By Jason Keidel
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It’s not as toxic a topic as the New York/New Jersey border war, or as socially inflamed as the Richard Sherman saga. But, in a strictly sporting sense, it really is the topic du jour.
If he wins Sunday’s Super Bowl, is Peyton Manning the greatest quarterback in NFL history?
What makes the debate so gripping is both sides are correct. Peyton is merely a .500 playoff quarterback. He’s more renowned for his January and February failures than his glittering accomplishments. By any objective metric, his playoff performances take a tangible dip.
Part of that is because playoff opponents are automatically tougher. Part of that is because the weather is exponentially worse (no, he didn’t always play in a dome). And part of that is he played, as Bill Polian so astutely asserts, with his teeth clenched.
Manning has so many records it is pointless to pen them all here. So let’s limit his accomplishments to the postseason, the only place where his bona fides are questioned. If Peyton Manning wins Super Bowl XLVIII…
He will be the first quarterback to lead two franchises to a Super Bowl.
He will be the second-oldest quarterback ever (John Elway is the oldest).
He will be the first quarterback ever to lead the league in passing yards and touchdowns in the same year.
He will be the first quarterback ever to break the record for passing yards and touchdowns in the same season since Sid Luckman in 1943.
He will be the 12th quarterback with 2 Super Bowl rings.
He’d be the 9th quarterback with 2 wins and 1 loss.
He will be 12-11, overall, with the sixth most wins.
He will be the 7th quarterback to win a ring and league MVP in the same year.
If he passes for 116 yards, he will pass tom Brady for the most ever in the postseason.
With 300 yards on Sunday, he would have four more such games in the playoffs than anyone else.
Those numbers alone, of course, don’t build the best resume, but they burnish his glittering regular-season stats, which are unmatched.
So, would a win Sunday seal the deal?
Joe Montana is considered the Super Bowl passer nonpareil. Only a dolt would disagree. But that doesn’t make Montana the best QB ever. He played 15 seasons and won four times. He also got bounced in the first round four times.
It’s hard to argue against Montana as the greatest ever, especially if you watched his entire career. Last week I said if I were starting a football team I’d take Dan Marino over anyone because he essentially won every game with his divine right arm.
When asked if he wanted a QB in the famously fertile, 1983 draft, Don Shula said, “I don’t want a f&^%ing quarterback. I want Marino!”
Indeed. And Marino’s career needs no defense. But, sadly, as the rules keep bending for the QB and the WR, Marino will keep slipping in the record books, soon to be forgotten because of the dearth of dominant playoff games, which speaks more to the woeful weapons he had on offense and an anorexic defense. His “Killer B” defense had a cool sobriquet, but little substance.
The Marino/Manning comparison feels most suitable because neither has been considered the best of his generation. Whenever we argue Manning’s place in the pantheon, someone flashes Tom Brady’s rings and we scramble back to our desks. You can decide if that’s entirely fair, if you can candidly say that Tom Brady is, ALL things considered, a better quarterback than Peyton Manning.
I won’t compare Peyton to Montana because it’s pointless. But then again it’s fruitless to compare anyone’s Super Bowl stats to Joe Montana, who not only went 4-0 (and was MVP thrice) but also threw 11 touchdowns and 0 interceptions (correct, zero).
Nothing can convince the Peyton haters – and I’m still moved by the alarming army of Manning detractors – that he’s better than Brady, Bradshaw, or Montana. At least not today.
What if Manning beats Seattle on Sunday?
What if he not only wins but shines?
Seattle may not have any Super Bowl experience – which is vastly overrated, as anyone with rings has to win one for the first time – but they have by far the best defense in the NFL. And the game will be played outside, in the cold, throwing into the winter wind of the Meadowlands – a setting that favors Seattle. Yet if the Seahawks win, there will be a frothing faction that will blame Manning more than praise Seattle.
We’ve become so singularly obsessed with championships that it blinds us to brilliant careers. The ring becomes the thing, the emblem of success, above all empirical proof that makes up a man’s career.
Is Jim Plunkett better than Steve Young? Is Brad Johnson better than Jim Kelly? Is Eli better than Peyton? Is my boyhood hero, Terry Bradshaw, better than Marino or Manning? The awesome, aggregate force of Manning’s career statistics are equal parts blessing and burden. Since he’s been so laughably dominant, he’s expected to be perfect in an imperfect setting.
People look at an 11-11 playoff record as average, rather than a startling salutation to his constant production. Just playing in 22 playoff games speaks to his eminence. But people point to his 22 interceptions. If he wins Sunday, he will be 2-1 in the Super Bowl, but folks will say Bradshaw and Montana lost none. Even if Manning wins, he doesn’t win.
An athlete’s place on history’s totem pole is often commensurate to how much we like him personally. One of the reasons we love sports is the zero-sum quality of the final score. There is no room for ambiguity. And in the increasingly opaque world of social media, we find life lends itself to increasing subjectivity,
So we need to judge an athlete instantly and eternally. People love Peyton Manning for his talent, for sure, but also for his aw-shucks southern refrain and everyman ethos. He doesn’t have Tom Brady’s Hollywood cheekbones or Joe Namath’s Broadway persona. The fact that he looks like most people makes him more endearing. He seems accessible, even if he’s the top pitchman in the sport. He’s gritty, not pretty, and thus he’s not a threat to us.
Yet some dislike him for those very same attributes. His blue-collar contours and campy, Louisiana cadence feels scripted to some folks. The idea of the Mannings as America’s first family of football irks people who resent such resounding success. Even with my 10 Twitter followers, I find that the better I write the more it bothers some people. Success begets the entire, kaleidoscopic mood swings of the republic. Sure, we want some people to succeed, but then we need all of them to fail. Mostly it’s projection, an adjunct of our dissatisfaction with our own lives. We didn’t “make it” and thus they can’t, either.
I happen to like Manning, but I don’t love him. You have to be really great or a real goon to move my needle. Manning is neither. But he’s a hell of a football player. And his greatness doesn’t lie on a long spiral or a broken record.
To Ray Lewis, it’s a short out pattern in a playoff game to Dallas Clark on a critical third down. It’s on YouTube and every other tube. Just a four-yard or so toss in the flat, just about two inches beyond the diving defender’s fingertips, just short enough for the athletically limited Clark to snag for the first down. To this day, Ray Lewis reflects on that pass with adolescent wonder.
It’s in nuance with Peyton Manning. It’s not in his contract or his cadence but rather somewhere between his 13th and 14th “Omaha!” Something he picked under a projector’s light. When everyone else is asleep, he found the one formation he can exploit, from a game a decade ago. That’s what makes Peyton Manning so remarkable. Nuance.
About 24,000 people have played in the NFL, and approximately 97 percent didn’t even play in a Super Bowl, much less win one. Manning is about to play in his third, and perhaps win his second. Even among the legends, he is legendary.
No matter what happens in Super Bowl XLVIII, Peyton Manning is an immortal, even if he is painfully mortal on Sunday.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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