May 28, 2009

Tom Brady is coming off a season-ending knee injury and returning to a Patriots squad that failed to make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. Peyton Manning is fully recovered from last off-season's knee surgery and will lead a Colts team that's made the playoffs seven years running but that lost its long-time head coach, offensive coordinator and offensive-line coach. NFL writers Don Banks, Jim Trotter, John Mullin and Ross Tucker discuss which quarterback is better set up for success in 2009.

• DON BANKS: First off, there are no "losers'' in this particular facet of our decade-long Manning vs. Brady debate -- not when 30 other NFL teams would kill to be saddled with either quarterback this season.

It's not an issue of whether you'd want a completely healthy Manning or a still-rehabilitating Brady. It's a case of whether you'd want a resilient Colts team that went 12-4 but lost its playoff opener with Manning playing all year, or a resourceful Patriots team that finished just a tick behind them at 11-5 with Brady on the field for less than 15 minutes of the season.

Ask yourself how far the Colts would have advanced last year if Manning had gone down in the opening quarter of the season. That gives you get a pretty good estimation of how much deeper the Patriots' talent pool goes. And don't forget, the Patriots and Matt Cassel almost beat the Colts in Indy without Brady in Week 9.

Without Brady, New England didn't collapse, far from it. It proved once and for all that Bill Belichick's team is built on more than just the remarkable winning talents of No. 12, and that even the most "irreplaceable'' of all their roster's interchangeable parts can be lived without -- at least for a time.

And while I don't see either team falling off the radar screen in the AFC playoff chase this season, it's the Patriots, with a Brady who in all likelihood will return to his Pro Bowl-level play, who look the most improved. Running back Fred Taylor, receiver Joey Galloway, tight end Chris Baker and cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden are all upgrades, and this year's examples of the kind of quality veteran acquisition the Patriots have excelled at this decade. Near the top of its draft, New England took at least two potential contributors in cornerback Darius Butler and defensive tackle Ron Brace.

The Patriots have reloaded, and Brady will be back. Even without Tony Dungy, there's no need to cry for the Colts and Manning. But New England remains the team that the rest of the AFC measures itself by.


• JIM TROTTER: The correct answer is they'll both be great because they have immense talent and terrific supporting casts. But for the sake of this argument, give me Manning over Brady -- which in no way reflects my opinion on which one is the better quarterback. That distinction goes to Brady, hands down.

However, based on the criteria we've been given, I have to go with Manning in this instance. He's fully healthy, plays an easier schedule and should have a stronger running game with the arrival of first-round pick Donald Brown. The Chicken Littles who believe doom and gloom are ahead because the Colts made six coaching changes this offseason ultimately will realize the current staff is extremely competent. I would go so far as to say that the Colts might be better on offense and defense than they were a year ago.

Picking against Brady hurts because he holds a spot on my Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks. He has new weapons in running back Fred Taylor and wideout Joey Galloway, whose presence should soften the blow of coordinator Josh McDaniels leaving for Denver. Still, I can't escape the fact that Brady is coming off major reconstructive knee injury. If he's unable to plant his left foot with authority, his throws could lack their customary velocity and possibly result in more incompletions and turnovers.

I did not rely on statistical data to support my position because stats can be twisted to support either side. The bottom line for me is health, and that advantage goes to Manning.

Tom Brady isn't the only star on the mend in 2009. Here's a gallery of more.

• ROSS TUCKER: Brady. He is already back on the practice field, fully recovered from his knee surgery. If the Pats were concerned about his knee at all they never would have traded Matt Cassel.

The Pats will certainly miss Josh McDaniels on offense, but their receiving corps returns intact and should be even better than it was in 2007 because of their familiarity with both the offense and each other. Couple that with Belichick adding some new toys for Brady in Joey Galloway and Fred Taylor, and it is pretty clear why the Pats think they may accomplish even more in 2009 than they did in 2007.

Manning, on the other hand, lost his longtime safety valve in Marvin Harrison, leaving him a weapon short unless one of the youngsters can make a big leap forward in 2009. Manning also appears to be flustered by what happened with long-time Indy assistant coaches Tom Moore and Howard Mudd. Even if they return as consultants, will things be the same and run as smoothly as always? Not even Manning knows the answer to that.

• JOHN MULLIN: Brady returns to the No. 8 scoring offense, a unit that added receivers Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis, plus Fred Taylorin the offseason. Manning's Colts kept Pro Bowl center and security blanket Jeff Saturday and they used the 27th pick of the draft on UConn's Donald Brown to complement (replace?) tailback Joseph Addai. Anthony Gonzalez had more receiving yards and a higher per-catch average than outgoing Marvin Harrison. Advantage: Even.

The Indianapolis coaching situation is not in chaos, Manning's comments notwithstanding, and after all, this is May. Assistant head coach Clyde Christiansen will call plays, which he did last season for third downs, where the Colts were the only team to convert 50 percent of its opportunities, and for the red zone, where the Colts were the NFL's best. There is no coaching issue in New England for this reason: Bill Belichick. Advantage: Brady.

Divisionally speaking, the non-Patriots AFC East was a game tougher (27-21) last season than the non-Colts AFC South (26-22), and that was with Tennessee and Albert Haynesworth winning 13. That will not happen again. Brady has six games against Miami, Buffalo and the Jets, all improved. Advantage: Manning.

The real tipping point, injury, involves severity and location. Manning's bursa sac surgery was in his plant/left leg, but oh did he look rusty in his first couple of games back. He still passed for 4,002 yards last season, didn't throw an interception in the last five games and had passer ratings of 90 or better in nine of the last 10.

Brady's torn ACL was in his plant/left leg as well, and the potential is there for too many passes off the back foot, which can translate into lost velocity and sailing throws. Mobility may be a concern. New England was 26th in sacks per pass play last season, Indianapolis third. Double advantage, and overall edge: Manning.


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