In an effort to come to the truth of the matter about important issues, and engage in our favorite pastime (arguing), we will from time to time engage in an e-mail battle of wits. These will always be honest disagreements, not ESPN-style verbal fake wrestling. For best results, get really drunk before reading (not only will our thoughts be more interesting, but they will seem much more sophisticated as well). We start with an ongoing battle – the worth of Peyton Manning.
Peyton Manning is either the greatest quarterback of all time, or at the very least, he’s on the shortest of short lists. Barring a catastrophic, career-altering injury within the next couple seasons, he is all but assured of retiring with the best numbers any quarterback has ever put up.
I’m guessing that statistics are going to be incidental to this discussion, but it’s important to establish them anyway. A brief look at Manning’s resume through 12 pro seasons:
Career record: 117-59
10 playoff appearances in 12 years, 1 Super Bowl
Career 64.8 completion percentage (4th highest all time)
Career 366/181 TD/INT ratio
2nd-highest ever career passer rating
8 straight seasons with 10 or more wins
The only four-time MVP winner in NFL history (I don’t put a lot of stock in NFL writers’ opinions, but this still seems worth mentioning)
Already 4th in career passing yards, and will likely finish in 1st
All-time leader in passing yards per game
Already 3rd in career passing touchdowns
There’s a lot more where that came from. I understand that numbers don’t tell the whole story, and that stats for QBs are imperfect to begin with. Football lags far behind baseball when it comes to advanced stats that tell an accurate story of an individual player. But it’s impossible to look at Peyton’s career stats and accomplishments and not be awed.
He’s played the vast majority of his career with the same putrid running game and abysmal defense that Dan Marino had, but with more regular season and playoff success. Of course, other guys have won more Super Bowls. But no one (again, other than Brady) has won more Super Bowls AND been one of the two or three best quarterbacks in the league throughout his career. With many athletes, you have to weight long-term consistency with short-term brilliance (i.e. Gayle Sayers vs. Curtis Martin, or something like that). With Manning, there’s no need, because he’s achieved at an impossibly high level for a ridiculously long time.
David Simon Cowell
There’s no doubt that those statistics are impressive…if you’re awed by the ability of someone operating in a system built for him to put up gaudy regular-season numbers at the expense of building a well-rounded team.
The idea that “he’s played the majority of his career with a putrid running game” is ridiculous. He had Marshall Faulk his first year. Peyton obviously wasn’t happy with him, however, because the next year they swapped him out for Edgerrin James. His day may have passed, but he was a very good, borderline great running back for a long time. He made four Pro Bowls, and holds the record for the most total yards per game in NFL history. Joseph Addai may not be quite at that level, but he did make a Pro Bowl and has a 4.1 yard career rushing average that would be even better if it counted the 25% of his production that falls under receiving. Compare this to the steady diet of retards and retreads with whom Tom Brady has won three Super Bowls, and it looks pretty good. The reputation of the Colts have had as being a bad running team is in large part due to an anomaly in statistical categorization. Because laterals and dump-off passes count under passing, not rushing, statistics (as a side note, that the NFL can’t find a way to account for this as part of the running game is ridiculous), and the Colts heavily utilize these techniques in their play, their true rushing ability is perennially underrated. But, of course, this helps to pad Peyton’s statistics, which is the most important thing.
And the idea that he has always played with an “abysmal defense” isn’t borne out by statistics either, although it is another nice excuse for the media to use since they can’t ever suggest any of Peyton’s failings might be of his own making. I’ll grant you that it was pretty bad when he first became a Colt, but over the past 8 years, its end-of-the-year rankings for scoring defense (which I would argue, that while imperfect, is the best way to rate an overall defense) have been 7, 20, 19, 2, 23, 1, 7, 5. A bit inconsistent, but there are plenty of teams that would take that. Plus, the Indy defense features two of the past five Defensive Players of the Year, even if they sometimes resemble Elijah Price more than Lawrence Taylor.
