The First Round Mock Draft

So, the draft is today. And since I turned the intro to my mock draft into a separate article, I’m not making you wait any longer, so here goes.

1. Los Angeles Rams (from Tennessee): Jared Goff, Quarterback, California:  I won’t be shocked if the Rams go Carson Wentz, but everything coming out of L.A. points to Goff, who is considered the most pro-ready quarterback in the draft. What tips the scales in Goff’s favour for me is the fact that Rams’ head coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead are fighting for their jobs and need to win now.

2. Philadelphia Eagles (From Cleveland): Carson Wentz, Quarterback, North Dakota State: Philadelphia has made no secret that it wants whichever quarterback the Rams don’t pick, so Wentz falls to them here. There is no way the Eagles don’t go quarterback here, even though they have the Sam Bradford saga to begin with.

3. San Diego Chargers: Laremy Tunsil, Offensive Tackle, Ole Miss: This has turned into the draft’s pivotal pick. The Chargers are believed to be looking at Tunsil and FSU’s Jalen Ramsey. We’re also starting to hear the name “DeForest Buckner” lately, which leads me to think smokescreen. I think they go for the franchise left tackle.

4. Dallas Cowboys: Jalen Ramsey, Defensive Back, Florida State: Without a quarterback to tempt them, the Cowboys get back to noticing they have an atrocious defensive backfield. Ramsey can act as an eraser in the secondary who can shift around between corner, nickel and free safey depending on the week. The Cowboys need an edge rusher, but the guy worth picking here is Ramsey.

5. Miami Dolphins (From Jacksonville): Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back, Ohio State: Word on the street is the Dolphins are looking to move up to get Elliott ahead of other teams who might want him. With Jalen Ramsey gone, there is no one Jacksonville really wants who is worth taking here. Therefore, the trade happens. Elliott is one of the rare running back worth taking so high, and he instantly upgrades the position for a team that lost Lamar Miller and missed out on CJ Anderson.

6. Baltimore Ravens: DeForest Buckner, Defensive End, Oregon: The Ravens may be tempted by Ronnie Stanley and Joey Bosa. Compared to these two, though, Buckner is a bigger need than Stanley (Eugene Monroe starting at left tackle is not a liability) and a better system fit than Bosa. Baltimore is the ultimate “Best Player Available” team, so who the hell knows, but Buckner figures to be really close to the top of their board, and he fills a huge need.

7. San Francisco 49ers: Myles Jack, Linebacker, UCLA: Yes, I know the 49ers have been burned by health concern linebackers. However, the Niners also know that when they were dominant defensively, it started with the inside duo of Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. Right now, Gerald Hodges is slated to start next to Bowman. San Fran knows that a healthy Jack is one of the five best players in the draft, and new coach Chip Kelly takes a chance on him here.

8. New Orleans Saints (From Cleveland through Philadelphia and Miami): Joey Bosa, Defensive End, Ohio State: So Cleveland is in asset-stockpiling mode, and the Saints need a quality end to put opposite the excellent Cameron Jordan. New Orleans knows that Tampa Bay needs a quality edge rusher, so they use the fact Cleveland doesn’t need any of the top guys who are available here to come up and grab Bosa, who not only helps in terms of production but also in terms of leadership.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronnie Stanley, Offensive Tackle, Notre Dame: With Joey Bosa gone, the Bucs reinforce their offensive line. Donovan Smith was a pleasant surprise last season, but he’s still better suited for the right side. Stanley provides true left-tackle-quality protection for second-year QB Jameis Winston.

10. New York Giants: Leonard Floyd, Edge Rusher, Georgia: OK, I’m not gonna lie… This is one where I’m allowing the media to influence me. I’ve been hearing Floyd to the Giants if he’s still there for the past week or so. This pick makes absolutely no sense to me. Right now, Floyd is an overrated project type of player who reminds me of Dion Jordan, who is warming up the bench in Miami after being picked third overall. I know his athleticism is enticing, but his lack of production really worries me. The question of system also comes to the mind, as Floyd is a quintessential 3-4 linebacker. This might be the draft’s best smokescreen, but if Floyd does go to the Giants, it’s a major risk.

11. Chicago Bears: Jack Conklin, Offensive Tackle, Michigan State: The Bears’ roster is really bereft of talent in many places. Among the Bears’ many needs is the left tackle position, following the release of Jermon Bushrod. Thus, the Bears could go in a number of directions, but at this point, Conklin is the best player who fills a need for Chicago, and he fits the Bears’ mentality.

