It’s the time of year again. I don’t mean the lead up to the Super Bowl, but the time when we talk ourselves to death about Peyton Manning’s legacy. We simply can’t help it, but to compare Manning to fellow great quarterbacks Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas and John Elway. The problem isn’t that we’re having this discussion, but the parameters to which we start and end this debate.
ESPN’s Dan Graziano wrote that Manning is the greatest quarterback of all time no matter what the result of next week’s Super Bowl is and I find that to be utterly hilarious. Manning will go down as one of the 10 best to ever play the most difficult position in all of sports, but to say the result of his third and possibly final appearance in the Super Bowl doesn’t matter is a little silly.
We first heard proclamations like these back in Jan. 2010 in the lead up to the Super Bowl in Miami, Fla. between Manning’s Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints. At that time after leading the Colts to a 14-0 start to the season and easy wins over the Ravens and Jets in the playoffs, Manning appeared to be on the verge of his second championship in four years. Just winning a second championship still seemed strange that anyone could elevate him over Montana, who was 4-0 in the Super Bowl and didn’t have commit a turnover in those games.
The coronation for Manning in South Florida was not meant to be as New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees dominated the Indianapolis secondary and Manning threw a soul crushing pick-6 with under four minutes to play to clinch the Saints’ first Super Bowl victory, 31-17. The loss would turn into the first of three straight playoff losses for Manning. Fast forward to Jan. 2014 and Peyton is back in the Super Bowl with a loaded offense and the narrative surrounding No. 18 is back.
Winning the Super Bowl shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all of any quarterback discussion, but you can’t just ignore that this is only Manning’s third trip and he’s won the big game just once. Montana, Brady and Elway have a combined 14 trips to the Super Bowl with nine victories. Some of this is luck and some of it has nothing to do with the quarterback’s production, but it’s inarguable that it is all part of the player’s resume if you are having a discussion like this.
There are several problems with having any discussion of a player’s legacy while he is still active, but my biggest with this one is that Manning’s greatest contemporary rival, Tom Brady, has arguably had the better career. Brady has a better touchdown-interception ratio, postseason record and more Super Bowl rings (3-1). Where a lot of the hyperbole gets started is the gawdy stats Peyton puts up during the regular season rival Brady, Brees or even Aaron Rodgers. Manning has 491 career touchdown passes and will likely own every quarterback record when he decides to retire. For example, if you just look at the stats, Manning was far better in the 2013 regular season than Brady, but of course perception is not always reality.
Manning led the No. 1 offense while handing the ball off to Knowshon Moreno and throwing 55 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions and nearly 5,500 yards to a receiving group that featured Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. Brady had 25 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and another 4,000-yard season, but he had All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski for just seven games and his most reliable receiver was Julian Edelman, who wouldn’t even get on the field for Denver.
The facts are that for the entirety of their careers, Manning has had far more offensive firepower. Brady had only two full season of Randy Moss and in one of those seasons he led the Patriots to a 16-0 regular season. Brady has done far more with less offensive talent.
Give me two teams with equal offensive talent and I’d take Brady over Manning any day of the week.
There was a time when the narrative was that Brady was going to become the greatest of all time, but then “The Golden Boy” lost two Super Bowls to Eli Manning and the New York Giants by a combined seven points and we stopped talking about Brady’s legacy. Montana has separated himself so much that it’s not really even a discussion at this point. Going undefeated in the Super Bowl with zero turnovers in those games ends the discussion the way Michael Jordan never losing in the NBA Finals along with six Finals MVPs separated MJ.
Peyton has a chance Feb. 2 to make us consider his greatness if he can defeat the Seattle Seahawks, Richard Sherman and the No. 1 defense in the NFL. Sherman v. Manning will be one of the delicious storylines on Super Sunday. Losing this game won’t mean Manning isn’t great, but it will be another chapter in his career resume. Peyton Manning isn’t Joe Montana, but that doesn’t mean he’s not one of the 10 greatest quarterbacks of all time.
We are all waiting to see if his greatness can give the city of Denver its first Super Bowl victory since 1999.