Peyton Manning has retired, so there’s a rush to try and put him in some sort of historical context. I get that, of course. Manning retires with more or less every meaningful passing statistic: Most passing yards, most touchdown passes, highest net yards per pass attempt, most game winning drives, most comebacks, lowest sack percentage and, yes, total offense. He led his teams to 200 wins, most all-time.
All of that makes a pretty good case for Peyton Manning as the greatest quarterback ever.
Of course, his great rival Tom Brady has his own case. Brady’s numbers are about as good, and he’s still active, and he has led his team to six Super Bowls, winning four of them (compared to four Super Bowls and two wins for Manning).
The Manning-Brady argument will rage forever, I suspect, and it’s a fun argument. But I wonder if maybe we’ve gotten a little myopic when it comes to ranking quarterbacks. I say this knowing that I’m usually the guy playing the other side of this argument. I write about baseball history a lot and in baseball modern players stand NO CHANCE against that history. Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player who ever lived when he retired 80 years ago and, by most lights, he remains the greatest baseball player. It seems unlikely that a player can EVER surpass the Babe.
Walter Johnson was at his peak 100 years ago, using dead baseballs soaked in spit and mud and cut with emery boards. The Big Train is still widely viewed as the greatest pitcher in baseball history. It seems unlikely that will ever change either.
That’s baseball, where it’s comforting to be mesmerized by mythology and history. This isn’t quite as true in basketball and hockey and and soccer and golf but there’s still a powerful sense of nostalgia. Many would still argue for Wilt Chamberlain or Bobby Orr or Ben Hogan or Franz Beckenbauer or Bill Russell or Gordie Howe or Johan Cruyff or Maurice Richard .. and of course decades-ago icons Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky and Jack Nicklaus and Pele still reign at the top of just about every serious list.
Football, though, disposes of its history pretty quickly. Yes, there is still some nostalgia for some more recent quarterbacks like Joe Montana and John Elway and Dan Marino. Montana, in particular, will show up on a lot top quarterback lists. But when you talk about Peyton Manning in the grand history of the quarterback position, the discussion rarely goes back too far. One pal, Ian O’Connor over at ESPN, tweeted out his list of Top 3 quarterbacks: 1. Tom Brady; 2. Joe Montana; 3. Peyton Manning.
I tweeted in response: “John Unitas would like a word.”
This led to a fun back-and-forth with my buddy and co-Poscaster Michael Schur that went something like this:
Me: Unitas would like a word.
Michael: Is that word “fourth”
Me: It is. As in “Shouldn’t Tom Brady be fourth?” (Michael loves Tom Brady).
Michael: Or, like, “I played before video or analytics or 310 lb. defensive tackles so I’m lucky I’m fourth?”
Me: Or “Would Tom be fourth if he called his own plays and his receivers were allowed to be mugged.”
The conversation paused at that point because right around then, the Lakers somehow beat Golden State, which led Michael to tweet: “I hope that Lakers win makes them re-up Byron Scott for ten more years.” Neither Michael nor I are what you would call huge Lakers fans. Anyway, maybe we’ll pick up the quarterback conversation in the next Poscast.
In the meantime, as Peyton Manning rides off, and Tom Brady finds himself without his great rival, it seems a good time to talk about how they compare to the old-time guys like Unitas and Otto Graham. Football has changed dramatically over the last 60 years — it’s almost a different game. Football has gotten bigger, stronger, faster and much more complicated. As many people tweeted and emailed, it’s harder all the time to envision a player from one era playing in another. If you just plucked Unitas right out of 1958 or Graham right out of 1951 and immediately put them behind center in 2016, they would be lost. They would believe that they had been transported to a different dimension.
But that’s not how the time machine is supposed to work. After all, what would happen if you plucked Peyton Manning out of time and put him behind center in 1958? The game moved slower, sure, but the rules were very different. Quarterbacks were not protected — nobody was protected. Roughing the quarterback was called every other year and nobody stopped because the quarterback slid. Crackback blocks were legal. Chop blocks were legal until 1962, defenders were allowed to grab the facemask of the ball carrier, which was often the quarterback. Until 1983, defenders were absolutely allowed (encouraged?) to drive the crown of their helmets into the quarterback.
