Everybody respected Ivan Drago’s talent, but very few people, if any, wanted him to beat Rocky. How could they? The boxing machine from the Evil Empire could not possibly hope to find a sympathetic soul among an American audience trained to detest and fear the USSR and communism, and to find nothing more haunting than the thought of one of their own losing to one of the bad guys.
Yeah, yeah, I know. The analogy doesn’t totally work. It’s not meant to, except to this extent: could it be that the reason why so many people would say Tom Brady is a better quarterback than Peyton Manning might come down to human interest?
A good story
Hear me out. You can’t deny that, on the scale of human interest likability, the Tom Brady story ranks as highly as any in the history of professional sports. Journalists absolutely love stories like this. Of course they do. Brady is a story to which all of us can relate on some degree. He started out as a scrawny Californian. He backed up Drew Henson at Michigan (don’t repeat that sentence too often to yourself or your brain might liquefy). He showed up at the NFL Combine skinnier than an emo high schooler, and ran that slow-ass 40-yard dash with the flappy t-shirt that had us all wondering if Brady would lift off like a kite. His body wouldn’t have caught Gisele’s attention at the time, much less impress an NFL scout. The Pats nearly opted to take Tim Rattay, one of several boogeymen who haunt the nightmares of 49ers’ fans, instead. Nevertheless, he was a sixth-round pick in a draft where the only quarterback picked in the first round was Chad Pennington, and where the likes of Chris Redman and Giovanni Carmazzi went in the third.
He got to the NFL and worked his way into being worthy of a starting job. And when Drew Bledsoe forgot to get out of bounds and paid for it with a collapsed lung from Bryan Cox, Brady seized his opportunity and never looked back. He outclassed most other NFL quarterbacks (including many a roasting of Pennington’s Jets), was a member of three Super Bowl teams in four years, married the woman of his (every man’s) dreams and became the face of the NFL’s newest most likable franchise. (Stephen A. Smith goes as far as saying they have taken the nickname of America’s Team from the Dallas Cowboys.) He was not just a good-looking, polite, humble, and worthy champion. He was the NFL’s equivalent of a self-made man, the kid who started out with absolutely zero fanfare, but built his career and his reputation from scratch, maximizing his talent with grit, determination, and class. Even his name is tailor-made for marketing departments to sell. Tom Brady. Short, simple, rolls right off the tongue. This story is so American you might as well have “America The Beautiful” playing in the background during the documentary on Brady’s life.
Sure, none of it would have mattered had he been deprived of certain gifts, namely an NFL arm. The guy just so happens to have a tad more talent for throwing a pigskin around than 99.9% of us. Still, we can like Brady for no other reason than because we think we’d show the same kind of dedication to mastering our craft if we were given the same opportunities. Or something like that.
Rehash this story in your mind, then answer me this: compared to that, who the hell could possibly hope to relate to Peyton Manning? The son of one of Mississippi and New Orleans’ greatest football darlings, Manning was pretty much guaranteed at least a look in the NFL, provided he didn’t: a) suffer a career-ending injury, b) drop out of school, c) fall victim to a substance-abuse problem or d) all of the above.
How many people can say they were born and bred, pretty much from the day they were ejected out of their mother’s womb, to play quarterback in the NFL? To ask the question is to answer it. This story, in complete contrast to Brady’s, has more potential for schadenfreude than any improbable tale you or I might come up with. The trade-off of Manning’s privileged upbringing seems to be that any success he would have in the NFL was bound to be somewhat thankless. “Wow! Peyton Manning has really lived up to the hype!” Well, of course, he has! His father is Archie Manning, Big Easy folk hero and undeniable good guy! His younger brother was also a first overall pick. He fell into the quarterbacking Kool-Aid when he was a kid. How could he not have all the right stuff? Sure, he works harder than any quarterback on the planet, but hey, he can thank his genetics too.
Let’s face it: as much as (if not more than) we like to see people who “come from nothing” succeed, we sure love to see people who appear to have it all fail. Upsets aren’t just great because the little guy gets to win every once in a while, they’re great because the big guy loses. And don’t we ever love seeing the big guy get a reality check?
So, Turp, uh… What was the point of psycho-analyzing the universal appeal of David vs Goliath? My point is this: as much as we recognize Manning’s skill, work ethic, and greatness, there is still a large portion of us that takes all of it for granted.
