Everybody has been talking about Peyton Manning's career for weeks, and the cacophony is deafening. It's only a murmur when Manning does well -- read, wins -- but then when he loses, especially as one-sidedly as in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVIII, it's loud enough to peel paint.
Now, as before, Manning is looked at by many as a loser, his 1-2 record in Super Bowls damning a career overloaded with incredible feats. Now, as before, it is faulty if not downright outrageous to consider Manning's career at or above the level of Tom Brady or Joe Montana, they say.
I don't think so, for many reasons. My best reason is that taking 240 professional football games and boiling them down into three seems a fool's errand. And this is precisely what Manning's critics do.
Manning just came off the best season a quarterback has ever had, guiding the best offense in NFL history. Denver scored 606 points this season, a record. But go ahead now and wash that away because that was the regular season and these are the playoffs where men are men.
Men like Joe Montana, whose three Super Bowl MVP awards place him in his own class of legendship. Montana was 16-7 in 23 playoff appearances; Manning in the same number of games is 11-12.
And then there's Brady, a first-team All-Pro twice to Manning's seven times. While passer rating is not by any stretch a perfect stat, it is useful when there are large margins at work. Brady's rating has finished in the Top 5 three times. Manning, 10.
Ah, but Brady wins. He's 3-2 in Super Bowls, way better than 1-2. Of course all five of Brady's Super Bowls were decided by four points or less so he could easily be 5-0 or 0-5 because of things completely outside his control.
This point -- what is and what isn't within a quarterback's control -- is paramount to any discussion about a player's performance. One must do one's best to isolate the quarterback's play from that of his teammates. For example, Adam Vinatieri's outstanding late-game kicking from 2001-2004 should mean NOTHING in any analysis of Brady's performance. Brady had nothing to do with that.
So what's right? What's the best way to do this?
Football makes this harder than, say, baseball, because of the complicated and sometimes uncertain roles all the players have on any given play. Is an incomplete pass the quarterback's fault or the receiver's? What was the receiver's route? What had they practiced? Usually we don't know.
I settle for this: The quarterback's job is to accrue yards and first downs and ultimately touchdowns or field goals. Points are a byproduct of the effort of moving the ball. Wins are way down the road. Does a quarterback on a given play, a pass play, succeed at gaining yards, or moving the chains? If he does this often enough points will come, and, likely, so will wins.
But wins fail badly to pinpoint how well or poorly a quarterback played. There's too much else going on. There's too much the quarterback can't be blamed for, or credited.
A quarterback is not like a chef, or an artist, where the final product is entirely of their own making. If you wake up tomorrow morning and make eggs Benedict, it's up to you whether or not they turn out. You're on your own.
This is team sports, and in football dozens of other people help determine whether the best players win or lose.
With his Super Bowl loss Sunday, Manning set a record for the most playoff losses in NFL history with 12. Of course you can't have more than one of those per year. Manning loses a lot of playoff games because he plays in a lot of playoff games. Manning also throws a lot of interceptions because he throws a lot of passes, and that's because no coach in his right mind would employ Peyton Manning and not have him throw a lot of passes.
Manning is one of the greats, if not the greatest of all time. He has been one of the best if not the best player in his sport almost every year since he entered the league. His teams are always good, or great.
At 1-2 Manning's Super Bowl record isn't great. But his 7.25 net yards per pass attempt is the best mark in NFL history. And as silly as you might think this sounds, to me that's a way more important indicator than his record is.
Because when deconstructed a quarterback's job, really, is to gain yards on plays. And no one has ever done that better.