Bert Jones: Why following Johnny U. wasn't as tough as you think

When Bert Jones arrived in Baltimore in 1973, Johnny Unitas left -- and following a legend is never easy. But Jones made the best of a tough situation, taking the Colts to three successive division titles. Did we say tough? Jones didn't, telling the Talk of Fame Network that "it wasn't near as tough for me as people possibly perceive it."


(Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Colts)

Talk of Fame Network

Bert Jones and John Unitas never played together in Baltimore, but because Jones followed Unitas – stepping in as the Colts' starting quarterback after Unitas left for San Diego – he often was compared to the Hall of Famer.

That couldn’t have been easy, but it wasn’t the pressure cooker you might imagine.

At least that’s what Jones told the Talk of Fame Network on this week’s broadcast, as he joined his father, Dub Jones, in a first-ever father/son appearance. According to Bert, following Unitas was more of “a great honor” because he played the same position on the same team as the Colts’ great.

“Quite honestly,” said Jones, “I never considered myself having replaced John. Even though we were friends until he passed away, we never played on the same team. So we never really competed. It was a great honor for me to walk on the same football field, playing for the same team, playing the same position that one of the greatest of all time has ever played.

"And then, as I progressed through time, people … whether they knew it or not … (would say), ‘Well, he’s not a John Unitas.’ But you know what? When they mention your name in the same sentence as a John Unitas -- whether it’s intended or unintended -- is truly a compliment.”

Jones wasn’t Unitas, but he was damned good. In fact, he was so good that former Colts’ GM Ernie Accorsi said that had he not been forced out of the game by injury, Bert Jones might have been the greatest quarterback ever. He not only could make every throw; he could carry a team -- proving it when he resurrected the downtrodden Colts, turning them from a doormat in 1974 into division champions the next three years with a 31-11 record.

Three decades later, when New England coach Bill Belichick was asked to name the greatest quarterback of his lifetime he mentioned Jones -- calling him was "the best pure passer" in the game.

Jones was so accomplished that he was named the league MVP in 1976 and was one of only three quarterbacks in the 1970s to produce a season passer rating of 100 or better. Unfortunately, shoulder and neck injuries drove him from the game at the age of 31, with Jones retiring after the 1982 season.

When he left he wasn’t remembered as another Unitas, but he was remembered. Because while he played he made the people of Baltimore forget – albeit for a short time – what they lost when Johnny U. left town. Bert Jones was asked to make the best of a tough situation, and he did … with panache.

“I didn’t really necessarily feel the pressure,” Jones said, “but there again I grew up in the business. I knew that one day you’re here, and the next day you’re gone. So I knew that the same swinging door I was going into to enter the game of the NFL would one day be the same door that I came home from. It was just a way of life. And that's what we did.

“It wasn’t near as tough for me as people possibly perceive it or projected it to be because it didn’t really mean anything other than he was one of the greatest ever. I’m just happy to be here.”