12. Cleveland Browns (From New Orleans): Jarran Reed, Defensive Lineman, Alabama: Last year’s first-round pick, nose tackle Danny Shelton, was not enough on his own to paper over the cracks of Cleveland’s run defence. In a division where everyone can run the ball, Reed is added to one of the end spots and gives the Browns another run-stuffing lineman.

13. Jacksonville Jaguars (From Miami through Philadelphia): Vernon Hargreaves III, Cornerback, Florida: The Jags are ecstatic to find a cornerback who can, at worst, give them some kind of depth in the secondary. More likely, Hargreaves is a factor as a starter or as a nickel. For a team whose secondary was a dumpster fire a year ago, this is a terrific catch.

14. Oakland Raiders: Reggie Ragland, Linebacker, Alabama: The Raiders continue to add quality pieces to their defence, this time reinforcing the inside linebacker position. They will give Darron Lee and his athleticism some thought, but the hard-nosed Ragland is another player who fits the Raider mentality, and who fills Oakland’s need for an in-the-box player.

15. Tennessee Titans (From Los Angeles): Taylor Decker, Offensive Tackle, Ohio State: All mock drafts before the Titans traded down to this point had them taking Laremy Tunsil. Thing is, the Titans need more help at right tackle than left, so they’re elated to see Decker drop to them. Pencil him in there at right tackle for the foreseeable future.

16. Detroit Lions: Sheldon Rankins, Defensive Tackle, Louisville: The Lions love upfield rushers, and while Haloti Ngata claims to enjoy the role, he’s not a natural for it. Moreover, since losing Ndamokung Suh, the Lions don’t have a true interior pass rusher. Rankins, an explosive player in the mold of Geno Atkins, fits the bill.

17. Atlanta Falcons: A’Shawn Robinson, Defensive Tackle, Alabama: The Falcons could use help at linebacker, but Robinson helps them a great deal because he can either line up on the nose, or at the two-gapping weakside end position in the Falcons’ Seattle-inspired defence. Wherever he plays, he helps with the Falcons’ run defence.

18. Indianapolis Colts: Noah Spence, Edge Rusher, Eastern Kentucky: Someone is going to take a stab at Spence, a talented player with significant character concerns. In the end, though, Spence is the draft’s only true blue-chip edge rusher, and that’ll make him too tempting for Indy to pass up.

19. Buffalo Bills: Shaq Lawson, Defensive End, Clemson: After losing Mario Williams, the Bills need to replace the pass rush he gave them before he spent last season looking uninterested. Buffalo will 100% have a discussion about taking Paxton Lynch here, but in the end, they go with the more immediate need, and with the player who has a much higher floor in Lawson.

20. New York Jets: Paxton Lynch, Quarterback, Memphis: Is anything the Jets do these days NOT a tactic to pressure Ryan Fitzpatrick into signing at a discount? Even if Fitzpatrick returns, he is not a long-term solution. However, the Jets could use him while they groom Lynch, who has much to learn in order to be a functional pro quarterback. Besides, when he does mature, he can allow the Jets to avoid the struggles typically experienced by teams who throw a rookie quarterback to the lions.

21. Washington: Darron Lee, Linebacker, Ohio State: Washington can’t quite believe Lee has made it this far, but they won’t complain. Their inside linebacker group could use his athleticism, and he figures to become one of the leaders of a unit severely lacking in star power.

22. Houston Texans: Corey Coleman, Wide Receiver, Baylor: The Texans are crying for a receiver to help out All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins. Coleman runs a very limited arsenal of routes, but has blazing speed, a trait that complements Hopkins’ all-around game. Brock Osweiler will love having the speedy Coleman in Houston.

23. Minnesota Vikings: Josh Doctson, Wide Receiver, TCU: Receiver is one of the rare holes on the Vikes’ roster, and while they may hesitate between Doctson and Laquon Treadwell, they end up going with the TCU product because he posted better timed speed than Treadwell, and he’s the best receiver in the draft at pulling down jump balls.

24. Cincinnati Bengals: Laquon Treadwell, Wide Receiver, Ole Miss: This is a dream come true for Cincinnati. A receiver of Treadwell’s quality will benefit from AJ Green’s defence-stretching ability, and will work his magic on short-to-intermediate routes, which is what he’s best suited for anyway. Treadwell is the perfect complement to Green home run ability, and will be a far superior second option to Marvin Jones or Mohammed Sanu.

