By Simon Evans
(Reuters) - New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees earned himself a place in the pantheon of National Football League (NFL) greats after breaking Johnny Unitas's 52-year-old record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
A 40-yard pass to Devery Henderson in the first quarter of Sunday's 31-24 win over San Diego gave Brees 48 straight games with a touchdown pass, putting him one clear of the mark set by Pro Football Hall of Famer Unitas in 1960.
Unitas is widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest NFL quarterbacks, a magnificent passer who combined a brilliant arm with great bravery and awareness, earning him the nickname "The Golden Arm" during a 18-season career.
Unitas may have played the game in a different era, the days of muddy fields, less quarterback protection and no comforts of air-conditioned stadiums, but that should not take anything away from Brees's latest achievement.
"Johnny Unitas, arguably one of the best quarterbacks in this game, really revolutionized the position, everything that he stood for as a player, just a pioneer of this game," said Brees, who broke Hall of Famer Dan Marino's single-season record for passing yardage during the 2011 NFL campaign.
"It's a tremendous honor. It's humbling. (It is) certainly a record that we all very much appreciate,"
Gifted with a strong arm, outstanding vision and on-and-off the field intelligence, Brees is destined for the Hall of Fame himself and his latest record is testimony to his outstanding consistency.
Joe Unitas was at the Superdome in New Orleans on Sunday to witness his father's record fall, which coincidentally happened when the pass by Brees was caught by a receiver wearing the No. 19 jersey made famous by Unitas.
The Saints entered the game 0-4 after an offseason in which their achievements, particularly their Super Bowl triumph at the end of the 2009 season, were stained somewhat by allegations of 'bounties' being placed on opposing players.
A NFL investigation led to head coach Sean Payton, who has masterminded so many of Brees' touchdowns, being suspended for the season while assistant Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis, received six- and eight-game bans respectively.
Brees was so keen to share his record-breaking moment with the men who have been deeply involved in his success that he asked for, and was granted, a special dispensation from the NFL the allowed the three men to attend the game despite their bans.
"The amazing thing about a record like this is that it spans over the course of, really, four seasons and hopefully we can keep it going for a while," said Brees, a six-times Pro Bowl pick with a Super Bowl victory,
"You talk about the '09 team, '10, '11 and now '12, there are so many people that are a part of this. That is another reason why I felt it so important to have Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Joe Vitt in the building as well. They had a chance to share in that moment too."
The Saints have had a miserable start to the 2012 NFL season and interim head coach Aaron Kromer is hoping the positive vibes that accompanied his quarterback's record can translate into a run of good results.
"He's broken a lot of records and we've had a lot of offensive records in this period with coach Payton's team and with Drew at the helm, so you just have to make sure you don't become numb to these records," he said.
"It's an astronomical record that's been held for over 50 years. We're definitely on the rise and we need to keep it going." (Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)