Tuesday, July 7, 2015
Best QBs in History: 1-5
I've been studying NFL history my whole life, but until this year, I never published my list of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. This is the final installment in an eight-part series, so let's review the list so far:
The best pre-Modern Era quarterbacks: Sammy Baugh, Dutch Clark, Ed Danowski, Paddy Driscoll, Benny Friedman, Arnie Herber, Cecil Isbell, Sid Luckman, Bernie Masterson, Ace Parker, and Bob Waterfield.
53-101: Frankie Albert, George Blanda, Drew Bledsoe, Ed Brown, Kerry Collins, Daunte Culpepper, Steve DeBerg, Joe Ferguson, Jeff George, Steve Grogan, Matt Hasselbeck, Ron Jaworski, Brad Johnson, Charley Johnson, Billy Kilmer, Bernie Kosar, Tommy Kramer, Dave Krieg, Greg Landry, Neil Lomax, Andrew Luck, Johnny Lujack, Archie Manning, Eli Manning, Jim McMahon, Don Meredith, Earl Morrall, Craig Morton, Cam Newton, Ken O’Brien, Carson Palmer, Chad Pennington, Milt Plum, Jake Plummer, Jim Plunkett, Tobin Rote, Frank Ryan, Matt Ryan, Mark Rypien, Matt Schaub, Brian Sipe, Norm Snead, Tommy Thompson, Michael Vick, Billy Wade, Danny White, Doug Williams, Russell Wilson, and Jim Zorn.
49-52: Mark Brunell, Trent Green, Phil Simms, and Vinny Testaverde.
40-48: Charlie Conerly, Jim Everett, Rich Gannon, Jeff Garcia, Jim Hart, Bert Jones, Daryle Lamonica, Ken Stabler, and Joe Theismann.
39. Steve McNair
38. Ben Roethlisberger
37. Roman Gabriel
36. John Hadl
35. Boomer Esiason
34. Tony Romo
33. Philip Rivers
32. Kurt Warner
31. Doug Flutie
30. John Brodie
29. Ken Anderson
28. Bob Griese
27. Troy Aikman
26. Randall Cunningham
25. Jim Kelly
24. Donovan McNabb
23. Len Dawson
22. Joe Namath
21. Aaron Rodgers
20. Y.A. Tittle
19. Terry Bradshaw
18. Bart Starr
17. Bobby Layne
16. Dan Fouts
15. Drew Brees
14. Warren Moon
13. Norm Van Brocklin
12. John Elway
11. Sonny Jurgensen
10. Roger Staubach
9. Brett Favre
8. Steve Young
7. Tom Brady
6. Fran Tarkenton
This week, we conclude with the top five, the best quarterbacks of all time.
5. Joe Montana
San Francisco 49ers, 1979-92; Kansas City Chiefs, 1993-94
40,551 yards, 273 TD, 139 INT, 92.3 rating
The standard by which postseason greatness is judged today, Joe Montana directed the 49ers to four Super Bowl wins, without throwing an interception in any of the four games: 83/122, 1142 yards, 11 TDs, no picks — plus 105 yards and 2 TDs on the ground. Projected to a 16-game season, Montana's Super Bowl performances would yield 4,568 yards, 44 touchdowns, still no interceptions, 420 rushing yards, and 8 rushing TDs.
Montana earned three Super Bowl MVPs for his work, but he was often as effective in the earlier rounds of the playoffs as he was with a ring on the line. Consider the playoffs of the 1989 season. In a 41-13 win over the NFC Central champion Vikings, Montana passed for four touchdowns and a 142.5 rating. The next week, in the NFC Championship Game, he completed 26 of 30 passes, for 262 yards and 2 TDs. In Super Bowl XXIV, 297 yards, 5 TDs, 147.6 rating. Montana also led the Chiefs to two of their few postseason wins under Marty Schottenheimer (2-2 with Montana, 1-5 without him). Altogether, his teams were a combined 16-7 in postseason play, including four Super Bowls.
