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Monday, January 27, 2014

The Greatest of All Time

There’s One in Every Crowd
By Hank Morgan
One would hope that the recent Denver Broncos’ dispatching of the New England Patriots on their way to Super Bowl XLVIII will put an end to the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning debates that the sports media have been engaging in ad infinitum and ad nauseum. 

Don’t bet on it. At stake for one of the two quarterbacks, at least in the minds of the fanatically delusional, is the august title of Greatest Of All Time (GOAT).

If the Seattle Seahawks defeat the Broncos, New England’s Manning detractors and Brady hagiographers will be back out in full force. 

Comparing any two athletes from different eras and coming up with a so-called GOAT is an egocentric exercise spawned from partisan passions and selective and distorted memories, especially regarding football, the ultimate team sport. 

The current sports meme of conflating the GOAT with the number of championships his team has won is a regrettable byproduct of the old Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain debates. The argument does, however, have some legitimacy regarding basketball. The players play both offense and defense. In a five-on-five matchup, one player can have a significantly greater influence on the outcome of a game than in an 11-on-11, football contest. 

Nevertheless, the following is an attempt at some objective perspective on the topic. First, full disclosure is in order. I am a Patriots fan. Also, statistics will be neither consulted nor included. All conclusions are based on empirical evidence only.

As with any sport, it is important to consider eras relative to player production.  Brady and Manning are fortunate to play at a time when the NFL has placed a premium on offensive production. Had Dan Marino, to name just one prolific passer from yesteryear, played in this era, he would probably still hold many of the passing records that Brady, Manning, and Drew Brees either hold or have directly in their crosshairs.

Both Manning and Brady are great leaders, field generals whose charges are in lockstep with their every command.  Both have IBM brains and excel at pre-snap reads and post-snap decisions. 

But while Brady seems to frequently consult that encyclopedia of a playbook wrapped to his wrist, Manning seems to call every play at the line of scrimmage.  He is his own offensive coordinator, regardless of any titles somebody else in the Broncos’ – or the Colts’ previously -- organization might hold.

Manning played indoors for a significant portion of his career and has had tremendous talent around him. Brady had one year with Randy Moss and Wes Welker but didn’t win a Super Bowl. Brady had two assets Manning never had – Bill Belichick, one of the top 5-7 coaches ever, and Adam Vinatieri, the greatest clutch kicker ever.

Both are accurate passers, and here I’d give both Manning and Aaron Rodgers an edge. It’s impossible to rank them among the all-time great pure pocket passers, but the obvious, such as Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Ken Anderson, Phil Simms, Ken Stabler, Kurt Warner, Bert Jones, and a host of others merit consideration.

My frame of reference dates from the twilight of Johnny Unitas’ and Bart Starr’s illustrious careers, an era that would include the great Sonny Jurgensen. My apologies go to them as well as Otto Graham, Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman. Anybody who wants to bestow the GOAT title on any of the above would get little argument from me.

History tells us that nobody was cooler under pressure than Montana and Starr. That has to count for something, and then we’d have to include Eli Manning in the discussion.

My preference is for the dual-threat quarterbacks, those who can turn chicken excrement into chicken salad with remarkable consistency and efficiency, yet who can/could pick defenses apart from the pocket.  The current young guns, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and Andrew Luck fit this mold, as does Rodgers. Their inclusion in this discussion will have to be revisited in a decade or so.

Their forbears include Brett Favre, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Warren Moon, Steve Young, and John Elway. 

Favre threw too many interceptions in crucial spots; Bradshaw’s field leadership and passing prowess were often questioned, and Moon played on no championship teams. Early in  Staubach’s career, Tom Landry alternated his starting position with Craig Morton.

Elway’s numbers don’t stand out, but he played for the conservative Dan Reeves, a disciple of the “three yards and a cloud of dust” offensive philosophy.  When the Broncos fell behind in the 4th Quarter, Reeves would take the reins off Elway and watch the victories tally up.  Elway was the closest thing to a one-man team I have ever seen.  Those Broncos teams he took to the Super Bowls to play the Giants, Redskins, and 49ers were all vastly overmatched.  When he got a running game and a defense in the twilight of his career, he led his team to two championships, and he won a Super Bowl MVP. 

I would pick Elway slightly ahead of Young as my GOAT, with apologies to Unitas and a prediction that Rodgers will eventually be a challenger.

Maybe I’ve seen too much of Brady’s flaws, his statuesque playing style and his underwhelming post-season performances since 2004. He might make my top 10, with the emphasis on might.  I have several friends who get angry with me regarding this, and one who gets so angry he has excluded this debate as a conversational topic.

It’s just as well.  It’s a frivolous discussion anyway.