Years from now, as was the case years ago, arguments will be waged over the best quarterback in NFL history. It’s hard to fathom, but some actually thought Terry Bradshaw was the best ever when he retired in 1983. The same year, five quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
It’s important to keep things in perspective with the NFL’s all-time passing leader, Peyton Manning, retiring Monday afternoon in Denver. He walked away from the game after 18 seasons, a record five MVPs, two Super Bowl titles, most victories as a starter, most passing touchdowns and most commercials.
Manning is the only quarterback in history to reach the Super Bowl under four coaches. It’s more accurate to say four coaches reached the Super Bowl because Manning played under them. He’s the only quarterback to win a title with two different teams. He has single-season records for yards and touchdown passes.
Judging by the lovefest in Denver, you would think that Manning’s records couldn’t be touched. Wade Phillips tweeted as much. Former teammates and opponents have suggested as much. Sure, his retirement leaves the NFL with one fewer superstar and a player who understood the game better than anyone before him.
Tom Brady could break Manning’s records for passing yardage, touchdowns and wins if he plays another four years or more. Drew Brees could join him in passing yards and touchdowns. Manning’s stats are absurd, less so when you realize six of the top eight leaders in all-time passing yards per game were in the NFL last season.
Bradshaw never approached the best ever in my opinion, although he’ll forever hold the title for most obnoxious. But when he left with an unprecedented four Super Bowls in six years, winning MVP in two of them, he was in the “best ever” conversation. The Pro Football Hall of Fame didn’t consider Bradshaw to be the best QB in the 1970s.
The Hall had him ranked behind Roger Staubach. Bradshaw was 10th in all-time passing yards when he retired. He’s ranked 55th now while Roger Staubach is 87th in career yards. Ryan Fitzpatrick has more passing yards than both. The last time I checked, Fitzpatrick wasn’t considered among the best ever.
Before Staubach and Bradshaw, there was Johnny Unitas, who replaced Y.A. Tittle as the best ever, who replaced “Slinging Sammy” Baugh, who made $8,000 when he signed with Washington and was the highest-paid player on the team. Today, you can make more money slinging pizzas for 20 hours a week.
In 1998, the year Manning was drafted, arguments raged over whether the Colts should take him or Ryan Leaf with the first pick overall. If you asked people now about their opinion at the time, less than 1 percent would admit they thought Leaf, the biggest bust in NFL history, should have been the guy.
Times change. Records fall. Opinions are revised.
The Hall of Fame had Manning on its second team for the 2000s, behind Brady. Pro Football Reference had Manning on the first team for the same decade, ahead of Brett Favre. Many believe Brady is the best ever. If some thought Favre was better than Brady over a full decade, does that mean Favre was once the best ever?
No, because that also would mean Favre was better than Joe Montana, although once there was a time when some believed Dan Marino was better than Montana. Others would argue Marino wasn’t the best in his draft class, that John Elway and Jim Kelly were better quarterbacks who sacrificed individual statistics for team success.
People like to think quarterbacking overall was better 20 years ago while whining about the lack of “elite” quarterbacks today. It’s nonsense. If there were more elite quarterbacks today, it would devalue the definition of elite. Manning was elite. Brady is elite. Brees is elite. The best of the rest were really good.
For every Montana, Elway, Kelly, Marino and Favre, there were historical mediocrities in the 1980s and ’90s such as Neil Lomax, Depew native Don Majkowski, Mark Brunell, Jeff George and Steve Beuerlein in the NFL. Each of the latter five led the league in passing yardage in one season or another, but we tend to forget them.
Two years ago, Manning was the best ever in my book. Well, my book has since been edited. Brady passed him even though both won Super Bowls during that period. Brady has a slight edge now. The divide is certain to widen with every season Brady plays and Manning does not.
Manning deserves credit for revolutionizing the game. No quarterback before him approached football with quite the same physical tools, acumen and preparation. He and Brady redefined greatness with their ability to identify holes in defenses and the talent to expose them in a league geared toward quarterbacks.
The NFL became a safer, quarterback-driven league once it realized passers drove revenue. More passing translates to more offense, which means more entertainment and more money. It’s now easier than ever for quarterbacks to stand in the pocket and for receivers to get open without getting annihilated.
Manning would have been great in any era, but it’s difficult to fathom him playing 18 seasons in the 1970s and ’80s and rolling up the same fantasy numbers. He wasn’t subjected to the same pounding his predecessors absorbed. It’s why more quarterbacks than ever are playing at a higher level past their 35th birthday.
Of the top 20 highest single-season yardage totals, 17 came from players who were still in the league in 2015. Manning accounted for only one. Brees had six. Brady had three if you include his tie for 20th place with Matt Schaub, which should be the last time Brady and Schaub are mentioned in the same sentence.
Understand, my intention is not to poke holes in Manning’s career or minimize Brady’s accomplishments or suggest players from another era were better or worse. Manning and Brady became the standard for all others. They deserve their places at the top, but history suggests it will be temporary.
Check back in a few years.