Something often forgotten or ignored about Montana's career is that he was also one of the greatest regular-season quarterbacks of all time. He led the NFL in touchdowns and passer rating twice each, and he passed for the most yards of the 1980s. He and Dan Marino were the only players with six 3,000-yard passing seasons in the decade, and the only two with 200 TD passes. Montana set the all-time record for passer rating, plus he excelled in areas that don't show up in the rating formula — he was a good runner, he didn't take many sacks, and he seldom fumbled. Montana made eight Pro Bowls and five all-pro squads, three of them first-team. He was the Associated Press NFL MVP in 1989 and '90.
Montana checks all the boxes. He had a long, productive career, during which he was regularly regarded as the finest QB in the game. He was smart, accurate, versatile, and extraordinarily calm under pressure. His regular-season stats are superb, and he was the greatest quarterback in Super Bowl history.
4. Dan Marino
Miami Dolphins, 1983-99
61,361 yards, 420 TD, 252 INT, 86.4 rating
When Dan Marino retired, he held the career records for pass completions, yards, and touchdowns, all of them by a huge margin. He also held dozens of records for things like 300-yard passing games and 4,000-yard seasons, plus significant single-season records for passing yards (5,084) and TDs (48).
It isn't just that Marino set the records; he put them far out of reach, and they stood for decades. No one came within 200 yards of Marino's single-season record for 24 years. When Drew Brees finally broke it more than a quarter-century later (2011), he threw almost 100 more passes than Marino, and he did it with the benefit of new rules that make passing easier. The TD record was even more impressive: when Marino threw 48 TDs, he broke the existing record ... of 36. Two years later, he threw 44. Until the new illegal contact policy in 2004, Marino still had more 40-TD seasons than every other player in history combined, including the top two of all time.
The career marks, since broken by Brett Favre, were equally unthinkable. Marino retired with nearly 10,000 more yards than 2nd-place John Elway (51,475) and nearly 25% more TDs than Fran Tarkenton (342). Marino made nine Pro Bowls and six Associated Press all-pro Teams, including three straight years first-team all-pro (1984-86).
Marino's 1984 season, when he set the yardage and TD records, might be the best season in NFL history, by any player at any position. The Dolphins went 14-2, and Marino won NFL MVP (ahead of Eric Dickerson, who rushed for 2,105 yards). Marino threw 3 TDs in a playoff win over the Seahawks and Defensive Player of the Year Kenny Easley, then 421 yards and 4 TDs in a 45-28 AFC Championship victory over the Steelers. The Dolphins lost Super Bowl XIX, but everyone in football knew that Marino, just 23, would win multiple championships.
It didn't work out that way. The Dolphins, dynastic in the '70s and early '80s, failed to restock their roster when stars like Dwight Stephenson and Doug Betters retired, and Hall of Fame coach Don Shula (now 30 years into his coaching career) finally lost his edge. In his Pro Football Historical Abstract, Sean Lahman wrote a lengthy defense against the idea that Marino wasn't a winner. Lahman noted that the Dolphins ranked in the bottom half of NFL teams in rushing yards in 15 out of Marino's 17 seasons. They never ranked better than 13th, and only once had a running back reach the 1,000-yard mark. Miami also had a subpar defense in those years; in Marino's 10 playoff losses, the Dolphins gave up an average of 34.5 points. How can you expect to win when your defense allows five touchdowns?
Lahman concluded, and I agree, that Marino "helped a team that wasn't very good—and at times was downright lousy—to remain competitive. He led them to the AFC Championship Game in 1985, for example, with a 22nd ranked defense [out of 28] and the 18th ranked rushing offense. That team finished 12-4, and rather than blaming Marino for not taking them further, I think we ought to commend him for even getting them into the playoffs." Marino set the postseason record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass, and retired with more postseason TDs than anyone but Joe Montana.