I’m sure it was an oversight, but nowhere in that long list did you mention any post-season stats. Let me help you out: 7-8 lifetime record, 6 of 10 postseason appearances without a win, 11-point lower QB rating than regular-season. Here’s my favorite though…in 2006, when the Colts won 4 post-season games and the Super Bowl (which pads the above numbers significantly), Peyton was horrible. He had a 3-7 TD-INT ratio and a 70.5 QB rating. The Super Bowl win that even gives you an argument was due to the “putrid running game and abysmal defense” bailing him out.
Being a great quarterback has to do with a lot more to do with statistics and media blowjobs. It may be frustrating for your Jewish mind to try to comprehend, but numbers aren’t everything. Intangibles like leadership and clutch-play are way more important. Peyton may be a (gulp) great QB, but greatest ever – come on!
1) I don’t want to get too bogged down in stats, but I think you overrate the quality of the teams Manning has played on. Yes, he’s been on great teams, but he has always been the biggest reason they’ve been great. This season is a perfect example. The Colts went 14-2 (with one playoff win so far) despite a defense that was 8th in scoring defense and 18th in overall defense (so, essentially mediocre), last in the league in rushing (so even granting your point about counting dump-offs, this still wouldn’t be a quality rushing team), below-average special teams, and only two reliable receivers (Clark and Wayne).
Also, the reason the Colts have consistently rated OK in scoring defense is because Manning orchestrates long drives, keeping his defense off the field. And of Edgerrin James’s eight seasons in Indianapolis, four were good, two were mediocre, and two were either awful or injury-riddled. Given that Joseph Addai has never rushed for 1,100 yards in a year, that gives Manning a solid running game in less than half his seasons. Part of that, as you point out, is due to the Colts’ style. Part of it is due to either subpar running backs or subpar years from good backs. And part of it is because Manning is so fucking good the Colts don’t need to run the ball that much. But whatever. On to more important things…
2) Post-season success. It’s amazing how much someone’s reputation is forged early in their careers, when our minds aren’t made up about them yet. Manning, like Elway, was labeled a playoff choker after some struggles in his younger days. Meanwhile Brady played a string of fantastic playoff games early in his career, so he’ll forever be perceived as clutch. But as Bill Simmons himself points out, here are Brady’s QB ratings in his last eight playoff games: 74.0, 101.6, 57.6, 79.5, 141.4, 66.4, 82.5, 49.1. Inconsistent, and overall pretty shitty. But he’s still Tom Brady, the Golden Boy.
Manning has a career 8-8 record in the playoffs (including the Baltimore win last week). Brett Favre, who is widely considered a clutchy clutch clutchster (and who, like Brady, won a Super Bowl early in his career), is 12-10. And he’s absolutely killed his team with back-breaking interceptions in some of those 10 losses. Yet Manning’s a choker, and Favre’s a hero? First impressions remain foremost in our minds, but that doesn’t make them correct.
Manning has struggled somewhat in the playoffs, at least when compared to the regular season. But a dropoff in quarterback rating is to be expected in the post-season, when competition and defenses typically get much tougher. Maybe Peyton didn’t set the world on fire the year the Colts won the Super Bowl, but they still won it with him at the helm. How much of a choker can you be if you win four consecutive playoff games under insane pressure?
3) First of all, the precious intangibles you’re so fond of are incorporated IN the numbers you so revile. If the Patriots offensive line plays better because Tom Brady gives Matt Light a reacharound in the locker room at halftime, that shows up in the stats. Brady is pressured less, completes more passes, puts up better numbers. If a quarterback is a terrible leader, and his team reviles him and won’t play hard for him, it’s impossible for him to put up the kind of numbers Peyton’s put up every single year of his career. Clutch play shows up in wins and losses.
Intangibles, and even clutchiness, are based on ever-morphing opinions, which are in turn based on individual perception. You might think less of Peyton Manning because he screams at his left tackle. I might think less of Brett Favre because he fucks over his organizations every off-season while he’s deciding whether or not to retire. But we can’t prove that those traits matter on the field. All we have are the numbers, which show us that both those guys are great quarterbacks.
Relying on intangibles when judging athletes opens a Pandora’s box of perception issues. Our memories play tricks on us. Our minds form opinions based on personal biases that facts don’t support. All we have are the numbers.
