinkle.

He'll be looking for a hard rain to fall on Tampa Bay's short-handed secondary as Brees seeks to extend his NFL-record streak of 48 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass.

In 1960, when Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas set the mark of 47 in a row, it was widely considered one of sport's unbreakable records.

"Anytime a record stands for 52 years,'' Brees said, "you figure it's pretty hard to do.''

Hard? Yes.

Unbreakable? Hardly.

If he was still alive, Johnny U. wouldn't recognize the evolution of the NFL's modern passing game. In winning league MVP honors with Baltimore in 1959, Unitas averaged 31 pass attempts. Brees is averaging 47 throws per game for the 1-4 Saints. While playing 52 fewer games during his career, the 33-year-old Brees has already topped Unitas in career pass attempts (5,715 to 5,186) and scoring passes (295 to 290).

A balanced attack has been an afterthought in New Orleans for much of Brees' seven-year tenure.

"You have to understand where this all comes from,'' said CBS analyst Rich Gannon, who won league MVP honors in 2002 as quarterback of the Raiders. "When I was in high school, if we threw the ball 18 times, that was a lot. Now, high school quarterbacks are throwing 40 times. I still believe you need a running game, but you can't play the quarterback position in this league right now if you're not completing 60 percent of your passes.''

The NFL's new normal has changed dramatically since Unitas and Dawson operated with a run-first mentality.

"The rules have a lot to do with it,'' Dawson said. "We used to have corners playing bump-and-run all the way down the field until the football was released. You take a big guy like (Hall of Fame cornerback) Willie Brown. When we played Oakland, Willie would maul Otis Taylor and it was all legal. Now, you can't touch a receiver downfield. No wonder guys are throwing it 50 times. I never threw 50 times in a game … unless you counted warmups.''

NFL teams are averaging 243 passing yards per game this season. That's up 31 yards from only a decade ago, when Brad Johnson led the 2002 Bucs past Gannon's Raiders in a lopsided Super Bowl win.

"Look at young guys like Mark Sanchez of the Jets and even a Josh Freeman here in Tampa – accuracy and decision-making are the two big knocks on them right now,'' Gannon said. "Then you look at a Drew Brees or an Aaron Rodgers, hitting at a 70 percent clip most years. That's the world they live in right now.''

Dawson said the league has encouraged wide-open offenses to generate points and attract more customers.

"I'll admit it's probably more exciting for the fans, more throwing, more action,'' Dawson said. "Still, old guys like me still believe it's the running game that sets up everything. Back then, receivers were football players. They had to block downfield to help your run game work.

"Now, you're lucky if they try to get in the way.''

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