Words like greatness and champion tend to conjure images of our greatest athletes soaring above and beyond the limits of our imaginations. Imaginations which you’ll have to use for the purposes of this article, because being saccharine when it comes to professional sports has never been a great specialty of mine.
So anyway, the battle lines have long been drawn in the NFL fandom. You’re either a Peyton Manning man or a Tom Brady man; one of these two is going to go down in history as the greatest quarterback of all time, and the other is going to be remembered as 1a. It’s the closest thing the NFL has to a good against evil rivalry right now, although the roles have managed to invert themselves: The gifted, strong-armed man who was the son of a quarterback and the brother of another quarterback and was raised almost purely to epitomize everything a proper pocket passer should be is the good guy in this case, while the scrappy underdog who was inconspicuously raised in California, had to prove himself at the University of Michigan, was drafted in the fifth round, and whose big break was one of Drew Bledsoe’s bones is considered the bad guy. While so-called analysts were debating stat and MVP King Manning against Super Bowl Champion Brady for years, both Rob and I were devoted Manning men. Then something funny happened: Brady started putting up video game numbers himself, and the debate between Manning and Brady was suddenly a real debate. Rob stuck with Manning through and through, but I began questioning who was the true superior of the two. Lately, it seems like everything between them has been a one-upsmanship contest which the rest of the NFL just got stuck in. Just when I think Brady proved himself the inarguable superior by throwing for over 500 yards in a single game, Manning will heave seven touchdown passes in a single game. Forget the hype; the NFL is a battlefield between Manning and Brady, and every other team is just caught in the middle. So who is actually better? Well, it’s time to throw my own five cents into this bloodletting. So let’s do this! Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. One day, I’ll learn.
Peyton Manning played for a bunch of coaches – Jim Mora, Tony Dungy, and Jim Caldwell with the Indianapolis Colts. Upon his move to the Denver Broncos, Manning switched to coach John Fox. Non-fans might not notice this at first glance, but that’s not a particularly impressive spate of coaches. Dungy is the only coach of that bunch who could give fans any bragging rights – he’s the team’s all-time winningest coach, at least in Indy – and even he struggled to fix a defense which constantly played like a screen door on a submarine. So it was left on Manning’s head to lead all of those coaches to 13-win years at one point or another. Consider that: Four different head coaches, four new systems to learn, and one of them came with a move to a city where there’s no atmosphere and athletes have to be told to remember to breathe. Tom Brady has had only one single coach throughout the entirety of his NFL career. Not just any coach either, but Darth freaking Vader…. I mean, Bill freaking Belichick, a man who specialized in defense when he began his tenure with the New England Patriots and, when his guys got old, pulled a switcheroo and morphed into Air Belichick. That’s not only stability, it’s stability with a coach who can teach you rocket science.
Peyton Manning. For everything we know about what a natural athlete he is, Peyton Manning clearly put in extra credit to learn every new system thrown at him. He’s done that so often that any discussion over the league MVP revolves around who will be second to Manning. Tom Brady knows only his one guy. I’d like to see how he does without a wizard calling his shots before coming back to review this decision.
Quarterback is a difficult position to really get ahold of in the NFL. It’s why so few teams come up with even one serviceable QB they can safely call their franchise guy, so it’s safe to factor in just what they did when they were first thrown to the wolves. Manning won all of three games in his rookie season with the Colts. In his first real season as a starter, Brady didn’t do very much better. He only took the New England Patriots to, uh, their first ever Super Bowl victory. However, what should be be remembered here is that Tom Brady was drafted in 2000 and spent his first season sitting on his ass watching and learning from Drew Bledsoe, a 40,000-yard clubber himself who took the Patriots to a nigh-unwinnable Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers a few years earlier. In practices, he was learning the system of Bill Belichick. What does it all mean? That by the time Tom Brady won his promotion, he knew all the ropes, an advantage Peyton Manning didn’t have. I won’t factor in what Manning did during his first year in Denver, because by the time he got there, the Broncos were such an awesome team that Tim Tebow was able to get them into the playoffs.
Peyton Manning. Tom Brady never had to deal with a team that was a disorganized mess even before Marshall Faulk left.