David Simon Cowell
If sports just comes down to a conglomeration of ever-compiling statistics, then count me out. I may as well play Strat-O-Matic, and that shit is boooring. The idea that sports is only numbers increasingly destroys baseball, and I’m not going to let you do it to football goddamnit.
Obviously, this statistical debate is at an impasse…I think Peyton’s numbers are overblown and you don’t. But this really isn’t the crux of the reason that I hate him like Victoria Beckham hates a sandwich (sorry, been watching too many Jay Leno clips lately). I don’t mean to make you choke on your own bile, but it does come down to the hated i-word…non-numerical, unempirical intangibles. And while statistics can obviously illuminate unnoticed truths about games and careers, they don’t tell close to the whole story. We’ve both been in stadiums where a player’s behavior set a game off on a completely different trajectory, and might not even be mentioned in the recap, let alone the box score. It’s a cliche, but that famous John Elway play where he dove for the first down absolutely changed the behavior of that game…if you look at the stats, you only see he passed for a meager 123 yards. Was that the only reason the Broncos won…of course not. Would they have won without it…probably not. I’ve seen too many Colts games where Peyton’s demeanor cast a pall over his teammates to take the idea of his leadership (a necessary component for a great QB in my mind) seriously.
For me, the entertainment in watching sports comes in witnessing the rare unbelievable turn of events and in the glimpses into human interaction and character you get from following athletes. For you, the entertainment comes in watching the numbers like a stock ticker.
Quarterbacks are often the most simultaneously celebrated and reviled figures in sports. For everybody who loves Peyton, at least an equal number despise him…same with Brady, Favre, whoever (except Cutler…he just fucking sucks in every conceivable way). Football is an obvious metaphor for war, and they’re the generals. They’re doppelgangers for the Alpha Dogs in male culture. To me, Peyton Manning is an Eisenhower. He may get to be president, but when the shit is going down, he’s going to be back in HQ. He’ll never sacrifice himself in any meaningful way, he’s more comfortable giving orders to inferiors than exhorting them, he gets more credit than he deserves, his main value is crunching numbers, allocating resources and running and organization. It’s a necessary role, but not exactly romantic or heroic. Watching Peyton in the pocket, scanning the field like a robot, falling to his knees when he feels a hint of pressure, scowling at his receiver after every missed pass…there’s no humanity in it.
Whereas Brett Favre is like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, and I tear up every time.
If Brett Favre is like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, then his stint with the Jets is like the shitty, maudlin ending to that movie with Matt Damon in old age makeup weepily mumbling, “Tell me I’m a good man.”
When it comes to judging players against one another, comparing eras, determining the “greatest of all time,” statistics are the only fair and accurate tool at our disposal. We must rely on numbers to prove that Peyton Manning is the best quarterback of all time, or that Tim Raines was a better hitter than Andre Dawson, or that the ’96 Bulls were the best basketball team ever. To rely on anything else, on opinion and the limited things we think we see with our own eyes, is to give in to our worst impulses as humans. It’s allowing our prejudices to control us, our initial reactions to guide us, our basest fears to own us.
Understanding this, and allowing facts rather than guesses to inform our opinions, enhances enjoyment of sports rather than detracting from them. I’m not any less thrilled by a one-handed interception because I correctly understand that the defensive back happens to be overrated. I’m not any less horrified seeing Syracuse hit a game-winning three-pointer against Georgetown because I know they could have taken a higher-percentage shot elsewhere on the court. Now, when I scream at a manager for changing pitchers in the 6th inning, I’m not just howling my frustration, I know I’m right. It’s just like how anyone with a brain can watch and enjoy The Wire, but I feel like I enjoy it, more than I otherwise would, understanding and analyzing some of the literary tropes your namesake David Simon uses.
Embrace the numbers, DSC. They’re the only things that can keep us warm at night. You needn’t be afraid any longer.
