Eli stands alone
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Feb 25, 2008
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts resident Manning sack-washer
The NFL has been around a long time, but Eli Manning is the only quarterback in history to lead a last-minute, championship-winning touchdown drive – at least when he absolutely positively needed a touchdown and when anything less would have meant failure.
Hard to believe, considering that the NFL has been around for 88 seasons. But absolutely true.
At least that's what we discovered today when we were preparing our next colossal Mail Pouch (the final post-2007-season edition) in response to reader e-mails.
One e-mail came a week or two ago from a guy named Robert Rosen. After researching the answer to his question, and discovering its historic nature, we decided to pull it out and publish it separately. It's a pretty amazing little historical item – and highlights the truly amazing nature of New York's victory over New England in Super Bowl XLII.
Here's his question, along with our response.
"Have any other NFL quarterbacks besides Bart Starr, Joe Montana, and now Eli Manning ever led their teams on game-winning touchdown drives ending in the final minute of play to win an NFL championship? If not, then Eli Manning just did something only the Cold Hard Football Facts' top two QB's of all-time have ever done. And of the three, only Eli began his drive knowing it had to end in a TD." – Robert Rosen
Ironically, Robert, the most amazing TD pass in championship game history (not to mention the first championship-winning TD drive) came in the very first NFL title game in 1933. The Bears beat the Giants, 23-21, when they scored late in the fourth quarter. Bronko Nagurski (a member of the CHFF All-Time 11) tossed a short pass to Bill Hewitt that went for 14 yards, before Hewitt lateraled to Bill Karr, who raced into the end zone to complete a 33-yard, game-winning pass & lateral TD. (Hewitt by the way, a Hall of Famer, was the last NFLer to play without a helmet; the photo here, which comes from the HOF website, shows the game-winning lateral from the helmet-less Hewitt to Karr.)
The Bears trailed 21-16 at the time of the Nagurski-to-Hewitt-to-Karr score. So, as was the case with the 2007 Giants (who trailed 14-10), they obviously needed a touchdown to win.
The timing of the game-winning play in 1933, however, is open to some debate. The Hall of Fame website says only that it happened "in the final minutes." An entry on the notoriously inaccurate Wikipedia states that the play came with "less than a minute to play." The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia does not give a timestamp of any kind.
However, the timing of the touchdown may be moot for our purposes here: After all, the quarterback position as we know it today did not exist in 1933. Back then, any player in the offensive backfield might have been called upon to pass the ball on any given play. And passing in general was rare. Nagurski, generally a running back (but also a two-way lineman), attempted two passes that day, both of which went for touchdowns. His backfield mate, George Corbett, completed 2 of 3 passes for 79 yards.
So, if we're talking quarterbacks, it seems that Eli Manning is the first and only quarterback in history to lead a championship-winning TD drive in the game's final minute, knowing that he needed a touchdown or would lose the game.
To size up his performance, here's a look at every other notable late-game, championship-winning touchdown in NFL history. It's a very short list. And, as you'll see, the scoring drive that Manning led in Super Bowl XLII stands as unique in the annals of the game. A small group of other quarterbacks, including New England's Tom Brady (twice), have led last-minute, championship-winning drives that ended in field goals. But this list looks only at those drives that ended in touchdowns.
1933 championship game (Bears 23, Giants 21)
1951 championship game (Rams 24, Browns 17)
Hall of Famers teamed up for a championship winning TD pass when L.A.'s Norm Van Brocklin connected with Tom Fears for a 73-yard score. Obviously, the game was tied at the time, so a field goal would have won it. Plus, we believe there were still several minutes to play when Fears scored.
1953 championship game (Lions 17, Browns 16)
This game might be as close as we've come to a quarterback foreshadowing Eli Manning's heroics. Trailing 16-10, Bobby Layne's Lions absolutely needed a touchdown when they took over on their own 20 in the fourth quarter. Layne, a future Hall of Famer, connected with Jim Doran, a defensive end called into play offense because of injuries, for a 33-yard TD that tied the game at 16-16. Doak Walker booted the game-winning extra point. The only difference between this game and Super Bowl XLII? Detroit's game-winning score came with 2:08 on the clock, compared with just 35 seconds for Manning and the Giants. (Photo of Doran's TD reception from the Pro Football HOF.)
1958 championship game (Colts 23, Giants 17)
Johnny Unitas famously led the Colts to victory in "the Greatest Game Ever Played" when Alan "The Horse" Ameche pounded in from the 1 with the game-winning touchdown. However, the Colts did not need a TD in this, the NFL's first-ever overtime game. They would have won with a field goal.
1967 NFL championship game (Packers 21, Cowboys 17)
Rosen touched on this game, the famous Ice Bowl, when he mentioned Bart Starr in his e-mail. Starr himself scored the game-winning TD with 13 seconds to play. But his Packers trailed 17-14 at the time. They would have tied and most likely gone to overtime with a field goal.
Super Bowl XXIII (49ers 20, Bengals 16)
Rosen also touched on this game, with his reference to Joe Montana. The legendary 49ers quarterback famously threw a game-winning TD to John Taylor with 34 seconds to play. But the 49ers trailed only by three, 16-13, at the time. A field goal would have tied the game and most likely given us our first and only overtime Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XLII (Giants 17, Patriots 14)
Manning and the Giants took over on their own 17 yard line with 2:07 to play and trailing 14-10. In other words, anything less than a TD would have meant failure. They scored on Manning's 13-yard pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds to play.
Bottom line: Even among the most dramatic, championship-winning touchdowns in the history of the NFL, Manning's pass to Burress stands out as unique and the most triumphant. Manning is the first – and only – QB in the history of the game to lead a last-minute, touchdown-scoring drive in a championship game when nothing less would do.
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