Peyton Manning has 38 fourth-quarter comebacks. Tom Brady has 27. Now, this can easily be nullified by pointing out the fact that if the quarterbacks are any good, they don’t find themselves playing from behind very often, and with Brady there’s certainly a case in that. Brady’s top year for comebacks was seven in 2003, when the Patriots weren’t leaking like drunks on defense. He seems to be playing from behind less and less. Manning has more comebacks to his name despite his reputation as a choker, and three times in his career he managed to lead his team to seven comebacks in a single season. Blame his defense. The dirty little secret of the New England Patriots is that, in spite of his fearless leader reputation, Tom Brady’s props as the clutch man in the Super Bowl are overblown. He’s played in the Big Game five times. The first two times, he merely brought his team to ties. In both final drives – which cemented his reputation, I might add – he wasn’t imitating Joe Montana or Eli Manning. All he did was lead the Patriots down the field, into…. Field goal position! Where his uber-clutch kicker broke tie games in the closing seconds! Kind of removes the sense of urgency, doesn’t it? In the third Super Bowl, the Philadelphia Eagles had a real shot at winning. Brady had no control over the end drives, but reeled in the Lombardi Trophy anyway because Philly’s coach couldn’t remember the time. Fourth Super Bowl against the New York Giants? That was a big one. Truly down by three points, Brady really needed a touchdown. There was a real sense of urgency because even if the Patriots kicked a field goal, that meant time would run out and the Giants would get another shot in overtime. And Tom Terrific couldn’t even get his team into field goal range. In his fifth Super Bowl, again against the Giants, Brady led the Pats on the final drive again, and this time his team was down by four so no touchdown, no ring, game, set, and match. Not only did Brady blow it, he didn’t even get within a reach of the endzone which was safe enough for New England to try anything other than a hail mary. I’m taking pleasure in Brady-bashing because while no one points this out, everyone loves to mock Manning’s one big comeback failure in the Super Bowl: The interception to Tracy Porter against the New Orleans Saints.
Take your chance. On the one hand, Peyton Manning comes back more often, but he’s more prone to mistakes. On the other, there’s Tom Brady, who looks lost when he’s truly behind in the Super Bowl under assault because he isn’t used to having to come back, but at least he doesn’t throw game-sealing interceptions.
Neither of these guys can be called a bad runner, but they’re both traditional pocket passers, which makes both of them relics in the new, mobile NFL. Of course, that doesn’t mean a whole lot because even in their career twilights, both are still capable of killing you. They just have different ways of going about it. Manning has always been more of a big play quarterback. Watching him, one gets the sense that he’s going for broke on each and every pass he throws. It’s high risk, high reward for Manning, a man who never heard of such a thing as game management until late in his career. He is a regular scrimmage line maestro who frequently calls his own plays and changes them at will if his gut is telling him the other defense is going to pull something. Tom Brady clearly knew the concept of game management from the moment he took over the starting job from Bledsoe in New England. Hell, it’s the reason he’s been so successful. Brady is more willing to spread the ball out, change receivers, and throw short-yardage passes for small gains to hack away at a defense if his team is on the ropes. It’s not the most exciting way to get the job done, but it works, and the risks aren’t as great. This shows in the interception numbers for both players – Manning has thrown considerably more career interceptions (209 to Brady’s 123) and his single-season interception high of 28 is twice that of Brady’s 14.
Tom Brady. If I have to protect a small lead, I need to know the ball is going to actually be safe.
The common perception is that Peyton Manning lifted the NFL version of The Mighty Ducks while Tom Brady coasted by on the cream of the crop. When it comes to defense, Manning has always been shafted, while Brady only started getting screwed over around 2006. Manning had the career entirety of receiver Marvin Harrison for the bulk of both their careers, and Harrison is a guy who ranks in the Jerry Rice suites in several receiving categories, including career receptions – he’s one of only four to reel in 1000 balls, and he ranks first in average receptions per season. Manning also enjoyed the sustained ground support of Edgerrin James for an enormous chunk of time, and James was no half-ass runner – he holds five career rushing records for the Colts. Over his career, Manning also got the considerable services of other Pro Bowlers like center Jeff Saturday, wide receiver Reggie Wayne lining up opposite Harrison, running back Joseph Addai, and tight end Ken Dilger. Now, do you know who Antowain Smith is? He was the running back for the Patriots in New England’s first two Super Bowl victories, and a reject from the Buffalo Bills who really didn’t have much to offer beyond his willingness to take a few hits. It’s true that like Manning, Tom Brady enjoyed the protection of an all-world offensive line, an all-time great receiver (Randy Moss) and an all-time great running back (Corey Dillon). However, Moss and Dillon came years apart and played for the Patriots for less than three years! Dillon retired soon after helping the Patriots to their third Super Bowl, and Moss was shipped. New England is infamously unsentimental when it comes to keeping its guys, and Brady has had to get used to seeing his running backs and receivers get knocked down the depth chart and ditched entirely. Receiver Troy Brown had a Pro Bowl in an otherwise inconspicuous career, and he needed Brady to get it. Deion Branch was a Super Bowl MVP, an honor which probably topped his otherwise ordinary career. Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski are the closest things Brady ever had to favorite targets, but Welker is catching Peyton’s bombs in Denver now, and Gronk hasn’t been around for very long yet. Of course, the reverse arguments came when both players were injured; when Brady went down for the 2008 season, Matt Cassel won eleven games in his absence. When Manning was hurt in 2011, the Colts won two games.