David Simon Cowell
For the sake of argument, let’s say I cede your point that statistics are the only way to judge who is the greatest quarterback of all time. Which stat do you use? Is it most career wins, passing yards and/or TDs (Favre)? Is it offset by the fact that he’s also the leader in INTs? Is it passer rating (Young)? Is he upgraded or downgraded because he didn’t get settled with a team until late in his career, and has more than 5,500 fewer pass attempts than Favre? Is it most Super Bowl wins (Bradshaw)? Was Vinny Testeverde a great QB because he’s in the Top 10 of passing yards and TDs? Does the fact that 15 of the top 20 all-time leaders in passer ratings are still active mean that we need not look back when discussing the best ever?
This is where your P.O.V. hits a dead end. Unless you get some sort of prodigy like Tiger Woods (and if he doesn’t get to 19 majors because he’s too busy fucking, there’ll be people arguing Nicklaus was better, with statistical evidence to back them up), they aren’t going to provide you with a definitive answer. I know what you’re going to say, that you have to look at the totality of the picture. But that involves interpretation as well. I agree that statistics are useful, and can narrow down the group. They certainly put Peyton in the Top Ten QBs of All Time. But they in no way “prove” anything beyond that (as if such things can be proven).
At that point, you’re left with interpretation and a personal judgement of what deserve emphasis, even if you’re looking only at statistics. And a great athlete is better than the sum of his stats. Relying on experience and personal interpretation solely can lead to trouble, certainly, but these differences and opinions are the greatest thing about humanity, not our ability to categorize and compile “facts”. It would be possible to make a statistical argument that Wilt Chamberlain was better than Michael Jordan, if you emphasized certain things. But when you take into account the differences in the way they were perceived by their peers and fans that lived through their eras, you realize this would be beyond silly. It’s things like the Flu Game or getting in Xavier McDaniel’s face that brought Jordan to the next pinnacle of greatness.
I’ve witnessed these things in Brett Favre and Tom Brady, in John Elway and Joe Montana. I’ve never seen anything close to them in Peyton Manning…in fact, I’ve seen the exact opposite. There’s no way a few more passing yards are as important.
Once you use statistics to get down to the group that deserves to be considered, I think a good way to judge greatness is with the Grandkids Test. When your Grandkids are learning about football who and what will you tell them about? If you’re a fan of that team, how will you describe a player? If you’re not a fan of that team, what moments will you see as historically significant or just overall fucking awesome stories? I assume Colts fans looove Peyton, but besides the drive to win the AFC Championship, what memorable moments has he produced? Especially when compared to Brady, Favre, Montana, Kurt Warner, etc. In that way, he’s like Marino Once you use statistics to get down to the group that deserves to be considered, I think a good way to judge greatness is with the Grandkids Test. When your Grandkids are learning about football who and what will you tell them about? If you’re a fan of that team, how will you describe a player? If you’re not a fan of that team, what moments will you see as historically significant or just overall fucking awesome stories? I assume Colts fans looove Peyton, but besides the drive to win the AFC Championship, what memorable moments has he produced? Especially when compared to Brady, Favre, Montana, Kurt Warner, etc. In that way, he’s like Marino (also: overblown regular season statistics, annoying commercials, arc and strength of Peter King jizz spray) – except for the fake snap for a TD against the Jets, I can’t think of one fucking thing that guy ever did except put up yards.
The Grandkids Test is great — for determining who you’ll eventually tell your grandkids about. But it does very little to help us decide who was the best at what they did. It’s just another way to allow your own personal biases to enter into what should be as rational a thought process as possible. We’re trying to decide on facts here, and while we can debate which criteria we should use to get the truth, I think we owe it to ourselves (and our grandkids) to try to eliminate as much extraneous hokum and opinion from that process as we can.
In the end, we’re disagreeing on two central points:
1) Is Peyton Manning the best quarterback of all time? This is a simple barstool debate that we can approach from any number of different angles.
2) How do we determine the best quarterback of all time? Or really, how do we determine anything in the world of sports? To me, that’s the far more interesting discussion, and one I sense we’ll be revisiting on this blog often.
David Simon Cowell
I would guess that’s true, for better or worse.
I can’t believe it’s taken over 3,000 words to make a point that should be obvious – we’re both slapfaggots.
I’ll leave you with this: