Among all the ink that’s been spilled this week to preview the AFC Championship Game, there’s one recurring sentence that sticks out like a sore thumb. Its ubiquity is unrivaled and its political correctness is evident, as writers are swift to imply that guys like Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, and John Elway must not be disrespected. All week, regardless of quality, medium, or bias, nearly every piece written about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning has included some variation of the following sentence:
“Sunday’s AFC Championship Game will feature two of the greatest quarterbacks of their, or any, generation.”
To call Brady and Manning “two of the greatest quarterbacks of their generation” is so beyond asinine, it deserves only a miniscule mention. They are, with 100% certainty, the two greatest quarterbacks of their generation. No matter how their generation is defined—go ahead and include both Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers—they are the two best. That’s why as of Sunday at around 6:15pm EST, they will have represented the AFC in eight of the past 13 Super Bowls (with Ben Roethlisberger accounting for three more, staking his claim as the third best QB of the generation, in addition to the most underrated).
Every writer’s favorite sentence becomes less obnoxious when the “generation” bit is dropped and Brady and Manning are referred to as “two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.”
That statement, though, like a Chad Pennington throw to the sideline, falls short. Given the era in which they play, their regular season records, playoff perpetuance, command, and responsibility, these are the two greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Before labeling it heresy, allow a few disclaimers. I’ve never seen Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, or Unitas play in a live game. I can barely remember watching Montana and Dan Marino, though my Elway memories are a bit more vivid. I was a huge Favre fan as a kid, and put him in that first or second tier, just not on Brady and Manning’s level. Sorry to all the curmudgeons out there, but I’m going out on a limb here and making the argument without ever having seen some guys play.
Sure, it’s a tad unfair to Unitas and Montana. Johnny U was obviously ahead of his time, a true pioneer who could excel in today’s game. So was Bill Russell, but you won’t find too many people putting Russell ahead of Michael Jordan. Unitas played in an era where the quarterback wasn’t nearly as important as he is today. Take a look at his playoff game log and then try to make an argument about him being the best ever: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/U/UnitJo00/gamelog/post/.
It’s a tougher argument when discussing more modern guys, because Montana is 4-0 in Super Bowls, Elway has been to five Super Bowls, and Favre and Marino have the regular season records and a ton of playoff appearances. Everyone belongs in the conversation, even poor Marino.
There are countless ways to measure the greatness of a quarterback. Some look at wins, some look at stats, some rely on the eye test. Within each criteria, there are endless subsets: regular season winning percentage, playoff record, QB rating, total yards, interception percentage, and touchdown passes, among others. Stepping back and taking a look at the bigger picture, it’s easier to make the case for Brady and Manning.
Both guys are in the top three all time in regular season winning percentage and career victories, top five all time in touchdown passes, and top seven all time in passing yards. In the 15 seasons he’s played, Manning has made the playoffs 13 times. In the 12 seasons he’s played, Brady has made the playoffs 11 times, all division championships. Neither has had a coach fired.
What’s paramount is the era in which they’ve played, an era they’ve defined. First, the obvious. It’s more difficult to win a championship and stay on top now than it was in the 70s and 80s. Everyone knows the NFL cherishes parity. The league executes its vision effortlessly through free agency, the draft structure, scheduling rotations, and the simple fact that there are 32 teams and only 12 make the playoffs. They get some help with parity from the teams, seven of whom, on average, change their head coach every season because owners want to win now. They also get some help from the injury bug, as major injuries to superstar players help shape each season and invariably affect the playoffs.
Examining those elements, it’s clear that Brady and Manning have accomplished something special. The pair make the playoffs and have a shot at a Super Bowl virtually every year. Rodgers, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson may have that clout someday, but right now the only others who can claim a similar achievement are Montana, Elway, and Favre.
In dissecting the importance of the era in which they play, there are the less obvious points that go in Brady and Manning’s favor. Look at the way the league has changed in the past decade, and who’s been a part of it every time. In the 2003 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots outmuscled the previously unstoppable Colts offense and roughed them up so much that Colts GM Bill Polian complained to the league and got the rules changed. Maybe Polian noticed that the previous Super Bowl winners (’00 Ravens, ’01 Pats, ’02 Bucs, ’03 Pats) were too rugged for Manning, and his Colts wouldn’t be able to compete. The NFL changes the rules because of a Brady-Manning game, and the next season, Manning breaks Marino’s single season touchdown record.
The next major shift in offensive strategy was ushered into the league by the 2007 Patriots, who went 16-0 on the strength of their passing game. That season, Brady broke Manning’s three-year-old touchdown mark by tossing 50, including 23 to Randy Moss. Brady to Moss was unlike anything we’d ever seen before, and was really the beginning of the pass-first NFL that we know today. Sure, the styles of champions like the ’04 Pats, ’05 Steelers, and ’07 Giants proved that you still needed a strong defense to win. But the complexion of the league changed, and it had to do with Brady and Manning.