Taking Manning for granted
Exaggerating, am I? I really don’t think so.
How many times must a Super Bowl champion, and a player who so routinely makes playing the quarterback position look as simple as playing it in the Madden games, be told that more is needed in order for us to finally admit that no one has ever played the quarterback position quite like him? But maybe his continued dominance has been the problem all along. Again, we expect it of him, and we always have. Mississippians expected it of him in high school because he was a Manning. We expected it of him in college because he is a Manning. Then we expected it of him because he was a National Champion and a Heisman Trophy finalist. Then we expected it of him because he was all those things and a first overall pick. And at every stage of his career, from college to the draft process to the NFL, there have been quite a few of us who have had the gall to tell him that it wasn’t enough.
Defensive players don’t edge top offensive players for the Heisman trophy. They just don’t. But wait… it happened to one dominant quarterback. Care to guess who? That’s right. Manning is the butt of the joke and the exception that proves the rule, having lost the 1997 Heisman to Michigan’s Charles Woodson. (Delightful irony: The year Manning lost the Heisman to Woodson was also the year voters stupidly named Karl Malone NBA MVP over Michael Jordan, for no other reason than their desire for something new. Is there a parallel with the NCAA media feeling that Manning, having won the 1996 National Championship, was yesterday’s news? Crazier ideas have been voiced. Now, awarding the Heisman to Woodson over Manning is not the crime scene that was picking Malone over Jordan. I love Woodson; I think he’s one of the best defensive backs ever to play the game. But again, defensive players NEVER win the Heisman. I always bemoan it. But they just never do.)
Then came the draft process. Sure, Manning is good, but there’s this hotshot out there called Ryan Leaf who just might have more upside. Maybe Leaf should be the first pick. Those who dared utter those words should have been forced to seek political asylum, but for Peyton Manning, it was just another getting-taken-for-granted day at the office. Then, people started asking for Super Bowls while conveniently ignoring the sheer mediocrity of the defences he was asked to compensate for.
Consider Manning’s second season (1999). The Colts finished 13-3, up from 3-13 (not too shabby, just sayin’…), but when the playoffs came around, they were unfortunate enough to stumble onto another 13-3 team, the Titans, who had Eddie George S&M-ing bad defences into admitting they didn’t deserve to live. In what universe is a 13-3 team a wild card squad, you ask? In a universe where the Jacksonville Jaguars are 14-2, but I digress (I had to put that in. I just had to!). Now, just look at this shit soufflé of a Colts defence from top to bottom: Chad Bratzke, Ellis Johnson, Cornelius Bennett (solid starters); Mike Peterson as a rookie, Tyrone Poole, Jason Belser (Passable starters); Bernard Whittington, Shawn King, Mike Barber, Chad Cota, Jeff Burris (stiffs).
Project that over the bulk of Manning’s Indy career, and while there were a few upgrades (replacing Bratzke in the role of main pass rusher with Dwight Freeney, Mike Peterson maturing into a fringe Pro Bowler), the overall level of the Colts’ defence always remained comparable to that of 1999’s meddling unit. (Even Bennett had a subpar year in ’99; only Bratzke and Johnson played at a truly high level.) Later, Peterson left for Jacksonville, and the Colts never replaced him or their lesser players at linebacker. Nor did they ever put it together in the secondary, where they seemed allergic to any cornerback over 5-9 during the whole of Tony Dungy’s tenure as head coach of the Colts. In the meantime, Manning was busy making Brandon Stokley into a 1,000-yard receiver, not to mention fooling the world into thinking that you could get away with starting guys like Blair White and Hank Baskett at wideout. But hey, he just hasn’t won enough Super Bowls.
Compounding this narrative is the infamous Super Bowl loss against the Seahawks, for which Manning routinely gets blamed. I remember Michael Wilbon on PTI saying, “I don’t wanna hear about the O-Line; Manning had a bad game.” That should have gotten Wilbon banned from getting to talk football ever again. Sure, you can blame the loss on Manning… if you accept that:
- Part of his job description includes catching snaps that go six feet over his head.
- He should be able to throw touchdown passes while blocking for himself and his running backs.
- He should have singlehandedly rescued Eric Decker from Sherman Island.