With a less-than-stellar supporting cast for most of his career, Marino shouldered the load. He led the NFL in completions six times, yardage five times, and TDs three times. He retired with the 2nd-most wins as starting quarterback, leading the Dolphins to 10 playoff appearances, five AFC East titles, three AFC Championship Games, and a Super Bowl. He is also the best passer in history at avoiding sacks. Famously slow, he had great pocket awareness and an incredibly quick release. His 3.13% sack percentage is slightly worse than Peyton Manning's 3.07%, but Marino played in an era when QBs took more sacks. Drew Brees (3.87%) is somewhat close to Manning, but none of Marino's contemporaries are anywhere near his mark. Brett Favre (4.9%) took over 50% more sacks per attempt, but his number is better than Troy Aikman (5.2), Dan Fouts (5.4), Joe Montana (5.5), Warren Moon (6.29), Jim Kelly (6.33), John Elway (6.6), Steve Young (7.9), et al. Phil Simms (9.3) and Randall Cunningham (10.1) actually took three times as many sacks as Marino. He led the NFL in lowest sack percentage 10 times, and saved his team hundreds of yards by getting rid of the ball rather than taking the sack.
Marino was accurate at any range, and he had possibly the quickest release of all time. He ran a brilliant two-minute drill, and pioneered the fake spike. He had arguably the greatest single season in history, and he set every career passing record, far out of reach of his contemporaries. He was a perennial all-star and he repeatedly got otherwise mediocre teams into the postseason.
Marino vs. Montana
I have gone back and forth many times on whether Marino or Montana was the better player. The truth is, I think it's too close to call, and extremely difficult to know where we should draw the lines; they played in such different situations. Joe Montana was the perfect quarterback for what Bill Walsh was doing in San Francisco, but would he have been equally successful elsewhere? Would Marino seem as impressive if he'd played on a team with a good defense and a power running game? I suspect that if they had switched places, both teams would have fared worse.
The argument over these two players is often defined as a regular-season vs. postseason distinction: Marino set the records, Montana won the rings. That's a lazy approach to a complex question. You can't define Montana solely by his four Super Bowls. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler, two-time regular season MVP, and his stats are sensational. Labeling Marino as the guy with the stats and no titles ignores that American football is the ultimate team sport. Marino played on two teams that had a legit shot at a championship, in 1984 and '85, and those only because he was the best QB in the league. For the rest of his career, Marino dragged mediocre teams kicking and screaming into the postseason.
I also think that, out of respect for a legend, people tend to gloss over Don Shula's reputation as a choker. Shula's Colts were favored to win the 1964 NFL Championship Game against Cleveland. They got shut out, 27-0. They were huge favorites to win Super Bowl III, a team that was already regarded by many as the greatest in history. They lost to Joe Namath and the Jets. Shula went to Miami, and the '71 Dolphins became the first team in Super Bowl history not to score a touchdown. The undefeated '72 Dolphins were underdogs in Super Bowl VII, partly because of Shula's reputation. His failure to win a title in 20 seasons with John Unitas and Dan Marino is sort of astonishing, and it seems unlikely that the quarterbacks were primarily to blame for that drought.
I regard Marino and Montana as basically tied for fourth. Some days I wake up feeling like Montana was probably the better player, other days Marino. What I'm sure of is that both were among the very greatest players of all time.
3. Johnny Unitas
Baltimore Colts, 1956-72; San Diego Chargers, 1973
40,239 yards, 290 TD, 253 INT, 78.2 rating
No quarterback was more respected than John Unitas. Everyone recognized the greatness of Sammy Baugh, everyone admired the success of Otto Graham and Joe Montana, people lauded the individual accomplishments of Fran Tarkenton and Dan Marino, and no one doubts the skill of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. But no QB in history was more universally revered than Unitas.
You can start wherever you like: his record-setting stats, his legendary two-minute drills, his three championships ... but nothing earned Unitas as much respect as his leadership and toughness. There are dozens of stories. Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey said that playing with Unitas was like being in the huddle with God. Hall of Fame DT Merlin Olsen famously mused that when the pass rush closed in, Unitas would hold the ball a split second longer than necessary, just to show he wasn't afraid of the hit. Unitas himself probably never gave a more famous quote than the one asserting his own independence and authority: "You don't arrive as a quarterback until you can tell the coach to go to hell."
Unitas explained to Paul Zimmerman that coach Weeb Ewbank "had tremendous respect for Night Train Lane. He'd tell me, 'Don't throw the ball in his area.' Well, hell, I wasn't going to give him the day off. So I'd throw at him, and maybe he'd pick one off, but we could do things against him, too."