25. Pittsburgh Steelers: Eli Apple, Cornerback, Ohio State: This is just a Steelers kind of pick, isn’t it? Apple fits the rugged Pittsburgh mold of defensive back, and since Pittsburgh now plays much more Cover 2 than they did under Dick Lebeau, Apple’s tendency to give up the occasional big play figures to be hidden better than it was at Ohio State.

26. Seattle Seahawks: Ryan Kelly, Centre, Alabama: If Seattle wants Russell Wilson to play longer than six years, they are going to have to start taking better care of him. Before last season, the Hawks dealt star centre Max Unger to the Saints, and their offensive line never really recovered. This pick is a great opportunity to start fixing a problem they have been neglecting for some time.

27. Green Bay Packers: Vernon Butler, Nose Tackle, Louisiana Tech: It seems the Packers are drafting a D-Lineman every year. BJ Raji’s departure leaves them extremely thin at the nose tackle position, and the help Butler can bring is sizable in every sense of the word.

28. Kansas City Chiefs: William Jackson III, cornerback, Houston: After losing Sean Smith to divisional rival Oakland, the Chiefs pick Jackson to give themselves a top pair of young cornerbacks along with last year’s outstanding rookie Marcus Peters. Throwing against KC figures to be mighty inconvenient.

29. Dallas Cowboys (From Arizona): Kevin Dodd, Defensive End, Clemson: With no one they especially like here, the Cardinals trade back to the early second round, thus enabling Dallas to come up and grab the pass rusher they decided to skip at #4 when they picked Jalen Ramsey over Joey Bosa. Hopefully for the Cowboys, they don’t have to give up too much.

30. Carolina Panthers: Will Fuller, Wide Receiver, Notre Dame: Sure, he’s a bit of a one-trick pony. Sure, he’s very reminiscent of Ted Ginn in that his deep speed is about his only calling card. But he’s the top player on Carolina’s board at this point, and the Panthers would do well to remember that their receiver group overachieved last year. It can’t hurt not to go all-in on it happening again. Cam Newton can certainly benefit from having a new weapon to work with.

31. Denver Broncos: Andrew Billings, Nose tackle, Baylor: As critically-acclaimed as that Denver front was last season, it was bereft of a true nose tackle. Billings still being there at 31 is the ideal opportunity add such a player to the roster. Billings, a powerful player who can get off the ball and push the pocket, can serve as a setup man for Wade Phillips to run his crazy blitzes and twists.

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A word on Peyton Manning, and a question about Charles Woodson: was he better than Deion?

Into the sunset

This year’s retirement season is brutal on the NFL, and on us as fans. Peyton Manning has retired as the league’s most statistically decorated quarterback and, in my opinion, the greatest one it has ever seen. I don’t wish to go at length into the reasons why I believe this to be the case, but let’s just put it this way: what do those who disagree have to hang their hat on? The amount of Super Bowls won by Brady and Montana. Let’s not kid ourselves: both of them are top 5 quarterbacks as well. However, the rings argument for their superiority over Manning is as overstated and simplistic as it is problematic.

In fact, it’s not so much an argument as it is an unsophisticated cliché. And if we are willing to cast aside this cliché, and agree that there is more to a player’s greatness than if or how many times he was on the winning team for the last game of the season, the question becomes this: when it comes to the quarterback position, who has ever played it at a higher level than Manning? The answer: no one.

Just how great was Charles Woodson?

Still, this offseason also forces us to say goodbye to Charles Woodson, the Raiders’ star defensive back who retires after a season in which he still played at a fairly high level. The depth of his link to Manning is really quite stunning. They are the last members of the 1998 draft class to retire. They both came into the league as high first-round picks (Manning was first overall; Woodson went fourth). Before their respective pro debuts, Woodson became the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. Who was the preseason pick to win it, but wound up finishing second in the voting? Manning. Both of them came into the league with the potential to revolutionize their respective positions, and they both did.

The ways in which Manning changed the quarterback position (another reason why he’s the greatest ever) are well documented. As for Woodson, the changes to defensive back play he has ushered may be more subtle, but I’m not convinced they’re any less significant. That’s why I consider him to be the greatest defensive back I’ve ever watched.

