On Sunday evening Drew Brees broke Johnny Unitas’ record with 48 consecutive games with a touchdown. This of course stated a conversation about old number 19 and his contribution to the game. It was significant. He was a three time Most Valuable Player and the author of the winning drive on the first game decided in overtime. And there was his look. The staff sergeant-issue brush cut, and the stiff black high tops. There was his style, the rigid, upright carriage of a guy whose pedestrian athleticism limited him to the quarterback position.
A discussion about Johnny Unitas becomes a discussion about his era, about the style of play back then, and how defensive backs were allowed to actually play, you know, defense. A discussion about Johnny Unitas is a discussion about the fifties.
A discussion about Peyton Manning and Tom Brady is also a discussion about the past. It’s not a specific time in history. But it is a conversation steeped in nostalgia. It’s a longing for a time when all quarterbacks looked the same and they all played the same way. The tone of the coverage swirling around a Manning vs. Brady game always leans to the hyperbole. There’s a subtext in place. It states: why can’t they all be like these guys?
I don’t need every quarterback to be like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. I don’t need every quarterback I see to be the classic, stiff, drop back passer. That particular style of play is not only at the heart of this raging debate about player safety— because the league can’t afford to have either of these guys hurt—it’s also not always fun to watch. At least, not for me. Not all the time.
Yesterday, in the third quarter, with the ball on the one-yard line, Brady scored. It wasn’t some spectacular plunge, or Brady slicing through a gap and squirting into the end zone. It was Brady first standing up and attempting to wave the ball over the plane. When that didn’t work, he stumbled into the paint.
I like Tom Brady and respect his game. I've interviewed Manning a few times and I've come to appreciate him both as an athlete and as a man. I know my admission that I find both of them less than compelling will get me into trouble with some folks, so let me explain.
These days, we think, speak, and understand in terms of extremes. And we’ve always placed a specific value on difference. Let me restate that. A person or a style that differs from the so-called “norm” has to be better or worse. They can’t just be different. So if I like Peyton Manning it means I have to hate Cam Newton. It means I have to hate his swagger, hate his truculence after a loss, hate the extra pink and sparkly shoes he wore for Breast Cancer Awareness month.
Brady won because New England's defense was always better than Indy's defense.
If I like Tom Brady, then I must hate the glowering Michael Vick and cheer for his destruction. And in liking Brady, I’m expected to make certain allowances. I’m supposed to think his having a child with a woman who isn’t his wife is “yuppie-chic” and not ghetto-fabulous because his baby mama will occasionally show up on a fashion magazine but never at the BET awards.
But I don’t hate Brady, or Vick, or Manning, or Newton, or anyone else. I like variety. In my football universe, there’s room for all of these guys.
Brady and Manning are in many ways, links to another time. Both resemble Johnny Unitas in terms of fundamental mechanics and style. But that particular drop back design has morphed into something a bit more urgent today. In most ways, Aaron Rodgers resembles both Manning and Brady, but he’s quicker and more prone to explosive movements. Ben Roethlisberger, when he’s fit, is capable of a burst that will get him past a few safeties.
I value the contributions of both Manning and Brady. Brady’s cool under pressure and command of the offense is masterful. Manning’s manic attention to detail is both effective and endearing. Yesterday, in the third quarter, down 31-7, when Manning hit Decker with a back shoulder fade, it was a ball that only Manning could throw.
It’s all great stuff, but when it’s Brady and Manning on the same field, we voluntarily suspend our beliefs about the game and indulge a myopic sensibility of about their going “head-to-head.” Today we have to hear things like “Brady got the best of Manning.”
Except he didn’t. And he never has. In just about every game in which these two guys have ever played, Brady’s been on the team with the superior defense—the unit that is most responsible for thwarting Manning’s success. That was the case in 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2005. In each of those years the Patriots’ defense was among the best, if not the very best in the league. Bill Belichick’s specialty has always been disrupting timing, especially by the slot receivers. After the 2004 playoff loss, Manning said that at times it looked as though there were fifteen guys on the field.
In 2006, the same old Manning took the field with the same old Brady. But the inspired, reckless genius of Bob Sanders, and his reinvention of the Colts defense, led to an uprooting of the existing narrative. For the record the Colts beat New England that day, but history would have us believe that Manning finally got the best of Brady.
If you insist.
Yesterday’s game was no more Manning vs. Brady than any of the others. Sometimes it was good defensive players making bad plays and other times it was good defensive players making great plays that determined the outcome.
In the first quarter, it was Brady against a very lazy Chris Harris, the Broncos safety who violated all of the rules of coverage when he casually looked past Welker into the backfield, where he was frozen by a very basic pump fake. Welker scored easily. It wasn’t Brady vs. Manning when Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich beat tackle Orlando Franklin on a speed rush and stripped Manning of the ball.
There’s a slight chance these two teams will meet again in January, and if they do, I’m sure the same old story lines will emerge. I just hope we aren’t so tuned in to these guys that we miss the big picture.
Follow Alan Grant on twitter@AlanGrant_NFL