Unitas was an aggressive passer, but resented the idea that he was a gambler. “It’s not gambling if you know what you are doing.” The quarterback's confidence was well-founded. His interception rate was very low for when he played, one of his distinguishing characteristics. He had a strong arm and he was a brilliant play-caller. Between his game management, decision-making, physical ability, and toughness, Unitas intimidated defenses rather than the other way around. Raymond Berry, Unitas' favorite receiver, summed up his teammate's excellence: "his uncanny instinct for calling the right play at the right time, his icy composure under fire, his fierce competitiveness and his utter disregard for his own safety.''
John Unitas was a classic thrower: fingers on the laces, hand beside his ear. He was also one of the first passers to deliberately underthrow receivers, what we now call the back-shoulder pass. He led the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns four times each, and retired with the all-time records for completions, yards, and TDs. Unitas made 10 Pro Bowls — the most of any quarterback for 50 years — and he was NFL MVP three times. Sorting out which organization's awards you prefer was not an exact science during Unitas' career, but a balanced reading shows him all-NFL an astonishing eight times, including five years first-team.
In a sense, Unitas was the bridge between Bobby Layne and Dan Fouts. He was just as tough as Layne, and as fierce a competitor — but he could throw like Fouts, whom he mentored when they spent a single year together: the final season for Unitas, and the rookie year for Fouts.
2. Otto Graham
Cleveland Browns, 1946-55
23,584 yards, 174 TD, 135 INT, 86.6 rating
As with Dan Marino and Joe Montana, I really don't know how to rank Otto Graham and John Unitas. Ask me today, and I have Graham ahead. Two weeks ago, it was Unitas. Before that, it was Graham again. It's really close.
Graham was the more dominant quarterback, without question. His stats are just as good, he was all-pro every year, and his team went to the league championship game every season — literally, 10 times in 10 years. They won seven of the 10, and Graham was even more exceptional on the big stage than Unitas. But Unitas played longer, and Graham dominated smaller and less developed leagues, in which it was easier to stand out.
Graham started off as a basketball player; he was the sixth man for the Rochester Royals (who later became the Sacramento Kings), and didn't play pro football until he was 24. Legendary coach Paul Brown recruited Graham to play for his new team in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). The AAFC was a major league, at least as strong as the early AFL (and much stronger relative to the NFL). The Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore Colts all began in the AAFC, and in the four-year history of the league, it produced 15 Hall of Famers. The AAFC was ahead of the NFL on racial integration, West Coast football, air travel between games, and regular use of zone defense, not to mention Paul Brown's numerous innovations. The younger league's trail-blazing forced the NFL to adapt to keep up.
The AAFC competed with the NFL for players and coaches, and came out about even. The new league not only found new talent, it poached players from NFL rosters, signed veterans returning from war, and aggressively signed college prospects, including Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli. In its first year of operation, the AAFC signed 50% more College All-Stars (40) than the NFL (26). About 100 players with NFL experience joined the AAFC: nearly a quarter of the established league defected. The AAFC also attracted Hall of Fame coaches Paul Brown and Ray Flaherty, plus future NFL Championship-winning head coach Buck Shaw and Hall of Famer Cliff Battles.
The AAFC drew higher attendance than the established league, and competed with the NFL by placing teams in Chicago, Cleveland, and New York; in each case, the AAFC team played in a larger stadium. The NFL's Rams, defending league champions, fled Cleveland for Los Angeles (where they were outdrawn by the AAFC's L.A. Dons), and the AAFC won the battle to put a football team in Yankee Stadium, a target the NFL fell short of. In 1948, the Browns, 49ers, and Dons outdrew every team in the NFL. When the two leagues merged in 1950, the opening game between the AAFC-Champion Browns and the NFL-Champion Eagles drew higher attendance (71,237) than the first NFL-AFL Super Bowl (61,946). AAFC players from contracted franchises bolstered NFL rosters — especially the Giants, who were assigned players from the AAFC's New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers, including Arnie Weinmeister, Otto Schnellbacher, and Tom Landry.