I shall now pause to give the Deion fanatics among my friends the chance to climb back down from their living room curtains.

Just a moment…

Almost there…

And we’re back.

Yes, I’ve seen Deion play. Yes, he’s the greatest cover corner in history. So what, then, would make him inferior to Woodson? My take on the Deion-Woodson debate is that Deion’s era-specific advantages are hard to ignore. Sure, the tape suggests his pure speed is better than Woodson’s, and that his “loose man” skills are as well. His interception numbers are also gaudier.

But my thinking goes as follows: put rookie Woodson in a time machine and send him to 1988, playing in an NFL when you could get away with corners who were relatively uninterested in tackling and assuredly awful at it (as Deion was) because the bubble screen game hadn’t yet forced corners to acquire the shed-and-tackle skills of a linebacker. In those times, could Woodson have been, say, 98% of what Deion was? No question, and some, even back then, would have taken Woodson because he was a more complete player.

Put rookie Deion in 1998 and have him face what has become the NFL of today. Is he 98% of Woodson? It’s a murky proposal. Sure, in terms of man-to-man skills, we’d speak of him the way we speak of peak Darrelle Revis. But how would his disdain of zone coverage affect the perception of him by coordinators (There was a guy who could never in a million years have played for a coach like Bill Belichick)? Would his horrendous tackling and overall aversion to it not diminish his value to coaches and GMs?

How would his value compare to what it was in the late 80s-early 90s? 85%? 90%? 95%? How would he fare in the run game or against hitches, jailbreaks and bubble screens getting off blocks from the likes of Andre or Calvin Johnson? How would he do if a modern DC matched him up against a Rob Gronkowski? Is that even feasible?

And there is more. Because of his superior technical skills and overall ability, late-career Woodson was able to become a safety who wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in the run game and whom DCs could bring on a blitz with excellent results (as Dom Capers did during Woodson’s stint as a Green Bay Packer). Meanwhile, look at what happened when Deion’s skills eroded (which just so happens to coincide with Dallas letting him go): he fell off a cliff when he arrived in Washington, and instantly became a liability. I think that means something.

It’s also worth mentioning that there has been something “Tim Duncan-esque” about Woodson’s excellence. Deion was the very definition of flash (not always to his benefit) with gem quotes such as , “I don’t love the camera; the camera loves me!” Meanwhile, Woodson has pissed excellence in silence (and on several mediocre Oakland teams) for pretty much his entire career, and you had to watch him to see just how amazing he was. It reminds me of the Duncan-Kobe discussion. Have a basketball conversation with a casual fan, and he’ll probably tell you the notion that Kobe was better than Duncan is beyond debate. And he’ll be wrong.

It’s kind of the same thing with Woodson versus Deion. Sanders has the support of legions who nostalgically remember his days as a man coverage ayatollah, and the young people know him because he’s on television. Woodson only has the connoisseurs’ support, and that of those who saw him crush it on a Super Bowl team in Green Bay. Woodson’s reputation has also “suffered” from him playing at the same time as several truly legendary corners like Champ Bailey (mortal lock as a Hall-of-Famer) and Chris McAlister (who would be discussed in similar terms had he played long enough). Aside from maybe Rod Woodson, who did Deion have to compete with? Old Ronnie Lott? Dale Carter? Aeneas Williams?

Between Woodson’s incredible athletic talents, the sheer completeness of his game, and the way he reinvented himself when his physical skills began to fade, he would have been a Top two or three player at his position for his entire career in any era. His versatility allowed for the modern use of the star defensive back who gets moved all over the field to prevent top receivers from creating mismatches. Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey is a highly-touted all-around prospect in this year’s NFL draft a DB, mostly because of his ability to line up all over the field. People describe him as another Patrick Peterson; I think he’s another Woodson, and that’s why defensive coordinators salivate at the thought of having him on their team. Whatever multitude of ways Ramsey will be used as an NFL player, he’ll owe part of it to Woodson.

As for Deion, put him in today’s NFL, and he’s essentially the Washington Post or the New York Times: still great, still a reference in many ways, but not necessarily as memorable. And that’s what sets Woodson apart from Sanders, for me, despite Woodson’s fatal flaw of not being interesting enough. Heck, by the time my friends finish this post, they’ll probably have resumed thinking about Richard Sherman. For Woodson, it’ll be another day of being overlooked. It seems even his retirement can’t save him from that.

