Brees’ fast start leads to history lesson

We toss around stats and records freely in our daily coverage of the NFL, but sometimes we don’t stop to reflect. Case in point: One of the most repeated notes we heard coming out of Week 2 was that Saints QB Drew Brees tied a record for the most touchdown passes after two weeks of an NFL season, with nine. Brees tied the mark set in 1965 by former St. Louis Cardinals QB Charley Johnson.

Okay, so Brees is on pace to throw 70 TD passes. Awesome. But here’s my question: What about Johnson?

It’s not as if Brees tied a record held by Joe Namath or Dan Marino or some other Hall of Fame gunslinger. So let’s take a moment and investigate: Who was Johnson … and how did he make out the rest of the 1965 season after throwing nine touchdown passes in his first two games?

For starters, Johnson was a 10th-round pick of the Cardinals in 1960 out of New Mexico State. He played 15 seasons — nine with the Cardinals, followed by two years with the Houston Oilers and four with the Denver Broncos. He threw 170 career TD passes, and he owned the Cardinals’ single-season record of 28 TD passes until Kurt Warner broke that mark last year with 30.

But guess what? Johnson’s career-best 28 TD passes came in 1963, not 1965.

Johnson began the 1965 season with three TD tosses in a road loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. A week later he set a team record with six TD passes in a 49-13 rout of the Cleveland Browns. So, with a 14-game schedule, Johnson was on pace for 63 touchdowns!

So what happened? The pace slowed somewhat over the next three weeks, but the Cardinals were atop the NFL’s Eastern Conference with a 4-1 record, and Johnson had 13 TD passes. He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, under the headline, “The Cardinals Take Wing.”

Uh-oh … SI cover jinx!

The Cardinals lost eight of their last nine games. Johnson missed three starts due to injury, throwing a mere five TD passes in the six games he started the rest of the way. His final line for the season: 11 starts, 18 TD passes, 15 INTs, 2,439 yards.

Since Brees now is linked to Johnson, the question isn’t whether or not he can break Tom Brady‘s record of 50 TD strikes in a season. The question is whether or not he can avoid the letdown Johnson suffered 44 years ago.

— Craig Ellenport

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