- He should have managed to rematerialize Demaryius Thomas, who was getting his ass shut down, before the game was lost. (Don’t give me the offended face and his final stats. Watch the game again. How many of his receptions were in garbage time? How many went for over 10 yards? That’s right, case closed.)
- He should have played both ways and singlehandedly made up for the no-show from Denver’s defence.
So yeah, Wilbon, you might think Manning had a bad game. If you had a head injury.
Meanwhile, the way he plays quarterback is both an art and a science. Words fail to do it justice. He dissects defences like no other quarterback in history. And it took him about three years to become his team’s de facto offensive coordinator. Recently, there was a pundit who talked about how Emmanuel Sanders suddenly looked like a man possessed and said that it was an important signing because he really fit Peyton Manning’s offence. It was not a bad way to phrase it at all. Peyton Manning has long been not just a quarterback, but an offence. I might be wrong, but I think this means something. It’s representative of what has always been asked of him, and of what he expects from himself. Brady deserves credit for adapting his game to what his many coordinators wanted to do, but we can’t forget that it was convenient for him to do so. 2007 aside, the effect was always that it took tons of pressure off him, while Manning assumed that pressure head-on because, again, that’s how much of a contributor he expects himself to be.
Then again, another one of Manning’s problems is that he’s about as anti-Hollywood as it gets. And trust me, I remember the young Manning; he’s far better at looking human for the media than he once was. Look back to Manning as a rookie. He’s practically looking at the camera like it’s one of those alien tripods from War of the Worlds and he fears getting get zapped into dust. Great attribute to keep one focused on getting better on the field, sucks for a league that’s trying to sell a product, and the media trying to sell heart-warming human interest stories, off it.
I’m not saying Manning never had a bad game; I’m not saying he never had a bad moment in crunch time. But every time his defence gets pounded by an Eddie George, every time his offensive line goes MIA, every Willie McGinest sack-fumble, all of it is blamed on him. He has been a monster at the position at both the micro and the macro level, yet he’s almost systematically greeted with a “yeah, but…” This would be OK, I suppose, were the NFL fanbase not so vastly more indulgent with Brady.
Pro-Brady double standards abound…
While everyone constantly asks Manning for more, they tend to look at Brady through pink-tainted glasses.
Everyone talks about the superiority of Manning’s offensive weapons for most of his career compared to Brady’s. It’s not a meritless argument. I’d take Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne any day over the likes of Troy Brown, David Patten or David Givens. However, anyone who’s watched enough football will tell you that it’s much easier to disguise your athletic shortcomings with scheme on offence than on defence. Charlie Weis, whatever appropriate criticism anyone may have of him, can really draw up and call a play. On defence, you can do certain things to confuse the offence, sure. But with defence being a game of reaction, you have much less control over what the matchups are when the ball is snapped. Whatever weaknesses your defence has, they WILL stick out like a sore thumb, especially against good coaching. Thus, while Brady does get props for getting good production out of the likes of Deion Branch, he did benefit from a superior defence that decided many of his tougher games.
Also, when did having a good supporting cast become an argument to diminish someone’s accomplishments? No one dared question Joe Montana’s spot atop the QB pyramid until Brady showed up, and Joe had the benefit of playing with a pre-salary-cap juggernaut, which, of course, included the greatest receiver of all time. Moreover, did we forget that the one year when Brady was statistically transcendent, he had Randy Moss to throw it to, not to mention the fact that they were passing as much as a run-and-shoot team? And, just to be sure, did I mention Randy Moss? Seriously, Harrison was great, so was Wayne. None of the two is Moss. Ochoquatro just be might the most talented receiver to ever play in the NFL. Give that dude to Brady along with Wes Welker as a perfect complement to his skills, and Moss destroyed the NFL and stopped just short of claiming ownership of it. Oh, so Brady only had Moss at full-strength for a year? Yeah, and he only had a season like 2007 with Moss on the field. I know this is supposed to prove he could do about as well as Manning with a superior supporting cast, and it does. But let’s not pretend he set the world alight in a similar way when Moss wasn’t there.
