On Sunday, Drew Brees completed a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game, passing a record that had been held by Johnny Unitas for 52 years. Brees -- who also holds the single-season records for passing yards, completions and completion percentage -- has just done something that is undeniably impressive. Since the NFL switched to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only eight players have completed a touchdown pass in all 16 games; that's what Brees has now done in three seasons worth of games.
So it begs the question: where does this streak rank among the annals of incredible sports streaks? It's kind of an unfair question to ask, since most people didn't even realize this streak existed -- let alone that Brees was about to break Unitas' record -- until a few weeks ago. But hey, going 48 straight games without getting shut out by an opposing team's defense is phenomenal; we're only five weeks into the season, and it's already happened to Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Cam Newton, Jay Cutler, Matt Schaub, Sam Bradford, Joe Flacco, Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III.
Conventional thinking would probably say that Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak was more difficult because he had a limited number of plate appearances in each of those games; it's easier to believe that a great baseball player could go 0-4 against a good pitcher than it is that someone like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers could get shut out by a great defense. Plus, there's just the common sense fact that if a QB gets 40 pass attempts, each of which has the possibility of turning into a touchdown, he has more shots at extending his streak than a baseball player does.
However, when you consider that the number of a times a quarterback gets into the red zone is more or less equal to the number of plate appearances a batter gets in a game, the debate gets interesting. In fact, the difficulty argument actually favors Brees. Taking into account his hit total, plate appearances and games played, it's been calculated that DiMaggio had an 81% chance of getting a hit in any one game. And as the ESPN Stats & Info blog points out, from 2009 to 2012, the odds of a team's quarterback throwing a TD in any one game was 79.1%. In other words, it was actually less likely for Brees to throw a touchdown during his streak than it was for DiMaggio to get a hit in his.
Of course, those percentages don't include how bad the opponents were during the streak, how lucky the player was during the streak, if perhaps there was miscommunication on the defense, or if the referee/umpire made a bad call. Brees certainly gets points for playing in a much more physical, injury-prone sport (even if the quarterback is considered to be a coddled position nowadays), but he did sit out the final game of the 2009 season, meaning that his streak was interrupted, something you can't say about DiMaggio's streak, which saw the Yankee slugger play every single inning of those 56 games. But DiMaggio also had 14 off days during that run, which is a rather generous total compared to the number of off days current baseball teams get.
So on the subject of which streak is more impressive, there's a serious case to be made for either. The bottom line though is that touchdown streaks and hit streaks are so terribly difficult to maintain that you almost have to discount the merit of the achievements in favor of the sheer, incalculable luck of it all. Regardless of how good Brees is and DiMaggio was, these are streaks that neither man is or was capable of ever replicating. Brees had to rely on his receivers making catches for him and DiMaggio relied on pitchers giving him something to hit. (The incredibly easy cop-out answer is that DiMaggio's was more impressive because 56 games is longer than 48, which is ... well ... true. Even if getting a hit was slightly less difficult for DiMaggio than it was for Brees to get a touchdown, doing it longer may make his more commendable. But if Brees can get his streak to 56 games, there should be a serious, legitimate discussion over which one was tougher to come by, and it may be hard to argue against the New Orleans QB.)
On the subject of which streak is more important, there is no debate. DiMaggio's came at the height of baseball's popularity, for the most prominent franchise in the game, and perhaps most importantly, his came in a sport that reveres stats and records. In the 70-plus years since he accomplished his feat, 56 has become a hallowed number. Football, on the other hand, has no easily-recalled records. Football is constantly recycling old numbers with new numbers, as the game continues to evolve drastically from year to year. In fact, if anything works against the argument for Brees -- at least in the perception game -- it's that so many passing records get broken nowadays that it's sort of hard to appreciate this one. Yes, doing anything week in and week out is difficult, but Brees may be doing this at a time when it's considered "easy" to be a quarterback in the NFL. And the same way a hit record at Coors Field would come with an invisible asterisk, some may attach one to Brees' touchdown record. (The same article from the Stats & Info guys notes that when Johnny Unitas threw a touchdown in 47 straight from 1956 to 1960, the odds of a team throwing a touchdown in a game was 73%, which suggests that Brees' streak wasn't even as impressive as Unitas'.)
What do you think, SB Nation readers? I could honestly go back and forth on which one is tougher, so I'll leave the final word to you guys. Lend me your feedback, and I may or may not disagree with you vehemently in the comment section.