LONGSHOTS: Peyton’s place in historical pecking order on the line Sunday
by Dave Long
Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan wrote last Sunday that, if I understood it correctly, Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of all time. And no matter what he does this Sunday it won’t matter a hoot to his proclamation.
The main premises were that you don’t judge quarterbacks by how many rings they have and in addition to Manning’s celestial game, the physical and intellectual evolution of modern football renders comparisons of quarterbacks from yesteryear moot — which is hard to dispute. But since he humbly said, in ending, that if you challenge it “you’d be wrong,” I think I’ll give it a try.
I agree Manning does play the position better than anyone ever has, for all the physical and intellectual reasons Ryan stated. BUT, while it’s not the only factor, being the best of all time is about winning. And while he’s done it in the regular season and won one NFL title, to this point he’s still a little like A-Rod, a guy with an up and down playoff record. There are some great games like the comeback in the 2006 AFC title game against the Patriots. But there’s also his throwing four interceptions in the 2003 AFC Championship game loss to the Pats, his not even getting a TD a year later in a 20-3 loss when the Patriots’ defensive backfield was wiped out with injuries, and last year, when after winning nine straight to close the season, his team lost to the 8-8 Chargers in round one.
I’m not here to pick on Manning and have no quarrel with anything Ryan said about his brilliance. Plus I’d be a hypocrite to take the other side, since just two weeks ago I made the case he should be the athlete of the decade over Tiger Woods after doing to the NFL record books what Tiger’s doing in golf. And that he hasn’t won as many “majors” because Tiger doesn’t have others around to drag him down — like Mike Vanderjagt choking in the 2005 playoffs by sending a game-tying field goal farther to the right than Rush Limbaugh after Manning put them in position to go to overtime.
But, while this may sound like parsing words, there is a difference between playing the position better than anyone ever has and being the best quarterback of all time. And where I come from, playing big when it counts most and winning when you have the better team or a comparable one counts for a lot in the “who’s the best” debate.
And while it doesn’t alter the size/intellect part of his argument, in talking about the superior numbers of quarterbacks today Ryan did fail to mention other reasons numbers have soared in this era. First, they only played 12 games a season until 1960. It was 14 between 1961 and 1977, after which it went to 16. That cost Fran Tarkenton two-plus seasons of games, and while that’s not enough hold off Brett Favre as the TD pass leader it would’ve gotten him close to 400 instead of the 342 he retired with as the all-time leader.
Plus ALL the rules are weighted to the passer. They bumped and ran all through every pass route back in the day. Offensive linemen now hold on every play, unless it’s a takedown and the penalty for it is just 10 yards and not the more onerous 15. Rushers can’t smack/punch helmets as Deacon Jones did to linemen all the time. And it’s had as big an impact on passing records as steroids has had on baseball’s records (although legally). The result of that extra help was the empty backfield and five wide out sets of today’s pass-happy game because keeping backs in to block isn’t as essential now. Plus interception rates are way down and completion percentages way up because it’s understood that the vertical game of the days when Lance Alworth and others routinely averaged 20 yards plus per catch is way too risky — which I know makes the case about evolved coaching.
He’s also right that Terry Bradshaw’s four rings don’t make him the best ever, because the Steelers defense was the story in the first two, though he was in the last two. I hate to think what Dan Marino would have done with the running game and defense Bradshaw had. But he didn’t have it and as a result only got to the big game once. He didn’t play great, but he didn’t play bad in losing against a 49ers team that went 18-1. Does that mean he shouldn’t be in the “greatest ever” conversation because his supporting cast just wasn’t as good as Bradshaw and others had?
So winning the big one can’t be the sole determinant of how good someone is, because it’s more complicated than that. Generally Marino made middling teams better than they should have been, which tells you how good he was. Or how about the early John Elway, who had awful games in his first three Super Bowls when the Broncos got destroyed by better teams? Was he a guy who couldn’t win the big one? Or somebody who got inferior teams past better ones in earlier playoff rounds due to big game brilliance? I always thought it was the latter — even though I know he has a little help from Earnest Byner in 1988. And there’s Brett Favre, whose stunning statistical record was outlined by Ryan (though he didn’t mention the amazing nine seasons with 30 TD passes). He’s won a Super Bowl and has all those records, but he’ll be remembered as much for HUGE picks at inopportune times like in New Orleans this year.
Which brings me back to the notion that winning and playing BIG when it counts matters. I know it’s a different game, but isn’t winning the case for Bill Russell over Wilt — who has all the numbers except the one that matters? The only way anyone can convince me Wilt was better is if they magically switched places and Wilt won 12 times in the same 13 years Russell won 11 titles. And even with all the changes it’s the same in football.
The way I see it there are two best-of-the-best categories: the one whose game is the product of great skill and the evolution Ryan speaks of, and the one who dominated their era better than anyone else. I agree Manning is the winner in the first. And probably will be in the other as well, but he won’t unless he picks up a little more hardware when it’s all on the line like it is on Sunday.
That’s why I disagree with what Ryan said about Manning. Sunday really is important to his legacy and place among the best of the best. Because chances like this are hard to come by and if he throws up a stinker or a mediocre game in a Colts loss it will stick with him.
No matter what the ultimate numbers say.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.