Why must we decide between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning? Is it some barstool mandate, four or five beers in, to channel your inner Skip Bayless and maniacally declare that one quarterbacking legend is better than the other? Brady has won more Super Bowl rings, three to one, and has enjoyed better postseason success because he has had more balanced and complete teams around him. Manning has won more league MVP awards, four to two, and compiled better individual numbers because, while Brady plays in a system, Manning IS the system.
To me, they are an American hybrid, two bottomless oxygen tanks that have reminded us throughout the early 21st century why we enjoy sports and still can admire pre-eminent athletes. Both are brilliant, instinctive, almost possessed masters of the game who fervently prepare for every detail and demand a similar commitment from teammates. Just as important, neither has been scandalized, bimboized or nabbed in a TMZ headline. Both are product pitchmen of the highest order, with Manning cutting that meat, watching football on the phone and selling pizza as the downhome class clown while Brady plays the different-hair-every-week fashion model as dressed by his famous wife, Gisele Bundchen, right down to his Ugg boots. Neither is particularly fond of self-promotion, preferring to form images during three-hour televised windows and then slipping into privacy.
Both are among the top five quarterbacks of all time. Neither has an arm that would be described with ammunition jargon.
Both could run for office. Neither is dumb enough to do so.
In a sport besieged by relentless tumult — a concussion crisis, a bullying scandal, suicides, murders, no established test for Human Growth Hormone, a sense that football is gradually plummeting to its eventual demise in America — Brady and Manning lift the NFL’s greater burden each season and provide consistent, undeniable greatness. To see them still doing it — Manning at 37, Brady at 36, and both surviving serious injuries to regain their standard dominance — is reassuring in a football era when nothing seems certain and change is haywire. As much as we lather them with praise, they are even bigger fans of each other, though wary enough as competitors that they almost sound alike in expressing concern.
“You know that with a great player like that on the other side of the ball, there’s a very slim margin of error,” Brady said this week. “They’re never out of it.”
“You realize because of Tom being their quarterback, they’re capable of scoring a lot of points and a lot of points quickly,” Manning said this week. “They put a lot of pressure on the defense, and so as an offense, you feel like you better be on top of your game as well.”
So, why choose between them?
Besides, their careers aren’t nearly finished. While neither is ready to say he’ll play into his 40s, it’s possible for both. And if the bugaboo for Manning in any Brady comparison is the Super Bowl/postseason discrepancy — Manning is 9-11, including last season’s devastating loss to the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens — you’d be foolish to say he can’t win at least one Super Bowl with a Broncos team set up for years of championship contention.
It only would be right if Manning corrected that hiccup. If it’s unfair to tilt the Super Bowl quotient too heavily in judging a quarterback’s body-of-work legacy, the championship factor is critical. Manning’s brother, Eli, is half the quarterback that Peyton is, yet he has been fortunate enough to win two Super Bowls. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t a Hall of Famer, yet he has won two Super Bowls. Of course, Dan Marino didn’t win any Super Bowls. Manning is going to own virtually every NFL passing record. He deserves more than one ring, and when it is mentioned to him that he’s the greatest regular-season quarterback ever, he doesn’t react kindly. He’ll never say it, but having only one championship — as his former owner with the Colts, Jim Irsay, alluded to so rudely the week Manning returned to Indianapolis — is a sore burning deep in his soul.
And Brady, particularly early in his New England career, has been the major obstacle to his winning more titles. Sunday night will mark their 14th meeting, and if the hype is waning a bit because of oversaturation, the magnitude feels as powerful. Manning is the one enjoying the historic season, threatening to eclipse the stunning numbers posted by Brady in a 50-touchdown-pass campaign in 2007. Brady’s numbers are down this season as he tries to develop young receivers on the fly, dealing with calamities as far and wide as Wes Welker bolting for Denver and Aaron Hernandez sitting in a jail cell. If the Broncos win, they’ll strengthen their case for a postseason bye, a week of rest urgently needed for a battered and beaten Manning. If the Patriots win, they might ease their playoff road. No one should be surprised if there’s a 15th meeting in January.
“I think these guys respect each other so much and they’re so professional, they would never turn it into a one-on-one type of thing,” said Manning’s former coach, NBC analyst Tony Dungy, who spoke to reporters on a conference call. “But they know when the season starts they’re going to end up facing each other in a meaningful game late in the year.”
Rodney Harrison, Dungy’s partner on the NBC studio set, played with Brady in New England. He thinks Manning has been dissed in the comparison, which may interest Brady. “I think Peyton has been so unfairly judged because he really didn’t have that defense over the years like Tom,” Harrison said. “Tom had a lot of veteran players, a lot of really good defenses, where if he didn’t play particularly well, he knew that he had a defense with a lot of veteran players that could save him. Whereas, Peyton didn’t really have that advantage. If Peyton was on our team, I think we could have easily won three Super Bowls, no doubt about it.”
Seems Harrison is voting for Manning. I share his rationale.
But I’m still not choosing. Not yet.
There is too much left to appreciate and enjoy.