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Peyton's Place

Peyton Manning's legacy and the soap opera surrounding it ...

by Michael R. Burch

I wrote the piece below before Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the 2014 Super Bowl, which proved ... absolutely nothing. I am updating this page a few hours after Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers in the 2016 Super Bowl, which also proves absolutely nothing about Manning as a quarterback. Peyton Manning was one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time when he and his team lost to the Seattle Seahawks. He remains one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time after he and his team defeated the Carolina Panthers and their outstanding young quarterback, Cam Newton. Was a 39-year-old Peyton Manning "better" than a younger, stronger, faster, healthier Cam Newton? No, probably not. So how did the Denver Broncos win? Well, duh, football is a team game and it's not fair to judge Cam Newton as a lesser quarterback if his team let him down or just had a bad day. But then it's not fair to judge Peyton Manning by his team's success, or lack of it, either.

Tom Brady is not the New England Patriots. Terry Bradshaw was not the Pittsburg Steelers. Why did Terry Bradshaw win four Super Bowls? Was he twice as good a quarterback as Peyton Manning, who just won his second? No, Terry Bradshaw had a little help. No, make that a LOT of help: Mean Joe Greene, L. C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Glen Edwards, Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, Mike Wagner, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Franco Harris, Mike Webster, John Kolb, Larry Brown, Rocky Bleier, et al. If we put Peyton Manning in his prime on those great Steelers teams, they might never have lost a game.

My point is that it is unfair to judge quarterbacks by the success of their teams, or by the lack of success of their teams. Yes, Joe Montana was a great quarterback. But he was very lucky to have played with Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Roger Craig, Brent Jones, Tom Rathman, Steve Young, Guy McIntyre, Roy Foster, Jesse Sapolu, Steve Wallace, Harris Barton, Ronnie Lott, Michael Carter, Charles Haley, Bill Romanowski, Pierce Holt, Keena Turner, Matt Millen, et al. Quite obviously, Montana would not have won all those Super Bowls if he had played on inferior teams. Ditto for Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw, and Peyton Manning. What happened when a 39-year-old Peyton Manning had the luxury of the best defense on the planet? He won despite not playing a great game. So give credit to the defense. But then if he lost two Super Bowls when his teams didn't play great games, does it make any sense to say that Manning was "not as good" as Montana, Bradshaw or Brady?

Ernie Banks was a great baseball player, but he never played in a World Series, so of course he never won one. What does that say about Ernie Banks as a baseball player? Does it mean that he was "not a winner" or just that he had the misfortune to play on teams that were less than great? If we are going to rank Ernie Banks as a player, we should forget about the records of the teams he played on, and consider what he accomplished.

Let's judge Peyton Manning as a quarterback by his accomplishments as a quarterback. If we put Peyton in his prime on those great Steelers teams, I think it's safe to say that he would have won as many Super Bowls as Terry Bradshaw, because he was the better quarterback.

Peyton's Place

The days leading up to the 2014 Super Bowl may inspire a new reality show called "Peyton's Place."

First, there was Richard Sherman, the motor-mouthed Seattle cornerback, whose tongue seems to perpetually operate in overdrive. According to Sherman, Peyton Manning throws "ducks." In an interview Manning, who has the makings of a fine deadpan comedian, "agreed" with Sherman, while pointing out that his allegedly wobbly, wounded fliers have resulted in lots of yards and touchdowns. Round one of Peyton's Place goes to Manning.

Then there was the chorus of alarmist voices claiming that if Manning doesn't win a second Super Bowl, he will have no "legacy." This may come as a surprise to great quarterbacks who never won a Super Bowl, including Archie Manning, who happens to be Peyton Manning's father. Other quarterbacks with impressive legacies who never won a Super Bowl include Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton, Warren Moon, Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, Roman Gabriel, John Brodie, John Hadl, Billy Kilmer, Norm Snead, Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Boomer Esiason, Ken Anderson, Sonny Jergensen, Bobby Layne, Y. A. Tittle, Sid Luckman and Slingin' Sammy Baugh.

