On the John
Completed January 17, 2008
When last we spoke, we wondered aloud about the value of the two most-esteemed of modern quarterbacks, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. Some of us favored one, and others the other, but it was generally agreed that they were without peer. Perhaps McNabb in Philadelphia, but he’d been slipping…
…and so it was always Brady and Manning, Manning and Brady. One had the numbers, the other the rings. One was the artist, the technician, 6’5” with shoulders and cleats, marching to the line like Patton. The other was the leader, the winner, the Little Quarterback that Could, and what he Could was win Super Bowls, three of them in all and only 27.
Manning’s the better quarterback, the better passer. No rings, sure, but give the man a defense, and then you’ll see your Super Bowl. The Brady-People snapped back: Manning’s not the winner Brady is. No way he could lead the 2001 Pats to a title—no way! But give Brady James and Harrison and Wayne…ah. Then you’ll see your numbers.
So what happened? Well, Manning got his defense. And in the 2005 regular season, Manning lead his Colts to a franchise record 14 wins, and in the 2006 playoffs, Manning lead his Colts to a Super Bowl title (in the rain, no less). All the while, Brady and his receiver-light offense scraped out 12 wins, a playoff W on the road over the NFL’s best, and came within five points of topping Manning’s Colts in Indy. Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, a 35-year-old Troy Brown? Not even Montana had it that sparse.
But then it flipped. New England traded for slot receiver Wes Welker on March the 1st and scooped up speed receiver Donte Stallworth ten days later. The Patriots had upgraded…Brady had the best receiving crops of his professional career…and then they nabbed Moss, lifting him from the Raiders for the low-low price of a 4th round draft pick.
Eight months later, we have our answer.
Manning with a well-rounded team: one Super Bowl championship. Brady with the same: three. Manning with a video game offense: 49 TD passes, 10 picks, and 4557 yards. Brady with the same: 50, 8, 4806…and 16-0.
And when we say “advantage,” we mean career advantage. We always knew Brady was the better Brady. Now we know that he’s also the better Manning. To quote Jay-Z: “You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song.”
And now we reconvene, and as we do we find a new question waiting for us, because I suspect that “Brady or Manning?” will no longer field the kind of enthusiasm and dissent it once did. No, in my mind, the question is now: “Brady or Jordan?”
People always say that you can’t compare apples to oranges. I always disagree, claiming that they are both pieces of fruit. I then choose oranges. Granted, Brady vs. Jordan is much more difficult, but if we can make the apples-oranges leap, then perhaps we can find some honest, meaningful way to compare a 21st Century quarterback against a 20th Century two-guard.
As a basketball player, Michael Jordan was primarily two things. He was an individual aberration, and he was a champion, the ultimate team-leader. He wasn’t the gold standard; he was the Michael Jordan standard. And it was this specific excellence that cemented his reputation as the man most trusted to win when winning seemed least likely.
And that’s what Brady’s got. This isn’t about 4th quarter comebacks; that stat has always felt more like a novelty than a definitive measure of quarterback as leader. What Brady and Jordan possess is a faith-inducing quality, a feeling among spectators that their ability to take complete command of their abilities at just the right time is better than anyone else’s, that all things being equal, a team led by Brady or Jordan will beat a team led by anyone else.
Three seasons ago, I was undecided as to Brady’s Hall of Fame credentials. Three years later, I’m comparing him to the greatest team sport athlete of my lifetime. How did it happen? For me, it began when Brady dragged his undermanned Patriots to the AFC Championship. Trailing by three, Manning drove the Colts 80 yards, Joseph Addai scoring the go-ahead with 62 seconds remaining.
“Well, that’s it,” I said. “They just killed themselves. Brady’s got way too much time.”
Earlier that day, the Bears had advanced to the Super Bowl, and I was sitting there, terrified of one man. And when that one man threw a game-ending interception, I was shocked.
Maybe it was a bit too much to ask of Brady to get that team past Indy on the road. But that’s what I expected. It was the Jordan. And then came this 2007 season, and the game that solidified it was the season finale against the Giants. With the Patriots trailing 28-16 in the third, and 16-0 on the line, I received a text from a Boston-native friend of mine. “Anyone nervous?” My response was immediate: “Not at all. Brady’s got this. He’s the new Jordan.”
And now here we sit, Brady and his Patriots preparing for their fifth AFC title game in seven years, the quarterback eyeing his fourth Super Bowl…but that’s enough from me. Chances are you’ve heard this one.
Copyright 2008, jm silverstein