Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Determining The Greatest QB Is Not That Simple

Peyton Manning has the career record for touchdown passes. So where does he fit in among the best quarterbacks of all time?

And thus the debate begins -- and it usually starts by talking about playoff records and Super Bowl rings.

Let's first start with a collection of articles that Douglas Lee at It's All Over Fat Man gathered, in which some writers talked from the perspective of how great Peyton is as a player, to those who talk about how his career won't really be complete without another championship.

Of course, the debate generally starts with Tom Brady, who has three rings to Peyton's one. Even brother Eli has more rings than Peyton -- and, hey, Eli is 2-0 against Brady in Super Bowls, so clearly Eli is better than Brady, right?

But wait, there's more! Brady is 3-2 overall in the Super Bowl, so we should be able to put him safely behind Joe Montana, who is 4-0 -- the same record as Terry Bradshaw. And then there's Troy Aikman, who won three Super Bowls and never lost any. Therefore, if Super Bowl rings are all that matter, Bradshaw is far superior not only to Brady, but to any other QB who has followed in their footsteps, with the exception of Montana. And Aikman must be better than Brady because Aikman never choked in a Super Bowl!

Of course, then we get into the arguments about the teams that were built around Aikman and Bradshaw -- but then we forget that Montana had the same, and ditto for Brady. Whereas when you look at the teams built around Peyton Manning, they are a mixed bag.

With that said, one can make the argument that having good skill players on offense helps a quarterback. Peyton Manning always seems to have those players, such as Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker. Brady had Welker, Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski, but a lot of the running backs and receivers who played with Brady are seldom mentioned among the greats at those positions.

But we also forget that the Super Bowl didn't exist since the NFL's inception, and that the rules weren't always so favorable to the passing game. So what happens when we roll out Johnny Unitas, who may have been a QB ahead of his time and won a pair of championships in the pre-Super Bowl era, and Otto Graham, who not only won multiple championships in the pre-Super Bowl era, but played both offense and defense, something no quarterback today does.

Regardless of who you think is the best QB of all time, there are a few factors to keep in mind that may help you sort it out:

1. Win-loss records are not as meaningful as breaking down individual games: Every time the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady debate comes up, we always talk about what the win-loss record is between the two, without bothering to dig further into the details about their performances.

Let's consider one example: In 2009, the Patriots led the Colts 34-21 with 4:17 left in the game, only for the Colts to score 14 points to win the game. One might say Peyton Manning won the game for the Colts, but does this mean Tom Brady lost the game for the Patriots? Or did we forget that was the game in which Bill Belichick chose to go for it on fourth-and-one at the Pats' 28-yard line, and failed, thus setting up that final drive for the Colts?

Then there was the 2004 outing, in which the Colts cut the Patriots lead to 27-24 with 11:09 left, then Brady threw an interception on the Pats' next drive. However, on first-and-goal at the 1, Edgerrin James fumbled and the Pats recovered. The Colts got another possession, but Mike Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime. Do we honestly believe that Brady won that game and Peyton lost it?

The focus on win-loss records for QBs always goes back to the silly argument of "the quarterback always wins the game and the quarterback always loses the game." Yet few people would argue that every single team that, for example, won the Super Bowl, won it because of whoever was quarterback.

2. Great quarterbacks regularly get their teams to the playoffs, while great teams win multiple Super Bowls in a short time span: Let's consider the time frames in which Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman got their Super Bowl rings. Bradshaw played for Steelers teams that won four in a six-year span (1975-1980). Montana played for 49ers teams that won four in a nine-year span (1982-1990). Aikman played for Cowboys teams that won three Super Bowls in four years (1993, 1994, 1996).The Steelers and Cowboys qualify as great teams, given that they won their multiple Super Bowls so close together. The Niners might be considered the team of the 1980s, although their Super Bowls were spread out over a longer period.

How do the Patriots compare with Brady as QB? They are similar to the Cowboys with Aikman, as they won three in four years (2002, 2004, 2005). A Super Bowl win in 2008 would not only have made the Pats similar to the Steelers, but would have generated talk about the greatest team of all time. Of course, we all know the Giants ended that dream. Still, it is fair to categorize that Patriots bunch as a great team.

So what does this mean for Brady? Well, there is this to consider: Every season in which Brady has started at least 14 games, the Patriots have made the playoffs in all but one season: 2002. (Remember: Brady didn't start as a rookie.) Then consider Peyton Manning: Every season in which he has started at least 14 games, his teams have made the playoffs in all but two seasons: 1998 (his rookie season) and 2001 (the year of Jim Mora's infamous remark).

Because Brady played in just one game as a rookie and took a whopping three pass attempts, it may be fair to set Peyton's rookie season aside. Thus each QB has one season in which he missed the playoffs, when he started most games and should have settled into his role.

But then this brings us to another point.

3. When the best quarterbacks are lost for a season, their absence is truly felt: Let us consider the seasons that Brady and Peyton missed because of injuries. In 2008, the Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel, despite missing the playoffs on tiebreakers, but still finished better than any team in the mediocre AFC West (San Diego and Denver were both 8-8). In 2011, the Colts went 1-15.

Those seasons make it clear that, while Brady may have been an important part of the Patriots, he wasn't doing near as much to keep getting the Patriots into the playoffs, as Peyton had been doing with the Colts.

It is certainly worth arguing that Brady's absence on the current Patriots team might keep the Patriots from reaching the playoffs. But it's just as easy to make that argument with Peyton's absence for the current Broncos team.

None of these points are meant to declare that one quarterback is automatically better than the other. They are to remind you that measuring how great a QB is, is a complex issue that can't just simply be considered by looking at wins, stats or rings.

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