It is true that Otto Graham's efficiency stats were much higher in the AAFC than the NFL. It is not true, however, that this is because the AAFC was a low-quality league; it wasn't. Even if we significantly discount AAFC performance relative to the 1940s NFL — and it's not clear that we should — but even if we do, Graham was far and away the best quarterback of the late '40s. His stats are out of this world, his team won the league championship game every year (literally), he played great in the title games, and everyone who covered football in that era agrees that Graham was the best. There's probably no other era of football in which it's so clear who was the best QB. The 1950s were more competitive, but Graham continued to lead the pack. All-pro awards, 1950-55:
1950 — Johnny Lujack
1951 — Graham
1952 — Graham and Bobby Layne
1953 — Graham
1954 — Graham
1955 — Graham
During Graham's six seasons in the NFL, the Browns went 58-13-1 (.813), played in six NFL Championship Games, and won three titles. In the three championship victories, Graham passed or ran for 14 touchdowns. When he retired in 1956, the Browns had their first losing season ever, dropping from 9-2-1 (and a previous worst of 8-4) all the way to 5-7. The team rebounded when it drafted Jim Brown the following season, but didn't win another championship until 1964, with a new coach and a new group of players: Graham's retirement ended the Cleveland Dynasty.
If the all-pro consensus, the postseason performances, and the greatest dynasty in the history of professional football don't convince you, Graham's stats also validate his primacy. From 1950-55:
* Estimated. The NFL tracked sack yardage, but not sacks, during these years.
Graham has the worst sack statistics in the group, which isn't shown above, but he leads in yardage (by over 1,000), TD/INT differential, passer rating, and total touchdowns. Statistically, his primary rival is Norm Van Brocklin, whose case rests almost exclusively on his phenomenal average yardage. Graham's yardage per attempt was identical to Van Brocklin's (both 8.6), so the difference derives exclusively from sacks. The argument for Van Brocklin is somewhat tempered by Bob Waterfield, who quarterbacked the same team during that time period. Waterfield's sack percentage was even better than Van Brocklin's, and his estimated NY/A was 7.1. Even if you buy that Waterfield and Van Brocklin had exactly the same skill set, excelling in precisely the same areas by coincidence, Graham's volume and rushing offer a compelling case in his favor.
Graham, who also played professional basketball for a championship team, was an exceptional athlete. He had great movement inside the pocket, and he was a deadly short-yardage runner, who still holds the record for most rushing TDs by a quarterback (44) — a figure that doesn't even include his six rushing TDs in the postseason. Graham may be the only quarterback famous for his peripheral vision, and he was the most accurate passer of his generation; even the normally humble Graham bragged, decades later, "I could throw a pass to a spot as well as anyone who ever lived." Graham also had great touch on his long passes; he is one of the finest deep passers of all time.
Legendary coach Paul Brown enthusiastically praised his quarterback: "Otto Graham was the key to the whole team. He had the finest peripheral vision I've ever witnessed, and that is a very big factor in a quarterback. He had total composure on the field, the ability to find whatever receiver was going to come open, and the arm and athletic ability to get the ball to him. His hand-eye coordination was most unusual, and he was bigger than you'd think and faster than you'd think." At his HOF induction in 1967, Brown chose Otto Graham to present him.
No matter what criteria you use to evaluate quarterbacks, Graham is at or near the top of the list. You like stats? By the numbers, Graham was the most dominant quarterback of his era. Awards and honors? Graham was all-pro every year, and he won five league MVP Awards in seven years — no major organization named an MVP in 1949, 1950, or 1952, all years in which he would have been a candidate. Do you believe quarterbacks win championships? Nobody won more than Otto Graham. His team made the title game every year of his career, won seven championships, and stopped winning when he retired. Graham wasn't just along for the ride, either; he's one of the greatest postseason players in history.