Tom Brady. Manning has had the kind of stability with his players that Brady has had only with his coach. Yes, Manning-less Indianapolis won just two games, but that wasn’t a particularly good personnel year for them from any standpoint. You couldn’t say that about the 2008 Patriots.
Yeah, I know, what the hell kind of a category is this? It isn’t like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are facing the 1983 quarterback draft class twice every season. Brady plies his trade in the AFC East against the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, and New York Jets. During his career, the Jets have had a few nice runs, but they didn’t come off as a wake-up call to the Patriots even at their best. The Bills and Dolphins have been in some of the weirdest messes in league history – Buffalo’s playoff drought is the league’s longest, and Miami once had a potential all-time great running back quit to go find himself before returning a couple of years later. Not that Manning spent his career in any less of a comfy situation – the league’s divisional layout was rearranged in 2002 to create the AFC South for the expansion Houston Texans, who just happen to share their division with the Colts. Manning also got to pick on the perpetually hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. The only team which was enough to threaten Indy was the Tennessee Titans, but even they were a spotty, frustrating team which could win twelve games one season then five the next. And when Manning went to Denver, his quality of opposition somehow managed to get even worse. The Kansas City Chiefs have fans pausing for thought with new coach Andy Reid and new quarterback Alex Smith, but that might well turn out to be a tease. The days of the San Diego Chargers being an offensive dynamo are gone and their window is firmly nailed shut for now, while the Oakland Raiders might be the worst team in the league.
Tom Brady. First of all, no player has ever tormented a single team the way Brady has beat on the Buffalo Bills. Yes, it’s the bizarro version of the Bills, but even so, a 23-2 record against a divisional rival is something to behold. Also, for all my complaining about his clutch Super Bowl performances not being all that clutch, Brady won his first Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams, still in their Greatest Show on Turf years. He won one of the most exciting shootouts in Super Bowl history against the Carolina Panthers, and the next year he played outstanding football against a Philadelphia Eagles team which many onlookers believe lost to itself more than it lost to the Patriots. Manning’s first Super Bowl opponent was the Chicago Bears, who won 13 games, but only because they hit their apex and had a weak schedule during a stretch when the NFC had a serious power void.. Manning’s second Super Bowl was against the visibly superior New Orleans Saints, and fuck the gambling line because the oddsmakers aren’t football fans anyway.
This one can keep us up for awhile. Both have done an impressive number of things. Peyton Manning broke the record for touchdowns thrown in a single season in 2006, then Brady broke Manning’s record the following year. Peyton Manning threw seven touchdowns in his last game, something which hasn’t happened since 1944. Brady threw for 500 yards in a single game a couple of years ago. Brady also has a still-rare 5000-yard season under his belt now, and is second on the list for consecutive games with one touchdown pass with 49. Manning won four league MVP awards, Brady two. Manning was the fastest player to ever reach several large career milestones, including 50,000 passing yards and 400 touchdown passes. Both have been Super Bowl MVPs, and both are all-time leaders for their teams in several categories.
Tom Brady. This came down to what bragging rights these guys give the fans, and a 3-2 record in the Super Bowl trumps everything. Yes, Manning may be statistically better in a lot of categories, but I guarantee you no one in Indianapolis is walking around in a T-shirt touting Manning’s MVP years.
Peyton Manning played in a fellow Rust Belt city. Tom Brady is an All-American Golden Boy who became a celebrity being a fucking Patriot.
Peyton Manning. Even New England’s most diehard fans accept the fact that they’d probably hate Brady’s guts if he wasn’t playing on their team.
Have all my bases been covered? I love Peyton Manning. I love Tom Brady, at least the extent to which a non-Patriots fan can love Tom Brady. But in a heartbeat, my money is on Brady. At least in real life because his team-first philosophy is costing me fantasy points. Next year I’m taking Manning in fantasy football. But overall, Brady is better. Watch Rob limply attempt to debate this in our next book, Nick and Rob Explode the NFL.