Sunday, March 06, 2016

The Final Audible

Peyton Manning took his last look over a defense and decided the least worst option was to take the sack from Time.

Chris Mortensen of ESPN has reported Manning will announce his retirement from pro football tomorrow. Mortensen has been on leave as he is treated for cancer. His scoop had to come direct from Peyton or John Elway or he wouldn't have made it public. So unless someone changes their mind today or another someone was horribly misinformed, we should regard the career of one of the two greatest quarterbacks of the 21st century to have reached its end.

And thank goodness for that. Injuries have do diminished Manning's skills that all he had left to do on a football field was suffer humiliation and physical pain. Really, one wondered if he was losing the ability to protect himself out there. There's no possible immediate reaction to this news except relief.

After that, we must ponder the mystery of his grand finale. Manning went out on top as a Super Bowl champion, a Super Bowl in which he had less to do with his team winning than in any other game his teams ever won. In his wonderful book "The Game," the old Montreal goalie Ken Dryden wrote he decided to retire after a game in which he stunk and the Canadiens won anyway, thinking "if I can't even create losses, I must be done." I wonder if Manning felt likewise after the title glow wore off last month.

Now for the distasteful but mandatory portion of this exercise. Where exactly does Manning stand in NFL history? First ballot Hall of Famer? Sure. Near the top of the quarterback mountain? Of course. Greatest of his time, greatest ever?

The last two questions are unanswerable except with another question. Who cares? How many quarterback angels can dance on the head of the Vince Lombardi Trophy? NFL quarterbacks come in three basic categories, guys you can't win with, guys you can win with and guys who're the reason you win. The last group are your Hall of Famers. Trying to slot that group into a Top 10 listicle is an academic exercise in foolish frustration.

I have loathed the Manning versus Tom Brady debate since it began, and my hatred has only grown over the years. There's just something that seems hateful about it, because in the end, it's a misuse of the facts of two magnificent careers to prove or disprove what's a matter of taste. People don't go to museums to argue whether Matisse was better than Picasso -- they look at the works of both masters and find joy.

It is likely that in a popular vote (and you know ESPN is staging one as I write this) Brady would be chosen as the better QB by a majority of fans. He has been on four Super Bowl champions, Manning only two. Manning has been voted league MVP a record five times to Brady's mere two, an equally stupid measuring stick that will be ignored. Statwise, there's nothing to choose between 'em so we need not dig deeper.

I'm not saying the majority is wrong. You like Matisse better, fine. But it's funny how fashion changes with the years.

Back in my formative fan years of the early and mid-1960s, there were Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. Unitas won three MVPs, Starr none. In fact, Starr made first All-Pro only once. No fans, no commentators, no coaches and no players outside Green Bay thought Starr was a better quarterback. Johnny U was The Man, period.

Yet Starr's Packers won five NFL titles (still a record for QBs) and Unitas one once Lombardi arrived in Green Bay until he left in 1968. In all those years, Unitas' Colts and Packers met twice a season, usually with a berth in the title game on the line every year. Packers won most of 'em. Starr's 9-1 playoff record is also unparalleled, and his postseason stats are just sick (15 TD passes and three interceptions, for openers).

None of that influenced anyone. Back then, there was a quaint notion that championships were how teams were evaluated, not mere players, even players as important as quarterbacks. Whether or not Unitas was actually better than Starr, well, again who cares? I don't think Lombardi did.

Here's my bottom line on Brady-Manning. If they were healthy, the team that suited up either guy was a championship contender, each and every season they played or in Brady's case have played until now. Whether or not those teams WON titles was up to the rest of their players. Brady wouldn't be any less great if Malcolm Butler had failed to make his goal-line play.

Better than that, you can't get. Peyton Manning was as good a quarterback as could be, just like his rival. I'm glad I got to share the time of his career.

I'm sure I won't have seen the last of him, though. Nationwide Insurance and Papa John won't forsake him.


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