FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Peyton Manning is about to become the best quarterback in the NFL over the past 30 years. I know that may ruffle feathers from San Francisco to New England, but hear me out.
The topic of Manning's place in history has heated up in the wake of the Colts punching their ticket to another Super Bowl. While everyone agrees Manning already is among the NFL's greatest QBs and that his stature will only improve if he gets an a second Lombardi Trophy, few are ready to take the big leap I am. Here are the reasons I think Manning, with a win Sunday, will cement his place as the best to play the game in my lifetime.
• One big caveat. I'm going by what I have seen over the past 30 years. That means I can only place Manning in the context of signal callers who played in the 1980s or later. Johnny Unitas' success speaks for itself, and it sounds as if Otto Graham was amazing too, but I was born in 1979. So unless you want to read my grandfather's opinion and not mine, I'll stick with the guys I've seen on a fairly regular basis over the years.
• It's not about the numbers ... but could be. The easiest way to make a case for Manning is to look at the statistics. Now in his 12th season, he has a record-four regular season MVPs and is among the top five all-time in wins, completions, yards and touchdowns. At his current rate of production, he won't just break all of those records, he'll annihilate them. But it really is not just about the numbers.
• The main competition.Dan Marino was a tremendous pure passer but never won a Super Bowl. John Elway, of course,is in the conversation for helping the Broncos win two championships in the mid- 90's. Brett Favre had a better 2009 season than anyone could have imagined, and his consecutive starts streak is absurd, but his penchant for the big turnover knocks him out of the running.
The only two men who really challenge Manning, again assuming he wins Sunday, are Joe Montana and Tom Brady. Both were incredible leaders who put up astounding numbers at times while seemingly willing their teams to multiple Super Bowl titles. Montana may have been the most clutch performer ever; his postseason success is almost unprecedented. He did, however, play in an era before the advent of free agency and the salary cap. That's not his fault, of course, but it does help explain why he accomplished what he did, benefitting from immensely talented rosters that other teams couldn't raid.
Perhaps the best argument in favor of Brady is that he won three Super Bowls with a surrounding cast of skill players that barely even got Pro Bowl invites, let alone anyone who will join him some day in Canton. He did, however, have the benefit of playing for one of the greatest coaches and defensive minds, Bill Belichick. Belichick's game planning against Manning earlier this decade was a primary factor in the Pats' success. Brady has also been blessed by a defense that was among the league's best for a good portion of his career.
• Believe your eyes. Manning has been far from a one-man show in Indy. He's been surrounded by outstanding skill position players and a couple of defensive playmakers for a decent portion of career. But Manning has also shown an ability to adjust, even after losing longtime running mate Marvin Harrison. His ability to seamlessly integrate Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie into the offense is as much a credit to Manning as it is a tip of the cap to Bill Polian and the Colts' scouting staff for finding those two youngsters. They are a big reason this may be Manning's finest season.
His offensive line has never been dominant, and yet their weaknesses have been covered up by his uncanny ability to get rid of the ball before the defender gets to him. There are guys on the Colts starting line, like left tackle Charlie Johnson and guards Ryan Lilja and Kyle Devan, who probably would have a tough time starting for a lot of teams in the NFL. Yet even when they get beat, they know Manning will get rid of the football before it becomes a sack or a knockdown. Whether or not he is the best quarterback ever is up for debate. Whether or not he gets rid of the ball quicker and more efficiently than anyone who has ever lived is not.
I can't think of any other player who has as much control over the game plan or play-calling.That, of course, is fitting because I don't think any other player has ever had quite the same grasp of his offense that Manning does. He changes protections and plays better than anyone else I've ever seen. His anticipation and accuracy are virtually unmatched because he throws the ball before defenders are ready and puts it in a place where only his guy can catch it. Keep in mind he has never had much of a run game and has never been blessed with anything remotely resembling a dominant defense, although this year's unit is underrated.
• No end in sight. The beauty of Manning is there is no telling what he may accomplish over the next decade. His obsessive, controlling personality and desire to make his mark make you think he will play at least for the next five or six years, if not more. Plus the recent success of guys like Favre and Kurt Warner has changed our opinion about how long a quarterback can play and what type of performer they can be during their later years.
I had the chance to play with Brady and never played with any other quarterback who was even close to his skill level. But Brady's injury, and Manning's continued dominance, have me thinking Peyton Manning is the better quarterback. He used to have issues with 3-4 defenses -- that is why his playoff record hasn't been sterling -- but he appears to have figured it out, shredding both blitz-heavy schemes and 3-4s at an amazing rate this year. The scary thing is he really appears to be getting better. That means there is a chance two or three years from now this subject is not even up for discussion.