According to the alamists' strange logic, Peyton Manning may end up in the same position as Trent Dilfer, who won one Super Bowl as quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, but never had a 3,000 yard season and threw more career interceptions than touchdowns. (I doubt that even Dilfer's mother would claim that he was as great a quarterback as Manning.) Other quarterbacks who won one Super Bowl but fell short of football superstardom include Mark Rypien, Brad Johnson, Jeff Hostetler and Doug Williams. They each had their moments in the sun, but are hardly in the same class with Manning in terms of career impact on pro football.

And how about Joe Namath, who like Manning won only one Super Bowl? After winning Super Bowl III, Namath never played in another playoff game, and he finished with a career completion percentage of 50.1, throwing 47 more interceptions than touchdowns. And yet his legacy and legend seem secure.

Johnny Unitas is almost universally considered to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. But he won only one Super Bowl, and in that game he completed only three of eight passes for 88 yards, with two interceptions. Unitas's only touchdown pass was thrown too high, tipped by wide receiver Eddie Hinton, almost intercepted, then luckily ended up in the hands of NFL Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey for a 75-yard touchdown. Thus, most of Unitas's success in the game was accidental. After Unitas was hurt on his second interception, super-sub Earl Morrall replaced him and helped pull out the hard-fought victory, which was primarily a defensive and kicking struggle. The strength of that Baltimore Colts team was its defense, led by All-Pros Bubba Smith, Mike Curtis, Ted Hendricks, Rick Volk and Jerry Logan. If the game had depended on Unitas alone, it probably would have been lost and he wouldn't have a Super Bowl victory to his credit. Does that mean he is without a legacy? Does one bad game undo all the great games he played over a long and illustrious career? Is his legacy diminished because in at least one of his games, his teammates helped bail him out. Isn't that what teammates are for?

Jim Plunkett won two Super Bowls, but had a career completion percentage of 52.5 and threw for more interceptions than touchdowns. Is his legacy vastly greater than Manning's? Did he win those two Super Bowls singlehandedly, or did he need a strong supporting cast to be successful?

John Elway won two Super Bowls, but he was zero for four, losing in crushing fashion by a combined score of 163 to 50, until he was finally united with a great running back, Terrell Davis. Davis was so dominant that in Elway's first Super Bowl victory, he ran for 157 yards and three touchdowns despite having to sit out part of the game with a severe migraine headache. Davis had rushed for an astounding 1,750 yards during the regular season. And Elway was surrounded by All-Pro talent, including tight end Shannon Sharpe, wide receivers Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey, and offensive linemen Gary Zimmerman, Mark Schlereth and Tom Nalen. (I have seen Elway's offensive line nominated as one of the ten best of all time, both for pass protection and for allowing Davis to average 4.7 yards per run.) On the defensive side, the All-Pros included Neil Smith, Steve Atwater, Bill Romanowski, John Mobley, Tyrone Braxton, Darrien Gordon and Alfred Williams. Punter Tom Rouen and place kicker Jason Elam also made All Pro teams during their careers.

Bob Griese won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins, but he was the beneficiary of one of the greatest running attacks of all time, led by Larry Csonka, Jim Kiik, and Mercury Morris. He also had the "No Name Defense," a great coach in Don Shula, and an all-world receiver in Paul Warfield. Would he have won twice with a lesser cast?

Bart Starr won two Super Bowls, but he played for a legendary coach named Vince Lombardi on one of the greatest pro football teams of all time. Starr's offensive line during his career consisted of players like Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo, Jerry Kramer, Fuzzy Thurston, Bob Skoronski and Ken Bowman. Ringo and Gregg are in the NFL Hall of Fame. Kramer was a three-time Pro Bowler and was named to the NFL 1960ís All Decade Team. Thurston, Skoronski and Bowman are in the Packers Hall of Fame. The offensive line, which has been nominated as one of the ten best of all time, blocked for NFL Hall of Famers Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, and of course for Starr himself. Starr threw to All-Pro wide receivers Carroll Dale and Boyd Dowler, and to tight end Marv Fleming (all members of the Packers Hall of Fame). Basically, everyone on Starr's offense was either a megastar, an All-Pro, or close to that caliber. And the defense was stacked with more NFL Hall of Famers: Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderly, Willie Davis, Willie Wood, Henry Jordan and Dave Robinson.