 

 

 

The case for Marshall Faulk as a Top 5 all-time running back

After watching Marshall Faulk’s “A Football Life” episode on the NFL Network, it dawned on me that he’s in danger of winding up historically underrated. Reading this, it might occur to you that I’m being hyperbolic. After all, the man is in the Hall of Fame, he’s widely recognized as a great in the sport’s history, and so on.

And yet…

Ask anyone to give you a Top 5 running backs list, and see how many of them will have Faulk in there. Now, I wasn’t born to see OJ or Jim Brown, I was too young to remember Payton and I missed the first third of Emmitt Smith’s career. But however great these players were, I am making the argument that Faulk belongs on any Top 5 list.

Watching the episode brought historical context to things I barely remembered about him, and even taught me a few things I didn’t know (I must confess feeling selfishly relieved that the Miami Hurricanes lacked the vision to recruit him as a running back. Faulk playing for the Canes? Help us all!).

Statistically, Faulk numbers leave little to be desired. He is one of only three players to have rushed for 10,000 yards and caught for 5,000 (Marcus Allen and Tiki Barber being the others). He is the fastest player to reach 16,000 and 17,000 yards from scrimmage in NFL history. Only he and Jim Brown have ever reached 1,000 yards rushing in six games. Only he and Ladainian Tomlinson have accumulated 10 seasons of five or more rushing touchdowns. Consider the following receiving numbers: 87 catches, 1,048 yards, five touchdowns. Not a bad year for a receiver, right? Thing is, those are Faulk’s numbers from 1999.

One of the clichés we have in sports is that a player’s statistics “speak for themselves.” However, in Faulk’s case, it feels as though they do not. Not quite. As great as his stats are, Faulk’s true greatness doesn’t lie in his tangibles.

Watching the “A Football Life” episode, it struck me that they could have taken away the interviews, the music, the human interest stuff, and simply rolled game footage for an hour, and it would have been enough. Between my days as a player and a coach, I’ve been involved in over 200 games of football, and I’ve watched who knows many more. Football often leaves me impressed, but seldom in awe. Marshall Faulk left me in awe. A lot. Even as I watched the episode, as it replayed moments I could still remember, my jaw dropped several times as I watched him wiggle his way out of piles that would have been impossible to escape for anyone else not named Barry Sanders. If Walter Payton was “Sweetness,” then Marshall Faulk was “Magic.” Unlike several great backs, Faulk wasn’t just great; he was memorable.

But that’s part of the problem. One of my theories as to why Faulk risks being historically shafted to some degree is that nobody seems quite sure what to make of him. We know he was great, but how great, exactly? His rushing numbers are indeed impressive, but they are topped by backs who have managed to play longer. In a way, Barry Sanders may have helped his case by retiring so early, because the fact that he only played eight years will serve as a caveat to justify his not having the numbers some of the other greats have. Fans relish their memories of Walter Payton, for whom running looked so effortless. Most people, for whom running back should be runners above all else, might prefer stallions types with an unnatural combination of length, speed and power, such as Eric Dickerson and Adrian Peterson. And, of course, there are the technical masters, who would never take a step wrong, like Tomlinson and Emmitt Smith. 

How much should we value the fact that Faulk is unquestionably the best receiving back of the modern era, or any era, for that matter? Even that last claim is bound to be contested. Some day, some stat geek born in 2002 or something will crunch the numbers and say that Ladainian Tomlinson was pretty much as a good a receiving back as Faulk. And he’ll be wrong.

Still, if we’re being honest, we must examine whether Faulk benefited from era-specific advantages. This is an especially salient question when we look at his receiving numbers. His prime took place in the last era when a linebacker lighter than 240 pounds was considered too small to play in the middle, 250-pound, 4.9-running Sam linebackers defended tight ends, and virtually all strong safeties were Kam Chancellor types who stank in coverage. Of course, Faulk was matchup hell for these guys. But what about now? It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be the best receiving back in the league, but would he be quite the same matchup nightmare working against guys like Lavonte David, or Thomas Davis, or DeAndre Levy? Does he pull off his receiving stats from 1999  in today’s NFL? Does he even get enough snaps, given that the running back-by-committee approach is now the norm in the NFL?

