by Quin;

Peyton Manning, class act from a classy family, is justifiably enjoying a nationwide rush of praise and warmth following last night’s Super Bowl victory. I’ve written so many times about my admiration for his family, and about how fortunate I feel to have been able to watch from several arm’s-lengths Peyton’s entire career from when he was literally four years old (not that he knows me from Adam, but, like so many in the Mannings’ semi-proximate orbit, I feel like I know them), that there is no need to add to that trove of vignettes.

Peyton, BOAT

Now, though, is a good time to re-enter that old, ongoing debate about which NFL quarterback is the GOAT or the BOAT (the Greatest of All Time — although I don’t like that acronym — or the Best of All Time). In truth, it’s almost a useless debate, because rules change and supporting casts change and also because football is such a team game. But it’s a fun debate nonetheless. After last night, it is a debate in which Peyton Manning once again clearly has a solid case.

First, let’s set the stage. For these purposes, I discuss only the TV age, born roughly with the onetime “greatest game ever played,” the famous 1958 overtime game where the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants. The game was so different before that, and the reliable evidence (especially visual) so thin, that pre-TV quarterbacks such as Otto Graham and Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman aren’t able to be compared fairly with modern QBs, even though they may in truth merit it.

Moving on…

Among those quarterbacks that belong at least in the realm of the debate (even though a few of them usually are, unfairly, denied even that honor), but who ordinarily are placed just the tiniest step below the ultimate debate, are Bart Starr (who really, really, really deserves far more mention in these debates than he usually gets), Dan Marino (no championships), Brett Favre, Terry Bradshaw, and maybe Roger Staubach and even (although rarely) Troy Aikman.

I might promote Starr to the final discussion, but whether he is promoted or not, that discussion almost always includes serious arguments for Johnny Unitas, John Elway, Tom Brady, Joe Montana… and Peyton Manning.

On different days, in different moods and frames of mind, I can easily make the case for each of the other four, and if asked who I would want to draft first to build a championship-winning team around, I usually say Montana. (For what it’s worth, I think the guy of these Consensus Five who gets the least mention, but who may deserve the most, is Elway — whose first three Super Bowl appearances, all disasters, came when he was all but carrying the entire team on his back. In that respect, he and Manning are far more alike that Brady, Montana, and Unitas, all of whom — unlike Elway and Manning — played for teams that could, and did, do quite well even when they were sidelined.)

If I can come to different, honest conclusions on different days, to me that means the answer is, for all intents and purposes, a dead heat.

But for today, here is the case for why Manning clearly belongs at least in that dead heat, and (by some lights) at the top of the heap.

First, the argument starts with the idea, rarely contradicted, that Manning is indisputably the best regular season quarterback of all time. His numbers are so phenomenal across the board — yards, touchdown passes, wins (including wins with otherwise only fair-to-middling teams at best), division titles, playoff appearances, abstruse quarterback ratings — that they almost defy belief. (Brett Favre is close on most counts, and Favre did manage to take three different teams to conference-championship games, but his interception total so exceeds Manning’s that it seriously diminishes his case.) And he has accomplished them with coaches generally seen as pretty good, but not geniuses. (When Tom Brady missed almost a full season with an injury, the Patriots still managed an 11-5 record with the amazingly underwhelming Matt Cassel at QB; when Peyton missed his full season, the Colts became the worst team in the league.)

The knock on Manning is that his post-season performances, taken as an aggregate, have been merely good (and yes, on the aggregate they have been good, not merely mediocre) rather than superlative. And yes, there have been about three really bad Manning post-season games. But there also have been some in which he played truly superbly but his team did not, and his team lost. This actually started in his first playoff appearance, in his second year in the league, in which he actually ran for a 15-yard touchdown and was rallying his team down the field even as the clock ran out, for a team that truly was little better than slightly-above-average.

Several studies have noted that in the aggregate, Manning’s post-season stats (other than wins) match Tom Brady’s pretty closely (see here and here and  here, among many others) and also that he has suffered from some particularly bad luck (here and here). It’s also undeniable that, until this year, Manning was carrying on his back teams with defenses that ranged usually from just adequate to at best pretty good, while featuring a running game that ranged from almost non-existent to, at best, good in only one year (his Super Bowl winning season for the Colts). It is perfectly natural for a team with weaknesses aside from its quarterback to win at a lower percentage when facing the best teams in the league (playoff teams, by definition) than playing week-to-week against a schedule including poor teams.