Troy Aikman won three Super Bowls, but for his career had only 24 more touchdowns than interceptions. And he had considerable help from Hall of Fame teammates like Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Larry Allen and Deion Sanders. Other All-Pros on those Dallas teams included Nate Newton, Erik Williams, Jay Novacek, Mark Stepnoski, Darren Woodson, Ken Norton Jr and Kelvin Martin. A good case can be made for the Dallas offensive line of Mark Stepnoski, Nate Newton, Mark Tuinei, Erik Williams, Larry Allen and Jay Novacek being the best of all time. The five interior linemen accumulated 30 Pro Bowl appearances. And one wonders what Peyton Manning would have accomplished with that offensive line, a running back as great as Emmitt Smith, and a world-class receiver like Michael Irvin. Does Aikman have a greater legacy, or did he play with some really great teammates?

Terry Bradshaw won four Super Bowls, but for his career he completed just 51.9 percent of his passes and threw for only two more touchdowns than interceptions. His NFL Hall of Fame teammates included Mean Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and coach Chuck Noll. Other star Steelers included L. C. Greenwood (six Pro Bowls), Andy Russell (seven Pro Bowls), Donnie Shell (five Pro Bowls), Dwight White (two Pro Bowls), Mike Wagner (two Pro Bowls), Glen Edwards (two Pro Bowls), Roy Gerela (two Pro Bowls), J. T. Thomas (one Pro Bowl), Larry Brown (one Pro Bowl), John Kolb (one Pro Bowl) and Rocky Bleier (he rushed for 1,000 yards in 1976 despite sharing carries with Franco Harris). Bradshaw's offensive line has been nominated as one of the ten best of all time.

Joe Montana won four Super Bowls, and he comes closest to Manning in overall efficiency of the quarterbacks discussed on this page. But Manning's career quarterback ranking is nearly five points higher, and in terms of total yards and touchdowns it's not even close. And Montana was surrounded by superstars, including the best wide receiver of all time, Jerry Rice, and perhaps the best receiving and all-round running back, Roger Craig. In addition to Montana and Rice, other NFL Hall of Famers included Ronnie Lott, Fred Dean, Steve Young and coach Bill Walsh. Other than Rice, Montana's All-Pro weapons included Dwight Clark, John Taylor, Freddie Solomon, Charlie Young, Brent Jones, Wendell Tyler and Earl Cooper. Other All-Pro teammates included Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds, Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson, Dwight Hicks, Keena Turner, Dwaine Board, Charles Haley, Michael Carter, Pierce Holt, Matt Millen, Randy Cross, Fred Quillan, Steve Wallace, Jesse Sapolu, Guy McIntyre, Keith Fahnhorst, Harris Barton and Mike Cofer. The offense was spectacular and the defense was so good that in 1984 all four backfield starters were selected to play in the Pro Bowl.

What does the above suggest about quarterbacks who won more than one Super Bowl? To me, the evidence suggests that quarterbacks need teams loaded with talent to win multiple Super Bowls. And there seems to be a strong correlation between teams having all-time best offensive lines and winning multiple Super Bowls.

Compared to the other quarterbacks discussed on this page, Manning's numbers and percentages are staggering. And if he had played on one of the all-time great NFL teams, as Starr, Aikman, Bradshaw and Montana did, his numbers might be even better, and he might have won more Super Bowls. But quarterbacks don't win Super Bowls by themselves. Great quarterbacks like Marino and Tarkenton are proof of that. And Namath is proof that winning a single Super Bowl can create a legacy. So it seems vastly silly to suggest that Peyton's Place in NFL history depends on winning a second or third or fourth Super Bowl. He is the first NFL player to win five MVP awards. He holds the single season records for passing yards and touchdowns. More than any other quarterback of his era, he called his own plays and was like a coach on the field. So his legacy is secure, even if he never wins another game or throws another pass.

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