That synergy of evidence points to Graham as the most exceptional quarterback of all time. He excelled when the Browns leaned on Marion Motley and the run game (his 112.1 passer rating in 1946 was the single-season record for more than 40 years) and he excelled after Motley retired and the offense went through the air (NFL MVP, multiple championships). He was accurate and athletic, a threat with both his arm and his legs, and he never had a bad season. His stats were excellent in the 1950s and otherworldly in the late '40s. In only 10 seasons, he led his league in passing yards five times, TDs four times, and rating five times. Graham is dimly remembered today, because he played in a small market, before the Super Bowl and before football was widely televised, at a time when baseball players and boxers were the athletes who became legends. But there is no other QB in history who excelled so dramatically by every measure we use to evaluate quarterbacks.
1. Peyton Manning
Indianapolis Colts, 1998-2011; Denver Broncos, 2012-14
69,691 yards, 530 TD, 234 INT, 97.5 rating
People have emotional reactions to Peyton Manning, in a way that doesn't apply to Otto Graham or John Unitas. But I would really appreciate if skeptical readers will hear me out on this.
Manning has made 14 Pro Bowls, the record for a quarterback. He's been all-pro 10 times, which is also the record for a quarterback, and first-team all-pro seven times: another record. He's been NFL MVP five times, which is the record. He is — by far — the most decorated quarterback of all time.
This fall, Manning will almost certainly surpass 70,000 passing yards for his career, and break Brett Favre's record (71,838). He'll surpass +300 in TD/INT differential, the only QB in history to do so. He'll complete his 6000th pass, and he might break Favre's career completions record. He already holds the touchdown record, and all of the distinctions that used to belong to Dan Marino: 4-TD games, 4000-yard seasons, and so on. Manning has led the NFL in passing yards and rating three times each, and TDs four times. He holds the single-season records for yardage (5,477), touchdowns (55), and TD/INT +/- (+45), and he previously set the record for rating (121.1). He is — by far — the best statistical quarterback of all time.
Manning's detractors argue that he has always been in a position to succeed, because he's been surrounded by talented teammates. There's some truth to that, of course. But I think this can be overstated, because every receiver who plays with Peyton Manning turns into a superstar. Seven different receivers have had a 1,000-yard season with Manning, and only one (Reggie Wayne) has had a 1,000-yard season with any other quarterback. No other QB comes close to that record: six unique 1,000-yard receivers. The next-closest is four. Maybe Manning's been fortunate to play with great receivers, or maybe he's turned ordinary teammates into extraordinary ones. It's hard to separate cause and effect when every receiver who plays with Manning becomes a standout.
Manning has played for four head coaches, and gone to the playoffs with all four. He was successful with Edgerrin James, and he was successful when his leading rusher gained under 500 yards. He won MVP and went to the Super Bowl with Indianapolis, and he won MVP and went to the Super Bowl with Denver. He had an all-pro, division-title season with the Colts in 1999, and he had an all-pro, division-title season with the Colts in 2009, teams with no player or coach in common besides Manning. When Manning missed the 2011 season, the Colts dropped from the 4th-ranked offense and a 10-6 record to the 30th-ranked offense and a 2-14 record. The idea that his success is a product of his supporting cast, or the dome in Indianapolis, is not supported by evidence.
Beyond the numbers, Peyton Manning is the best player I've ever seen. His command at the line of scrimmage is unique, and no QB in history was better at reading defenses. His play-action was the best I've ever seen. Arm strength, quick release, accuracy, mobility in the pocket — it's all there. One of Manning's most distinguishing assets, though, is his aggressiveness. Throws other players wouldn't try, he goes after. Sometimes he gets intercepted, and sometimes he makes plays you never imagined were possible.
What's most striking about Manning is his artistry. Several times each season, he plays at a level that is almost unbelievable. In a 2013 Monday Night Football game, Manning went 32-of-37 for 374 yards, 3 TDs, and a 135.8 passer rating. Jon Gruden called him the Sheriff, because he lays down the law. Mike Tirico called him the Surgeon, because he's so precise and he puts on a clinic. After the game, Steve Young and Trent Dilfer described Manning, not as anything as crude as a sheriff, or as cold and dispassionate as a surgeon. He was a visionary, whose genius no one can fully understand or replicate. Have you ever heard a music aficionado try to explain how no one plays a Bach concerto quite like Joshua Bell, or an art expert explaining what sets Monet apart from the other Impressionists? That was their reaction to Manning's performance.
