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Debating Manning vs. all-time greats

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – One win, and one never-ending argument.

That's where Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) finds himself heading into Sunday. A victory over the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV would thrust him into rarefied air at his position – amongst such names as Joe Montana, John Elway, Terry Bradshaw and a precious few quarterbacks who have won multiple Super Bowls. In turn, it would secure Manning's elevation onto another plain of debate, into the dog-eared pages of quarterback autopsies. It's the kind of debate that had former Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese almost incredulous when he was asked last week if Manning would rank as the best all time at his position.

"No, no, you can't take him," Griese said. "If you took Peyton and put him back with Archie [Manning], he wouldn't be doing all that stuff [statistically]. If you took Archie and put him in Peyton's time, Archie would be doing all this stuff – with legs. … But no, you take Peyton back then and he's doing the same thing [Johnny] Unitas was doing. He's just another Unitas. That's why you can't compare teams and players from different eras because it is so different."

And yet, as debates go, Manning is poised to take his place in historical donnybrooks over quarterbacks. But what about the larger view? What about Manning's plans to play through at least 2013, when he'll be 37 years old? And what if Manning plays until he's 40, which he seems more than likely to do, now that he's on the verge of yet another massive contract with the Colts? How long before the argument expands from "best quarterback ever" to "best player ever"? Manning is undoubtedly heading in that direction. He may even get there with a win on Sunday.

So we decided to compare Manning to five other players – four who are already in the "greatest ever" conversation, and a fifth who is standing shoulder to shoulder with Manning and heading in that same direction. The list is by no means comprehensive, since many players have some ground to stand on in the great debate. But we pressed Manning's accomplishments, as well as his potential accomplishments over the remainder of his career, and tried to stack them up against those of the names mentioned most often.

Starting with …

Jim Brown

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Brown

The case for Brown being the best ever has many layers, both statistically and from his sheer uniqueness. At 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, his body was far ahead of its time in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, he was barely smaller than the Cleveland Browns offensive linemen who blocked for him. Yet he displayed a combination of speed, power and grace which wouldn't become typical among elite running backs until decades later. Even today, there are only a handful of top-level runners who can cut a similar physical comparison to Brown. And while the phrase "changing the game" has become cheap hyperbole, Brown embodied it. His size and skill set created an ideal at his position which has stood the test of time.

Brown's numbers were equally as impressive – he claimed eight rushing titles in his nine seasons, rushed for 12,312 yards while boasting 5.2 yards per carry, and – despite splitting his career between 12- and 14-game seasons – put up annual rushing totals that would make him a consistent Pro Bowler even in this era. He also won a championship playing in the pre-Super Bowl era, and retired with 20 NFL records. And he'll always have one uncommon edge in this argument: He shocked the football masses and retired at the age of 29, at the very peak of his game. There's no telling how much more Brown could have done with his career numbers.

How Manning could win the argument: Win more Super Bowls
Manning will never be able to compete with the "what could have been" romanticism surrounding Brown's early retirement. And while it would be an apples-to-oranges debate physically, Manning does seem to be light years ahead of almost every quarterback compared to him. But ultimately, it's Brown's single championship that leaves him vulnerable in this debate. He was undoubtedly great, but he achieved the so-called "greatest goal" only once. Manning has a chance to exceed that this weekend, perhaps a few more times before he retires.


Jerry Rice(notes)

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Rice

He pretty much has it all: three Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers, awards, intimidation, domination, big-game flare, durability, longevity, physical prowess, and absurd statistical records likely to stand for years if not decades. Since Rice's retirement from football in 2004, many have made strong arguments that he is the greatest player in the history of football. Even with the final six years of his 20-year career lacking his trademark dominance, he still has few flaws on his résumé.

Like Brown, Rice's dominance had many layers. He always had a finely tuned physique that was the result of obsessive workout habits. His hands were arguably the softest of any receiver in history. He ran razor-sharp routes. And he would out-physical cornerbacks while boasting deceptive speed and quickness.

But nothing speaks like his numbers, which are mind-blowing. His 22,895 receiving yards are 7,687 more than 37-year-old Isaac Bruce, who is in second place on that list. That number might be the least breakable record in all of professional football. The only player who is even on the same continent is Randy Moss; and if Moss played until the age of 40, he'd have to average 1,053 yards for each of the next eight years to catch Rice. It's a similar uphill climb for those chasing Rice's career receptions (1,549) and career touchdown catches (197).

How Manning could win the argument: Win additional Super Bowls and MVP trophies
Manning has a shot to equal Rice in terms of statistical domination. If he plays another seven or eight years, he should own essentially all of the league's passing records. And like Rice, there are few players who will be anywhere near him for years or even decades. For example, though Manning entered the NFL only three years ahead of Drew Brees, he has 19,482 more passing yards. Brees and other stat monsters are simply too far behind.