On another matter, everyone wants to slam Manning for so-called bad performances in playoff games, but it’s not as though Brady has been completely immaculate in the playoffs, either. Before this year, the Pats had not won the Super Bowl since 2004. This is not a coincidence. Brady has had less-than-stellar moments himself, only most of the time, his teammates didn’t take the kind of dump in his hands Manning was subjected to. Remember when Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck turned Super Bowl 2008 into a pass rush party? Well, by Wilbon’s logic and by that of Manning’s detractors, we should hold this against Brady. I don’t, but you know, just sayin’… Nobody does. The Giants D-Line had Brady so rattled he threw two separate one-hoppers on screen plays. Then, when the Pats faced the Giants again in the Super Bowl, Brady had a game-losing overthrow intended for a wide… ass… open Wes Welker on fourth down. So while Brady-acs can’t stop talking about the horrendous interception Manning threw to Tracy Porter in the Super Bowl against the Saints, they can’t look me in the eye with a straight face and tell me Brady’s clutch overthrow didn’t damage his team’s chances to win as much as Manning’s pick. And two years ago, when Brady faced Manning with Peyton’s team being the strongest, Gisele’s husband looked as helpless as Manning would look two weeks later, only Brady got hit less. But he wasn’t brilliant by any stretch of the imagination. People conveniently forget this.
And don’t even get me started on the football gods inventing the stupid tuck rule to help the Pats weasel past the superior Raiders, or about the fact that Brady was named Super Bowl MVP against the Rams. Watch Ty Law’s game again. 7 tackles, a sack, and a pick-6, on a defence that limited the “Greatest Show on Turf” to 17 points while the Pats’ offence was stagnating? I don’t want to hear about the last drive! Giving the award to Brady is a scandal. Again, people conveniently forget this.
Also, remember when people were saying Manning was kind of a hard-ass with offensive teammates, while Brady was supposedly all smiles and his teammates loved him for it? And remember how that somewhat swayed the intangibles comparison in favour of Brady? Well, maybe the part about Brady was true when he was a second-year guy and would have been out of place to call out some of the more seasoned vets, but after that, he was every bit as much of a hard-ass as Manning was, so there goes that theory. But what chance does reality have against a myth?
Want the most egregious example of this double standard? Bill Simmons, the notable Boston homer, had the nerve to compare Brady-Manning with the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain debate. Let us not waste much time over this calamity except for one thing: Celtics fans revere Russell because he was the quintessential team player, a guy who always focused on being whatever his team needed him to be. He won 11 titles in 13 years in the 50s and 60s. So New Englanders make the easy connection: Wow! Brady really is a lot like that.
I’m even willing to grant it to them. But let us make no mistake: the buck stops there. While Manning has been a model teammate and leader who instantly turns his team into a Super Bowl contender, Wilt was a ridiculously talented but seriously misguided self-destructive coach killer who never had a clue what team dynamics are about. Any comparison with Manning is positively ludicrous. But Brady-acs love it, because it allows them to paint Brady as the intangibly perfect myth of a quarterback while Manning is concurrently the stats machine who is tangibly as close to perfection as possible, but somehow intangibly flawed.
It is a complete farce. But I am positively staggered by the number of people who seem to actually believe it.
In the end…
There is positively no doubt in my mind that we are talking about two of the best three quarterbacks ever to play the game. What decides it for me is something Simmons’ buddy Chuck Klosterman so eloquently wrote when making a case for Wilt as being superior to Russell. The beauty of sports icons being credited with possessing intangible greatness, he wrote, is that fans can make them into whatever myth they want because their imagination is not, in such cases, restricted by reality. It makes for a beautiful fantasy, but it is by no means a path to the truth. There is no comparison between the two when we pick the better human interest story, but unless we agree to look at sports through no other lens than that of the media, we cannot allow this fact to play a role in our final verdict.
So let’s get back down to earth for a second. If we agree that Manning’s statistical superiority, thanks to his mostly superior receivers, is moot, then so is Brady’s title count, for he usually had the better overall team. Therefore, it is problematic to point to Brady’s four (cue to Raiders’ fans losing their shit) Super Bowls, even as a tiebreaker, because none of them were all down to him. All that remains is what we should have been doing from the beginning, which is to look at these two players’ individual performances. Then, we should ask ourselves this question: if we forget the simpleminded notion that nothing matters in sports except for the winner of the last game of the season, in a vaccum, which of these two giants was actually better at playing the quarterback position?
It’s close. I would pick Brady over a ton of people. But I wouldn’t pick him over Manning.