On his good days, Peyton Manning is the most amazing football player you could ever hope to see. I'm a tennis fan, and I prefer Roger Federer to Rafael Nadal. Federer is an artist, a risk-taker, an innovator. He makes shots you never thought were possible, because it never even occurred to you that someone could try them. Nadal is an equally great player, but he wins differently. Nadal is athletic, determined, consistent, precise — he's a truly great player. But Nadal doesn't amaze you: anyone who's played tennis can understand what he does well. Federer is amazing, and that's what separates Peyton Manning. Seeing an athlete accomplish something you never would have dreamed of — that's special, to me it's the reason we watch sports — and no quarterback in history has done that as often as Manning. Whether it's hitting the tiniest opening on the sideline, the perfect back-shoulder pass, a play-fake that fools the whole defense, finding exactly the right play on 3rd-and-8 ... Peyton Manning is not only the best quarterback I've ever seen, he's the most fun to watch.
Many of the things that separate today's best passers — Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers — from the rest of the league, they do because Peyton Manning did them first. His control of the game from the line of scrimmage is unparalleled; Manning is often described as his own offensive coordinator. Reading the defense, the adjustments he made at the line ... other players had to copy him if they were going to keep up. Manning's one-on-one work with Marvin Harrison, and later Reggie Wayne, was legendary. Would those receivers have become elite if they never played with Manning? Maybe so, but we'll never know.
Whatever luck and/or magic Manning has with his receivers, it doesn't extend to defense or special teams. Only six times in his 16-year career has Manning paired with a top-10 defense, and only twice with a defense in the top five. In that context, his team results — 12 straight seasons of double-digit wins, three Super Bowl appearances — seem heroic rather than disappointing.
Peyton Manning is not a great postseason quarterback; he doesn't have the same résumé as Joe Montana or Otto Graham, or even John Unitas. But the idea that he "can't" play in the postseason is absurd. Manning has had some of the greatest performances in postseason history. There have only been four perfect passer ratings in NFL playoff history, and in two of them, the passer had only half as many attempts (13) as Manning did against the 2003 Broncos, a 41-10 win for the Colts. Manning was 22-of-26 for 377 yards, 5 TDs, and no INTs or sacks, against the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL. It's arguably the best performance in playoff history.
The following week, Manning went 22-of-30 for 304 yards, 3 TDs, and 0 INTs, powering a 38-31 shootout victory at Arrowhead Stadium. He passed for 458 yds, 4 TDs, and a 145.7 rating in a playoff game the next year. He led the biggest comeback in Conference Championship Game history (18 points against the Patriots) and won a Super Bowl MVP Award against one of the best defenses of the past decade (the 2006 Chicago Bears). He dominated the exceptional 2009 Jets defense in the AFC Championship Game (377 yds, 3 TD, 123.6 rating), another double-digit comeback. Manning was the only player all season — 19 games altogether — to throw 3 TD passes against the Jets, and Indy's 461 yards were the most the Jets allowed all season. In Denver, Manning helped the Broncos earn a Super Bowl appearance with his 400-yard, 2-TD, no-INT AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. He has some bad games in the postseason, but he also has some excellent games.
