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Best ever? Manning not even close

By By The Sports Xchange
Published On: Jan 29 2014 09:32:52 AM CST
Updated On: Jan 29 2014 09:32:52 AM CST

NEW YORK -- Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history in the midst of one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. But that's not enough for the media at Super Bowl XLVIII. They can't wait to anoint Manning the greatest quarterback ever.

In fact, one national writer already has, saying, win or lose, he's the best there ever was; while another -- a local columnist -- insists a Super Bowl victory Sunday makes Manning the best, hands down.

OK, so that's their opinion, it's a free country and all that. Just one question: Why? Why are we in such a rush to canonize a quarterback who doesn't have a winning playoff record?

That's not a knock on Manning. The guy's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he just produced one of the greatest statistical seasons in pro football. But the best quarterback ever? Please.

He's not even the best quarterback of his generation. Tom Brady is. Nor is he the best quarterback of the two franchises he played with ... not yet, anyway. John Unitas and John Elway are. He doesn't have as many Super Bowl rings as little brother Eli, and he might hold the league record for postseason one-and-dones at eight.

Bottom line: Numero uno he's not.

Yet reporters and columnists this week are lining up to proclaim him "the greatest." Sorry, but I don't get it.

"Because he's the most recent," said former coach Brian Billick, now an analyst with Fox. "Not to say he's not in the conversation, but he has all the numbers and all the pre-requisite boxes checked. Now, if you say, 'He's 'one of the greatest ever,' you have a legitimate argument. But is he the best? I don't know."

I do.

And he's not.

Not yet, anyway, and the career's not over. But why would you take Manning over, say, a Joe Montana when Montana was 16-7 in the playoffs and 4-0 in Super Bowls, with ... get this ... 11 touchdowns and no interceptions? Or why would you take him over Otto Graham, who went to 10 straight championship games (five with the All-America Football Conference) and won seven? And why would you take him over Brady, who's 18-8 in the playoffs, including five Super Bowl appearances, and 10-5 vs. Manning? Or Elway, who was 14-8 in the playoffs, with five Super Bowl appearances?

I don't know, either, but look around, people. It's happening. Crowds can't wait to stampede the bandwagon.

"It's probably because of the body of work," said Denver quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, in camp with the 49ers when Montana was still around. "He played at a very high level for a lot of years, so he probably earned the right to be in that conversation.

"But it's very difficult in any sport to compare two different eras. In all fairness, Joe didn't play when they had all these exotic defenses. But in his defense he didn't play when they were running all these different formations and going no-huddle, too."

That makes sense. What doesn't is to send Manning to the head of the class, and not because he isn't qualified. Heck, the guy's won a league-record four MVPs and is a cinch to win his fifth. He's also in his third Super Bowl, putting him in rarified air.

Nope, it's more basic than that. It's because others are more deserving. Period. Of course, that doesn't matter to Manning cheerleaders, and I have some ideas why.

1. Manning is Everyman. We don't just believe he belongs to us; we believe he IS us. He makes pizzas. He drives Buicks. He yells "Cut that Meat!" to a butcher, rejoices when he's low-fived by accountants going to work and hams it up on national ads with brother Eli and father Archie. In short, he seems like an ordinary Joe where someone like Brady does not. I mean, Brady doesn't look like a male model; depending on the ad, he actually is one. He sells Uggs. He's married to the world's most famous female model. And he lives in a $20 million California mansion with a moat. I don't know where Manning lives, but I can guarantee one thing: It doesn't have a moat around it.

2. Manning is accessible and likeable. This cuts to those commercials. Once, he was the most visible NFL pitchman, with an uncanny sense of timing. Now, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are pushing him. And Brady? Catch him at a mid-week or post-game news conference or don't catch him at all. Manning also seems to relish being the cutup, making fun of himself ... or Eli ... or his father ... or both ... in national commercials. Rewind that Football on Your Phone rap video that aired before the season, and tell me you weren't amused. Manning just seems like a good guy you want to root for, and when I listen to Gil Brandt, former Dallas executive and now an analyst for NFL.com, I understand why.

Brandt recalled when he was involved with the Playboy All-America shoot years ago, and Manning was there. The event lasted several days during which, Brandt said, players exchanged jerseys, helmets, gloves, you name it. When it came time to go home, Manning was approached by a hotel maid, asking if he had anything he could give her. He shook his head.

"Sorry," he said.

Then he thought of something.

"Would you want these?" he said, pointing to his shoes.

"So he took them off and gave them to her," Brandt said. "That's the kind of guy he is. I have great admiration for him and his family."

3. He comes from pro football royalty. I know this sounds incongruous after talking about Manning as the people's choice, but he comes from a line of quarterbacks who are among the game's most successful and most admired. There's father Archie, a legend at Ole Miss. There's brother Eli, who twice beat Brady in Super Bowls. Then there's Peyton. It's hard not to root for a family as likeable as the Mannings, and, sorry, San Diego.

4. He's to NFL regular-season records what McDonald's is to burgers. Both make billions. Manning didn't just break Brady's single-season TD mark this year; he obliterated it, throwing for more scores (55) than any other TEAM produced. Honest. And his offense was right there with him, becoming the first 600-point team ever. Now look at his career resume, and you find a passel of records that includes everything from most MVP awards to most regular-season games with at least 300 yards passing (84). When Manning is finished, he should own virtually every career passing record, breaking those held now by Brett Favre.

"He's the greatest regular-season quarterback of all time," said Brandt, "and I don't think you can argue that. He's the Greg Maddox of football."

Swell.

But quarterbacks are measured by more than regular-season performances. They're measured by the playoffs and Super Bowl rings, too, and that's where Manning returns to earth. He's 11-11 in the postseason and 1-1 in Super Bowls where he has as many interceptions (2) as touchdowns and his passer rating is 85.4 -- a number that would've made him the 19th-ranked passer among this year's quarterbacks.

Yet we want to make him the best ever, and we want to do it now. Someone please explain.

"Well," said Billick, "if he wins this one that means he's won Super Bowls with two different teams, and that would close the gap. That would be his 'up yours' argument with Brady, with Manning saying, 'I did it with two separate teams."

And if he doesn't?

Don't ask. Never let the facts get in the way.

--Clark Judge, a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange, has covered pro football since 1982 and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.