Yes, Manning was pretty bad in the Super Bowl two years ago, and was just a competent manager this year while his defense carried the day. But people forget that when his Colts lost the Super Bowl to the Saints, Manning had an absolutely superb game except for one pass. His first half was tremendously good; then the Saints pulled off their on-sides kick to start the second half. And on the famous interception the Saints’ Tracey Porter ran back for a touchdown, knowledgeable people note two things: First, Porter made just a phenomenal play, “jumping the route” based on something he had seen on game film. Second, Manning’s pass actually was on target for a timing pattern. His receiver, the great Reggie Wayne, entered the game on a gimpy leg. Watch the play in slo-mo, and you see it: When Wayne made his “cut” toward the middle of the field, a cut he usually makes sharply and quickly, he instead cut rather weakly and slowly on this play. He just couldn’t push off on his bad leg with the burst he usually uses. Result: He was about three-quarters of a step short of the spot across the middle where he would ordinarily be — the exact spot Manning hit.

Aside from that play, Manning was a tremendously strong 31 for 44, for 333 yards and a touchdown, with no other interceptions.

Anyway, here is an important consideration: Playing for five different head coaches, Manning had led teams of only fair-to-middling (or maybe pretty good) overall talent to the playoffs in every season but two, out of his entire 17 years (not counting the full season he missed) in the league. He led five of them to the conference championship game. He won four of those championships (including winning three against one loss to the Belichick/Brady Patriots). He led the Broncos to the Super Bowl twice after enduring a form of spinal fusion surgery.

Now, let’s drill down to the two most remarkable considerations. First, Manning is the only quarterback ever to be the winning starting Super Bowl quarterback for two different teams. Montana didn’t do it. Kurt Warner came close, but he didn’t do it. Favre didn’t do it. But Manning did. He did it in Indianapolis, an indoor team, for a soft-spoken head coach, and he did it in Denver, a windy cold-weather place, for a taciturn tough guy.

More impressively — indeed, when you think of it, almost stunningly — Manning led teams to the Super Bowl for four different head coaches. Starr was guided by Vince Lombardi. Brady has benefited from the genius of Bill Belichick. Those are, almost without argument (sorry, Don Shula, Tom Landry, and Bill Walsh), the two greatest head coaches in TV-era NFL history. (Pre-TV, Otto Graham played for the other greatest, Paul Brown.) Bradshaw won his four all under Chuck Noll, surrounded by what may have been the greatest long-lasting cast of teammate talent in NFL history. Staubach won for a Landry-led Cowboys team that reached several NFC championship games (and a Super Bowl appearance) before he arrived and three consecutive NFC title games immediately after he left with Danny White in the shotgun. Unitas reached NFL title games for three coaches (including Shula and Weeb Eubank, both of whom were good enough coaches to win Super Bowls without Unitas, on entirely different teams), but all for one team. And Montana won all four of his in the system uniquely associated with Bill Walsh, and on a team that also won immediately after he left, with Steve Young at QB.

But Manning got there under Tony Dungy, under Jim Caldwell, under John Fox, and under Gary Kubiak. Good coaches all, but not legendary. He did it twice with mediocre defenses. He did it with different systems, different offensive coordinators. He did it healthy, and he did it bunged up. He did it as the superstar, and he did it as the game manager. He did it three times by getting past Belichick’s Patriots (and another time was stopped by Belichick only when Manning’s blockers couldn’t spring his running back past the goal line three straight times from the one yard line at crunch time).

And even this year, clearly his worst as an individual performer, in a system completely alien to him, he came through again and again at crunch time, forging a 10-2 record as a starter plus another win off the bench; compare to the decent Brock Osweiler’s mere 4-2 record as a starter, plus a game handed over to Manning halfway, with the Broncos behind.

This is a mind-bogglingly impressive record. This is a record for the ages. It is a record, surely, of the Best of All Time. Or, at least, a record that cannot be topped, even if some will argue that it has in some ways been equaled.

 

 

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