For some reason, the bad ones seem to stick to Manning's reputation in a way that hasn't happened to other elite QBs. Graham went 2-of-15 for 20 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions, in the 1953 Championship Game. Unitas' Colts got shut out in the '64 title game, and he committed three turnovers in his only Super Bowl win. Montana's 49ers scored just three points in back-to-back playoff losses against the Giants, then he got benched for and outplayed by Steve Young against the Vikings. Tom Brady, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw ... they all have some bad postseason performances. As Chase Stuart wrote last year, "For most quarterbacks, ugly playoff performances are quirks of history; for Manning, they become bullet points in a character assassination." It also surprises me that so many people blame Manning, rather than Tony Dungy, for the Colts' postseason losses. Here's a breakdown of Manning's postseason record:
Super Bowl: 1-2
AFC Championship: 3-1
Divisional, without bye: 2-1
Divisional, with bye: 2-5
Wild Card: 3-4
One of those stats jumps out, I think. Dungy routinely rested his starters in Week 17, giving his rhythm-based offense three weeks between games, with devastating results. When they win their first playoff game, Manning's teams are 6-4 in the later rounds, when competition should be most difficult. Dungy mishandled his personnel, he was too conservative in big games, and he was badly outcoached by Bill Belichick (and perhaps Jon Gruden, too). Like Don Shula, Dungy was a great coach, but one whose postseason record leaves a lot to be desired, and who bears some responsibility for failing to turn astonishing quarterback play into postseason success. Kurt Warner and Manning are the only quarterbacks in history to reach the Super Bowl with three different head coaches (Dungy, Jim Caldwell, and John Fox). Manning has never played for a coach like Paul Brown, Bill Walsh, or Bill Belichick.
Let's be clear: I do not believe that Manning has been a great postseason QB, and I'm not trying to pretend that he's never laid an egg in the playoffs. But he hasn't been a disaster or a choker. He's won double-digit playoff games, he was Super Bowl MVP, and he has some of the finest performances in playoff history. Playing poorly in the postseason is not some defining characteristic of his career, because it's a perception that is not based in reality.
Manning's postseason record is not as good as Montana's or Graham's, but his many positive achievements easily outweigh a playoff record that hovers around .500. Manning's teams have made the playoffs 14 times, more than any other QB in history (Brett Favre and Tom Brady, 12 each). He's won 179 games as starter, only seven behind Favre for the NFL record. He has set or is on the verge of setting every statistical record a quarterback would want, and subjective evaluation has honored him at least as strongly as the stats, with record numbers of Pro Bowl, all-pro, and MVP recognitions.
Peyton Manning has played 16 seasons, 256 games, 280 if you count postseason. The idea that everything he's accomplished can be invalidated by 13 games, that those 13 games could outweight the other 267, is — for lack of a better word — nuts. An up-and-down playoff career is part of Manning's legacy, but it cannot, by itself, define our evaluation. If you're going to dismiss the most influential quarterback of the Modern Era, a player who has won five MVPs, set important single-season and career records, turns every receiver he plays with into a superstar, takes the fewest sacks in history, runs the best two-minute drill, and gets his team to the playoffs every year, if you're going to throw all that out the window because of a handful of playoff games, you're missing the greatest quarterback of all time.
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As this series wraps up, I'd like to thank my editor here at Sports Central for his patience with such a long series of long articles, as well as Chase Stuart at Football Perspective, who ran the articles concurrently. I especially want to thank all the readers who have followed this series for the past eight weeks. A tremendous amount of research informs these pieces, and I'm gratified that so many people have found them worthwhile. You can find links to the previous posts below. Thanks for reading.
The best pre-Modern Era quarterbacks: Sammy Baugh, Dutch Clark, Ed Danowski, Paddy Driscoll, Benny Friedman, Arnie Herber, Cecil Isbell, Sid Luckman, Bernie Masterson, Ace Parker, and Bob Waterfield.
49-101, with profiles on 49-52: Mark Brunell, Trent Green, Phil Simms, and Vinny Testaverde.
40-48: Charlie Conerly, Jim Everett, Rich Gannon, Jeff Garcia, Jim Hart, Bert Jones, Daryle Lamonica, Ken Stabler, and Joe Theismann.
31-39: Doug Flutie, Kurt Warner, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Boomer Esiason, John Hadl, Roman Gabriel, Ben Roethlisberger, and Steve McNair.
21-30: Aaron Rodgers, Joe Namath, Len Dawson, Donovan McNabb, Jim Kelly, Randall Cunningham, Troy Aikman, Bob Griese, and Ken Anderson, John Brodie.
11-20: Sonny Jurgensen, John Elway, Norm Van Brocklin, Warren Moon, Drew Brees, Dan Fouts, Bobby Layne, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, and Y.A. Tittle.
6-10: Fran Tarkenton, Tom Brady, Steve Young, Brett Favre, and Roger Staubach.