MIAMI – The question we're supposed to be answering, according to a growing chorus of people in my business, is whether the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning(notes), pending Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV performance against the New Orleans Saints, is the greatest quarterback in football history.
And here I was all this time, believing that there's still a legitimate debate as to who is the best quarterback of this era.
So I tracked down the man who, in my not-so-humble opinion, is the greatest of all time and asked him if he agreed that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady(notes) was being prematurely run over and kicked to the side of the road by the Short Attention Span Overstatement Society.
"Yeah, I think it's too early," former San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Joe Montana said Thursday. "This is [Manning's] second Super Bowl, and now they're saying if he wins he's the greatest. Tom's sitting there with three [rings] and he's been in four. I think it's hard to pick one person."
I'm with Montana. No matter how awesome Manning is on Sunday, I won't even be ready to declare that he's unequivocally the best of his time. I still think it's a two-man discussion, and it won't be settled until Manning and Brady are retired and getting asked about the great quarterbacks of the next era and beyond.
I understand the hyperbole when it comes to assessing Manning's greatness. At 33, he is a master at the top of his game. He just won his second consecutive and record fourth overall league MVP award. He already ranks insanely high on the career lists in most significant passing categories, and given his Favresque durability, it's likely he will own most of the important records by the time he retires.
He's also uniquely involved in his team's offensive scheme, a shrewd and ultra-prepared maestro with unparalleled responsibility to adjust routes and strategies at the line of scrimmage. As future Hall of Fame halfback Marshall Faulk(notes), who played with Manning in Indy in 1998, said earlier this week, "You'll always throw the Patriots' greatness as a team in when you're talking about Brady. With Peyton, you'll say he was the team."
That, as with other testimonials to Manning's greatness, is very hard to dispute. The guy is amazing, and he is likely to keep getting better, which is scary.
Brady, however, is only 32. He plays for a great coach and the best-run organization in pro sports. Three years from now, if Brady is in possession of another Super Bowl ring – or rings – this could be a very different conversation.
Don't believe me? Consider how much has changed during the past three years.
Until Manning and the Colts defeated the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, he was Dan Marino – a prolific passer who, for all his incredible consistency and statistical feats, hadn't been coronated as a champion. Worse, Manning's teams had a reputation for consistently falling short in big games, often as a favored team. He'd played his share of postseason stinkers, and the can't-win-the-big-one stigma which began during his stellar collegiate career at Tennessee grew larger and larger.
Then, with one Super Bowl victory, Manning erased all that. Brady remained the quintessential winner, but now Manning had his ring along with the gaudy numbers, a tough combination to beat.
The Patriots responded by getting Randy Moss(notes) and Wes Welker(notes) and unleashing Brady in a way we'd never seen before. Suddenly, Brady was Manningesque. Not only did he lead the Pats to the first 16-0 regular season in league history, but he also put up perhaps the most impressive statistical season of all time en route to his first MVP trophy.
Brady threw 50 touchdown passes, breaking Manning's single-season record from three years earlier. He completed 398 of 578 passes for 4,806 yards (the third-highest total of all time) and threw only eight interceptions, for a passer rating of 117.2 (second-best in NFL history).
Oh, and he rallied the Patriots to a fourth-quarter lead over the Giants in Super Bowl XLII and was 35 seconds away from a fourth championship before David Tyree(notes), Plaxico Burress(notes) and company snatched it away.
Now, two years later, Brady is an afterthought while Manning is being touted as the greatest of all time? That seems a little extreme for my tastes.
Manning vs. Brady
50,128 yds, 366 TDs
4 MVPs, 1 Super Bowl
30,844 yds, 225 TDs
1 MVP, 3 Super Bowls
Montana, with his four rings, three Super Bowl MVP performances, 11-0 touchdowns to interception differential in those games and penchant for classic comebacks and magical moments, remains the gold standard in my opinion. Yet as gratifying as it may be to receive that type of reverence, the man gets uncomfortable when he hears such talk.
"It's great for people to think of you that way, but it's almost unfair to compare between eras," Montana said. "Look at today's era – it's so much easier to throw the ball.
"Look at the way they're protecting quarterbacks compared to guys like Bart Starr or all the way back to Sammy Baugh. And look at the rules for receivers. Hell, that wasn't bump-and-run coverage back then; that was grab-and-hold. They'd kick and fight you to keep you from getting the ball. You'd get arrested for that today."
It's human nature to try to compare between eras, to declare greatness in historical terms. Football fans of this generation are blessed to have two passers, Manning and Brady, who are worthy of inclusion into the conversation about the best of all time.
