Why is this going to be tough column for me to write? Let us count the ways …
1. I’m the guy that thought the Colts should have taken Ryan Leaf over him.
2. There was that day in 2005 I spent in the stands at a snowy Gillette Stadium, screaming “Cut that meat!” as I watched him lose to the Patriots for the seventh straight time. I’ll never forget looking out on the field and seeing Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne lined up against Hank Poteat and Troy Brown. An all-time mismatch, right? The Colts scored three points that day. After the game, 60,000-plus Patriots fans happily sat in brutal Route 1 traffic, secure in the knowledge that Bill Belichick was in his head. How quickly things can change in five years (just ask Luke Wilson — in 2005 he was still a movie star. Today he’s stuck doing dopey commercials and is a moustache away from being a dead ringer for Mr. Belvedere.)
3. As of last Wednesday I am now the biggest Tom Brady fan under the WEEI umbrella. They had a ceremony and everything. The previous owner of the crown would, I think, literally vomit if he were to read the next 1,000 words or so.
4. Yeah, I hate the commercials. Every time I see him and Justin Timberlake playing ping-pong (which is only about 50 times a game) I want to take both my eyeballs out with a spoon and then use said utensil to puncture my eardrums.
5. Archie and Eli Manning (who, if not for a miracle David Tyree catch, would be the sports version of Don Swayze or Jim Hanks at this point) also annoy me to no end. They’ve mastered the “I’m trying not to look like I’m polished” act in commercials. Just go away. Family of phonies. And I can call 'em. The only one I have any use for is Cooper, and that’s just because he's the only waiter at Bertucci's who doesn't make a face when I ask for more rolls.
All (at least mostly) true and easy to write. What isn’t so easy to write, alas, is also the truth.
Peyton Manning is the best quarterback I have ever seen.
The idea has been kicking around in my mind ever since the 2006 AFC title game. It only grew after he carried a terrible 2008 Colts team to a 12-4 record to win his third MVP. And I was almost ready to call it after fourth-and-2. The circle was complete, after all. Manning was now in Belichick’s head.
But still I held out.
Maybe, I hoped, Rex Ryan would have an answer or two. Maybe, maybe, I would see at least a glimpse of the Manning every Pats fan felt they owned five years ago. And would it be too much to ask for at least one shot of Manning ripping his chinstrap off in a fit of confused rage as he ran to the sideline after forcing a pick? You know, for old times sake?
Well, the best defense in the NFL actually knocked Manning down a couple of times in the first two drives. And there was a time when that might have affected him for the rest of the game. Those days, as Don Henley once told me, are gone forever (he told me that at an arcade at the Billerica Mall in 1985. He was really into Ms. Pac-Man.)
And I should just let them go.
Manning completed 26-of-39 passes for 369 yards and three TDs (no picks) in the AFC title game on Sunday, making every throw in the book as he continued his mastery over Big Rexy (he has lost once to a Ryan team — and that was the game he played just a half in last month.) Just a master at the absolute peak of his game. Total control.
Which led to the question: Who have I seen that is better? There are only three guys that I could make a case for: Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Brady.
Marino was every bit the pure passer that Manning is, maybe better, even. But the numbers are at best a wash, and Manning won more. A lot more, actually: three more 10-win seasons in five fewer seasons, plus at least one more Super Bowl.
As great as Montana was, it’s hard to shake the idea that he was the best system quarterback in history. The guy that replaced him (Steve Young) won a Super Bowl and was even better statistically. I don’t see any other QB today stepping in and winning 14 games with this Colts team, and if the Colts stepped on the pedal they would have gone 16-0.
(Anyone watch the Saints/Vikings game? Did you see Brett Favre running all over the field? Yeah? He’s just a kid underneath it all, you know? And a cowboy, too. A child cowboy. You see his wife? Still not sure where to rank her? Me neither. Oh, and that last-second pick, you know, the one that might have cost the Vikings the game and a chance at the Super Bowl? Of all the “great” QB’s in history, he is the one most likely to make that throw. And that’s why he’s not on the list of candidates. He'll always be Simple Jack Favre to me.)
It’s how Manning does it that must drive guys like Ryan and Belichick crazy. The Jets took Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark out of the game (7 catches combined.) Not a problem when you have those household names Pierre Garcon (11-151) and Austin Collie (7-123).