Manning needs to close the gap in Super Bowl wins, trailing Rice by two heading into Sunday. If he can do that, he'll have one decisive edge. For everything Rice has, he never won a regular-season league MVP trophy – not even once. And while the award is slanted to favor quarterbacks and running backs, you would think that if any receiver could have broken the trend, it would have been Rice. But he never did. Meanwhile, Manning has won an NFL-best four regular-season MVP awards, and likely will add to that total before he retires. In a comparison that will likely be excruciatingly close, those MVPs could be the difference.


Joe Montana

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Montana

He wasn't as statistically dominant as Rice in terms of the quarterback position, but Montana was a pure winner. He was the centerpiece of a storybook turnaround for a moribund San Francisco franchise, taking the franchise to four Super Bowl wins and winning three Super Bowl MVP awards along the way. And he did it with a smooth excellence and command which define greatness at his position.

What makes Montana stick out? He was the golden boy at a time when the NFL was entering its golden era. He was the face of the league and was a winner, plain and simple. He also mastered a West Coast scheme that would eventually proliferate and have a long-standing impact on passing offenses in the NFL. And his clutch performances in the playoffs were legendary, from "The Catch" in the 1982 NFC championship game to his 92-yard drive to win XXIII.

How Manning could win the argument: Win additional Super Bowls
Manning already has the edge in league MVPs – Montana won the honor in 1989 and '90 – and vastly superior statistics. Like Montana, he has shown the ability to be a clutch player. But he needs to win at least one more Super Bowl to fully trump Montana. Why only one? Because Montana had more complete teams helping him win, thanks to playing all but one season of his 16-year career without a salary cap. That gave him a distinct – and arguably unfair – advantage over Manning, who has thus far never played without a cap.


Johnny Unitas

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Unitas

He's the wrench in the mix that makes the "all-time best" argument so different. Unitas played in an era where you simply didn't rack up massive passing statistics, and yet he finished his career with 40,239 passing yards and 290 touchdowns. They're still impressive today, but they were downright jaw-dropping in his time (1956-1973). He also played on three championship teams, including one Super Bowl winner.

What makes Unitas so timeless in this argument is that, like Brown, he was doing things ahead of the curve for his era. He was a true, tough, pocket passer who was ahead of his time in film study and the ability to understand and exploit defenses. He had a big arm and a pretty ball. And when you talk to coaches and executives who saw him up close, they will tell you that, like Brown, Unitas could have played and flourished in today's NFL.

How Manning could win the argument: Super Bowls and statistics
Once again, like every argument, Manning needs that additional Super Bowl win to vault himself into the top-of-the-list debate. Though his statistics were eye-popping in his day, Unitas' numbers don't rival those of Manning. His career completion percentage was 54.6, more than a full 10 points below Manning's 64.8. And, like most quarterbacks of his era, Unitas threw a lot of interceptions (253). To draw a comparison, Manning already has 76 more touchdowns than Unitas, and he reached that total while throwing 72 fewer interceptions. That's a drastic disparity.


Tom Brady

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Brady

Yes, Brady is basically in the same boat as Manning in that he also needs to fill out the remainder of his career to truly enter the argument as the greatest player in NFL history. But you get the feeling Manning and Brady are going to duke it out all the way to the ends of their careers and be tied together like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux or Dan Marino and John Elway. Indeed, Brady has already carved out his case in a short amount of time, notching arguably the single greatest season ever by a quarterback in 2007, winning three Super Bowls and two Super Bowl MVPs. And his leadership qualities rival Manning's – which is a feat unto itself.

How Manning could win the argument: Super Bowls and statistics
Manning is going to finish with better stats than Brady, but he's trailing the Super Bowl end of the argument 3-1. And that means a lot since they are being measured against each other in real time. But if Manning wins on Sunday, he'll make a good case for being back in the driver's seat. Particularly when you consider that since the Patriots were caught in the Spygate cheating scandal – in which they were taping the defensive signals of opponents – they haven't won a Super Bowl. That's definitely a twist in the debate.


Ultimately, Griese is right about it essentially being impossible to hash out players who have made their fame in different eras. The changing, growing nature of the game keeps us from ever being able to measure numbers and skill levels on an equal plain.

Perhaps the only sure point is that any measure of one player against another is sure to elicit an unwinnable, unanswerable argument. However, just being included in that argument is a rare honor in itself. And Manning finds himself on the cusp of it going into Sunday, with one win promising to thrust him into a debate that will likely rage for as long as the NFL exists.