To me, that conversation starts with Montana and includes Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham and John Elway. However, I'm just one guy, and I never had the privilege of watching Unitas in his prime or Graham at all or any of the other great quarterbacks who thrived before I was born.
As for the debate about who's the best of this era, I prefer to think of Brady and Manning as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird: Two outstanding originals who pushed one another to exceptional achievements, and who finished their NBA careers in The Conversation.
You know what that means, right? Somewhere out there, the NFL's answer to Michael Jordan is getting ready to obliterate all who came before and hijack the argument.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
This will be the first Super Bowl to go to overtime, and it will be decided with a score on the first possession, prompting a massive outcry for a change to the league’s current system. … The Who will give the second-greatest halftime performance in Super Bowl history, behind only U2’s mesmerizing set in New Orleans eight years ago. … The Colts will win the coin flip and the game, and Manning, of course, will be the Most Valuable Player.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
The W South Beach, where I hope to claim my prize at a reception for the Audi Efficiency Challenge. And then, you know, celebrate. Oh, and head to Sun Life Stadium for a Super Sunday. And then write all night. And then fly home. And kiss my wife and kids. And go to sleep for a long, long, long time.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. When Manning referred to Darren Sharper(notes) as "Jamie" – and the Saints’ safety retaliated by calling the Colts quarterback "Eli" – it was an indication of a deep, disturbing strain of disrespect between the two Pro Bowlers.
2. Because Kobe Bryant just became the Lakers’ all-time scoring leader, he (rather than Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor or Shaquille O’Neal) is also the Lakers’ greatest player of all time.
3. After informing quarterback Chad Pennington(notes) that he must throw a 15-yard out by the end of February in order to return to the Dolphins next season, executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells told disgruntled linebacker Joey Porter(notes), "and you can come back if you hold your breath for three minutes."
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
OK, it’s time for another breakdown of the Super Bowl halftime show and a "What They’ll Play/What They Should Play" weigh-in: In this case, if Who guitarist Pete Townshend is to be believed, we already know what the band will play: abbreviated versions of Baba O’Reilly, Pinball Wizard, the medley from the close of Tommy, Who Are You and Won’t Get Fooled Again. It’s actually a very good set, albeit a wholly unsurprising one. Here’s what I’d have the boys play: The Real Me, Naked Eye, Love Reign O’er Me.
LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
My aunt, Susan Silver, who passed away on Wednesday. May she rest in peace.
THIS WEEK’S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
I’m not one of those people who gets overly celebratory over other people’s perceptions of a football recruiting class, but anytime you can "steal" one of the top-ranked prospects from Nick Satan – um, sorry, Nick Saban – it’s a good signing day. Jeff Tedford’s haul, according to rivals.com, was the nation’s 11th best and featured an awesome foursome from North Carolina. It also helps fuel the hype when the local newscaster is a former Cal cheerleader.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Four days after absorbing a 3-0 bum-kicking at Sheffield United, the Reading Football Club finally got its head out of its arse in Football League Championship competition, rolling to a 1-0 victory over Barnsley at Madejski Stadium last Saturday in Brian McDermott’s first game as non-interim manager. The Royals scored in the 28th minute when Ryan Bertrand centered Andy Griffin’s looping cross, and Shane Long smashed the ball into the net from close range. Still under the relegation line, Reading will try to keep it rolling at Doncaster Saturday before returning home to face Plymouth (one of the two teams below the Royals in the league table) three days later.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Dwight (D-Free) Freeney’s ankle has been the talk of Super Bowl week, and the All-Pro pass rusher is spending his days in a hyperbaric chamber hoping to harness its magical healing powers. Still, there’s plenty of skepticism that he’ll be able to play effectively – or play at all – something which has to make the Saints a bit less stressed than they otherwise would be. In fact, when I was over at the Saints’ hotel in downtown Miami the other night, I could have sworn I heard some Daltreyesque screams coming from quarterback Drew Brees’(notes) room, with his entire offensive line singing background vocals. To the (tune of "I’m Free", by you know Who:
Cause Freeney has a bad injury
Cause I’m thinking he won’t be sacking me
If I told you I could take
A seven-step drop now
You’d nod and say, "you must be thankful"
We’ll go wilder than Mardi Gras
With bubble screens and QB draws
Then Bushrod will kick him in the ankle
Cause Freeney has a bad injury
And I’m waiting to hoist the Lombardi
How can they stop us?
How can they stop us?
How can they stop us?