We tend to believe that the game is much more dangerous than it used to be … and in some ways it is more dangerous. But not for quarterbacks. Have you seen the list of “most consecutive streaks by a quarterbacks (including playoff games)?
1. Brett Favre, 321
2. Peyton Manning, 227
3. Eli Manning, 194
4. Phillip Rivers, 169
5. Joe Flacco, 137
Brady has two streaks of 128 consecutive games, by the way, interrupted by his 2008 season injury.
What do you see there? Right, you see only MODERN quarterbacks. That’s because they have been protected, coddled even, and because the game went away from putting them in precarious positions. Unitas was the toughest guy going, and his longest streak was 91 games. Terry Bradshaw was a big, strong country boy — he never played 50 straight games (perhaps because guys like Turkey Joe Jones slammed the guy on his head). Roger Staubach was partly driven out of the game by concussions. Otto Graham was a tough-as-nails Navy man, but even he got knocked out of games at times.
But it wasn’t just that quarterbacks took more punishment. As mentioned in the tweet, the game was different. Receivers were allowed to be knocked down, grabbed, mauled, chop blocked or whatever else was in a defender’s imagination. It’s all well and good to take a three-step drop and unleash a beautiful short pass when you know your receivers cannot be touched after five yards. Back then, defensive backs could wrestle receivers to the ground and sit on them if they liked. It might be tough to complete 70 percent of your passes when your primary receiver is being sat on by Night Train Lane.
Quarterbacks called all their own plays then. There’s no question that Manning or Brady could call their own plays — they do much of that now and have encyclopedic knowledge of playbooks that are exponentially more complex than the playbooks of the 1950s– but calling plays was a bit different then. It wasn’t about complexity. It was about keeping everyone together. The quarterback controlled the entire game. When running backs didn’t get the ball enough, it was the quarterback’s fault. When receivers were ignored, it was the quarterback’s fault. When offensive linemen felt unappreciated, it was the quarterback’s fault.
When a play didn’t work — any play at all — it was the quarterback’s fault.
“You had to command the huddle,” Raymond Berry said when we talked a few years ago about Unitas. Berry was Unitas’ great receiver, he coached into the late 1980s and he has kept up with the game. “When John Unitas was on the football field, he had only one thing in mind. He wanted to put the ball in the end zone. He did not think about statistics or history or fame or any of that nonsense.
“And because of that, that’s all we thought about too. We just wanted to score. I can’t remember anybody — anybody! — ever talking about wanting to get the ball more or any of that stuff you hear today. It was unthinkable for us to think like that. You know, that would have been an insult to John Unitas.”
When I asked Berry how Unitas would fare in today’s game, well …
“Are you kidding?” he asked me. “If you put Unitas in today, with the new rules about pass protection, with the defensive backs not allowed to mug the receivers, he would put up numbers you would not even be able to imagine.”
Manning has a similar aura. Brady has a similar aura. Montana, too. Make no mistake, I believe they are timeless quarterbacks; they would be superstars in any era. That’s the point here. As we celebrate the awesomeness of Peyton Manning’s game, let’s not pretend football started 35 years ago, when the rules changed and offenses opened up and quarterbacks started punching up previously unimaginable numbers. Otto Graham invented a new efficiency for quarterbacks and led the Cleveland Browns to 10 consecutive championship games. John Unitas willed the Baltimore Colts to championships and glory, all the while carrying the entire NFL into a new era. Roger Staubach ran and passed and made the Dallas Cowboys “America’s Team.” And so on.
Manning appreciates this history and so does Brady. That’s part of what makes their careers unique in this offensive era of football. As Manning retires, let’s remember him as simultaneously new and old school, mixing the multitasking and big data processing of his own time with the intensity and command of years past. You could, if you closed your eyes, imagine Peyton Manning leading the Colts down the field in the final minutes against the Giants in the 1958 Championship Game. That’s part of his greatness.