They’re not invalid questions, but even if we concede all these points, there are also things in today’s NFL from which he would surely benefit. Would he not be even more of an assassin as an inside runner in today’s zone schemes? Would a lighter workload not allow him to prolong his career? Would the imports from inventive college passing attacks, such as the Air Raid, not compensate for the fact that modern NFL linebackers and safeties are closer to matching him athletically?

I would argue that he would still be a monster receiver because a) today’s linebackers and safeties might be much better athletes, but they still aren’t good enough in coverage to stay with Faulk, and b) in today’s NFL, a bright coordinator would have schemed his way into making Faulk uncoverable. If Dion Lewis can look unstoppable in the Pats’ offence, imagine how Faulk would do. Moreover, given that he was surprisingly durable in an era when front 7 players were much bigger than they are today, it’s safe to assume that lesser workloads would have prevented him from “losing a step” overnight as he did, much like Tomlinson and Eddie George, and would have allowed him to extend his career in much the same way as Emmitt Smith did. Imagine the numbers he would have posted then.

And just in case you remain unconvinced, allow me to give you the bullet-point presentation of why I rank Faulk in my Top 5 running backs of all time, and you should too:

  1. He exuded “X-factorness” (not a word, I know. Sue me.) : We have already discussed this at length, but again, this cannot be overstated. Faulk is one of those players you had to see to truly grasp just how exceptional he was. Look at Emmitt Smith or Tomlinson’s stats, and you pretty much get the picture. Not true with Faulk. He was one of those players who pushed back the limits of what we thought running backs could do. I think that counts for something.
  2. He was a complete, total, utter matchup horror show: You would have needed one of your starting cornerbacks to cover him (and even then, I can think of several stiff starting corners who wouldn’t have had a prayer of staying with him). But you couldn’t have gotten away with that because a) he never lined up in the same spot, and b) because even if you did red-dog him with a starting corner, that would have meant assigning a safety or a nickel corner to cover either Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt (translation: suicide). And while he wasn’t a physical runner, he could wiggle out of tight spaces better than anyone other than Barry Sanders. Your typical NFL linebacker is faster now than he was back then but, with moves like his, Faulk could still leave most modern backers in the dust. One more thing: as a blocker, his cerebral prowess allowed him to excel against linebackers as big as modern defensive ends. Against today’s smaller players, he’d be a world-beater as a blocker. If you want a modern comparison for the kind of mismatch nightmare he was, think Rob Gronkowski. Different athletes; same gameplanning impossibility.
  3.  He turned the moribund Rams into a Super Bowl team: While the media was having a field day signing the praises of Kurt Warner because he was the cuter story, Marshall Faulk was busy being the actual catalyst for the Rams’ turnaround. It’s not that Warner’s performance was without merit, far from it, but ask yourself the following questions: Could the Rams have won that Super Bowl and gotten to another one two years later with Trent Green at quarterback instead of Warner? Probably. Could they have done it without Faulk being the terror that he was, and creating tons of favourable matchups for Bruce and Holt? No, not a chance. 1999-2001 Faulk was, along with Randy Moss, the most dynamic offensive weapon in the NFL. Warner was an unusually smart and accurate quarterback. Deprive him of an offensive star in peak form (Faulk in St.Louis; Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona), however, and his limitations become much more apparent.
  4. Given my tendencies as a fan, I should have hated him, but I didn’t: I have a confession to make. I hate media darlings. And when the media caught on to the fact that they might have, in the ’99 Rams, an amazing Cinderella story in both Kurt Warner and the Rams in general, they couldn’t stop feeding it to us. When I was younger, that drove me even crazier than it does now. There are many players I dislike not because of anything they did, but because I couldn’t take the media marveling over them anymore. I despised Kurt Warner, and I was never too fond of Bruce and Holt. I couldn’t help but like Faulk. I was not very far advanced in my football fandom at that point, but I could tell this was a historically great player having a historically great season. And he was so magical to watch that I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

I realize no one would dare argue that Faulk is overrated, and that nobody is questioning his status as an all-time great. Still, however, I will state until I’m blue in the face that this isn’t enough. There are many names one could put on a list of the greatest running backs of all time and get an argument from no one, but you would get one from me if you were to put five names ahead of Marshall Faulk.

Why I still would take Manning over Brady… and will never change my mind

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:

  1. Part of his job description includes catching snaps that go six feet over his head.
  2. He should be able to throw touchdown passes while blocking for himself and his running backs.
  3. He should have singlehandedly rescued Eric Decker from Sherman Island.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.

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