Fast forward just a little bit more, to 2011. The rules have changed even more in favor of the offense, and points are being put up in buckets. Five quarterbacks made the biggest headlines that year: Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Eli Manning. Eli for winning the Super Bowl, even though his team went 9-7. Brees for breaking Marino’s single season passing yardage mark. Rodgers for being 15-1 and winning the MVP. Peyton for missing the season due to injury. And Brady, who threw for 5,235 yards and left the field with a late 4th quarter lead in the Super Bowl. Brees and Rodgers were special in the regular season, but both failed to make their conference championship game. Eli was great in the playoffs, but lackluster in the regular season. Only Brady excelled in the regular season, throwing for what at the time was the 2nd highest single season total ever while going 13-3 and making a deep playoff run. Again, in a season in which the league changed, Brady was front and center.
Now we’re closing in on the conclusion of the 2013 season. The league hasn’t shifted much since 2011, as 5,000 yards is the new 4,000 yards, thanks to 2011. Of course, the boundaries were pushed by the duo again, namely Manning, who broke Brady’s touchdown mark by five, Brees’s yardage mark by one, and Brady’s 2007 Patriots’ points mark by 17. By the way, Brady-led teams (’07, ’10-’12) have claimed four of the top eleven spots in this statistic.
Once again, the limits of NFL offensive capabilities were pushed by either Brady or Manning, the two players who have changed the game during the past 10 years in ways no other players have.
The wins are there. The numbers are there. Manning is lacking in the championship department, but his numbers blow away the rest of the field. What’s more is that evaluators need to put down the stat sheets for a second and channel Clint Eastwood’s character in “Trouble With The Curve.” Forget the stats, both simple and advanced. Watch the games.
Watch the games and think about the last time you thought Brady and Manning were each going to lose a game. Not a playoff game, any game. These guys win so often, as their winning percentages indicate, that it’s hard to fathom either of them losing. As a Pats fan, I remember so many of Brady’s great wins. But you know what I remember just as much? The losses. That’s because they’re so few and far between. Because there are on average, fewer than four per season. Because it’s so shocking when it does happen, it tends to stay with you as a fan.
Same for Manning. You know if he gets the ball in the 4th quarter, he’s going to score and win the game. Okay, it doesn’t happen 100% of the time, but as you’re watching the game, you think for damn sure it’s a certainty. Because on most occasions, it is.
Think about Tiger Woods in 2000. Or the ’96 Bulls. Or the ’98 Yankees. Or 2006 Roger Federer. As a fan, you expected each to win every match, every game, every tournament. Maestros at their apexes, teams to be reckoned with. Well, this is the feeling that Brady and Manning have instilled in football fans for over a decade now. It’s breaking news when these guys lose a game, be it regular season or playoffs. No, it’s not because of the 24-hour news cycle and the internet. It’s because at ages 36 and 37, they’re playing as well, day in, day out, as they did at ages 24 and 25. Again, I’m not old enough to have watched Elway and Montana in their primes, but it’s hard to believe fans felt the same way.
For a moment, let’s say they did. Let’s say fans felt Montana was a lock every week, which they very well may have. I’d revert to the point about eras, and how quarterbacks have so much more responsibility in today’s game. ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer loves talking about how 80% of the time, Brady and Manning beat you before the ball is snapped. They operate on a higher plane. Montana was never analyzed the way Brady and Manning are, but it’s tough to imagine him having more command and influence on a team’s success.
Yes, Montana has three more titles than Manning. But I’d be willing to bet if you put Manning on those 49ers teams, he’d have won at least a couple. Same for putting him on Brady’s ’03 and ’04 teams. And some elevate Montana over Brady because Montana is 4-0 in Super Bowls, while Brady is 3-2. This is no knock on Montana, but, why didn’t he make it to another? At least Brady has gotten to the big game five times, something Montana can’t claim. And while Brady wasn’t at his best in both defeats, he left the field with a lead both times. The real argument isn’t simply that Montana is 4-0 in Super Bowls, but that he, collectively over the contests, played better in his Super Bowls than any other quarterback. Fair point, but go back to the eye test and tell me that Brady didn’t play well enough to win all five he played in.
While this is an argument for barrooms and sports radio, it’s one I feel strongly about. The sticking points, however, are the length for which Brady and Manning have dominated, and the time period in which they have done so. Quarterback is as important as ever, and these two have been the best for 13 straight years. Maybe Brees or Rodgers sneaks in a great year, but by and large, Brady and Manning have been the top two quarterbacks in the league every year since 2001. Here’s a stat: If either wins the Super Bowl this year, they’d be doing it with 52 entirely different guys from their first championship. Brady would be winning titles 12 years apart, with no other guys from the ’01 team still in the league except Adam Vinatieri. Manning would not only be winning with 52 different guys from his ’06 title team, he’d be doing it with a different franchise. Montana winning championships eight years apart is impressive, but he did have Ronnie Lott anchoring his defense for the entire run.
Come Sunday at about 6:15pm EST, one of the two greatest will be headed to another Super Bowl. The media has dubbed this AFC title tilt as the “Legacy Bowl,” which has elements of truth and unfairness. I’d still argue these are the two greatest, no matter what. For Manning, it’s a chance to continue his march to match Brady’s Super Bowl appearances and championships. For Brady, it’s a chance to set the record for most Super Bowl appearances and tie Montana’s all time Super Bowl victory mark, effectively ending the debate in the minds of most about who the single greatest truly is.
Either way, I’m still taking both Brady and Manning over the field.