Ask yourself this: When Manning got the ball at his own 20-yard line with 2:11 left in the first half (down 17-6), was there any doubt in your mind that the Colts would score a TD? Three passes out of the shotgun to Collie (the second a perfect 46-yard deep ball) and it was 17-13 going into the half and it somehow felt like the Jets were losing.
(I’m going to give Ryan a hard time in the next paragraph, but the Jets acquitted themselves very nicely on Sunday, I thought. And in 2010, a team other than the Patriots will begin the season as the favorite to win the AFC East. That hasn’t been the case since 2001.)
And this is when Ryan did something that seemed all too familiar. After a solid Jets drive to start the third quarter stalled, he had Jay Feely attempt a 52-yard field goal. Wide right. Well, you don’t need to be have the script in front of you to know what happened next. An eight-play drive (all passes) that ended with a 4-yard Garcon catch. Colts, 20-17. The Jets never led again and it was all over except for the shouting and an awkward trophy ceremony with Edgerrin James (who I don’t think was ever in the mix for “Meet the Press” hosting duties after Tim Russert’s death.)
And here’s what I mean by “all too familiar.” I think against every other team in the NFL, Ryan punts in that situation. But I think he felt the need to put points on the board vs. Manning and decided to force the issue, to ignore the percentages. Manning has now done this to the top two defensive minds in the NFL in a span of about 10 weeks. No small feat.
For years I heard that Manning had the weapons. That’s why he put up huge numbers. Edge and Harrison and Wayne and Clark. Well, he was throwing for 4,000 yards before Wayne and Clark were in Indy and he’s throwing for 4,500 yards after Edge and Harrison are gone. And have any Colts players on offense done anything after they’ve left? Marcus Pollard? Terrence Wilkins? Jerome Pathon? He was never a product of the system. We’re not talking about just plugging any actor into a CSI show here. He made the system. He IS the system, dammit!
(And yes, the odds of Peyton Manning appearing in a CSI episode sometime in the next three years is 4-to-1. The odds of Cooper Manning getting his father to love him as much as he loves his other sons is still a 250,000-to-1 shot.)
And now we all know that he is a “winner.” The comeback vs. the Pats and the Super Bowl win over the Bears put that question to sleep forever (I think the win over the Pats meant more to Colts fans than the Super Bowl, I really do. Which game do you think they talk about more? Not unlike the 2004 Red Sox with the ALCS vs. the World Series.) Of course, winning 13 games in his second year as a starting QB with Wilkins as your second wide receiver, Jim Mora as your head coach and a defense in the bottom half of the league might have been a sign as well. And he has won at least 10 games in all but two of his 12 seasons in the league.
When Manning retires, he will hold every significant passing record. And he’ll have probably five or six MVPs (no one else has more than three.)
So, we’re done, right? Anyone else have an argument? OK, we’ll hear from the man from San Mateo.
Tom Brady is, I think, one of the four or five best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. And he was the perfect fit for the three Super Bowl winners. I would not have traded Brady for Manning at any point during those years if I were Belichick. But other than blind loyalty to Brady, I don’t see an argument for his career being superior to Manning’s. They have been in the league together for a decade now. In those 10 years Brady has been named first-team All-Pro once. Manning has been the choice five times.
But Brady has the best single season of the two, right? That plus the 14-4 playoff record plus the (for the moment at least) two extra Super Bowls is enough, isn’t it?
True, Brady broke Manning’s TD pass record in 2007. He threw 50 TDs to Manning’s 49. But he needed an extra 81 passes (over two games worth) to get to 50. Manning’s TD percentage was higher (9.9 percent to 8.7 percent, which means that Manning would have finished with 57 TD passes had he attempted the same amount of attempts as Brady did in 2007), as was his passer rating (121.1 to 117.2). Both great, great seasons, but I don’t think anyone could really state with any confidence which was the better one.
Other numbers? Well, Brady has finished in the top five in passing yards, TD passes and QB rating a combined eight times in his career. In those 10 years Manning has finished in the top five a combined 22 times.
The case is closed.
Peyton Manning is the best quarterback I've ever seen.
Still hurts to write it. A four-pick meltdown in the Super Bowl would sure ease the pain. Think I should get my hopes up?