Is Peyton Manning the best ever? Sports media began asking that question within minutes of his retirement announcement. The truth, as we all know, is that Manning wasn’t even the best of his own generation. That would be Tom Brady.
But given the era we live in — the internet age of instant gratification — such a response was entirely predictable because, well, many of us feel the need now to grade everything. To 20-somethings, who have zero memory of the Super Bowl blowouts that routinely took place during the late 80s and early 90s, this Super Bowl may seem like the worst ever. In reality, it might not have even been the worst of the last three years. (Seattle 43, Denver 8 was worse.) But everybody has a voice now – which has both its benefits and drawbacks – so we’re left to answer stupid questions like whether Manning is the best ever.
He’s not. In fact, he might not even be in the top three. At least if you value, you know, winning.
Of course, these kinds of debates inevitably lead to twisted logic. Jim Plunkett has as many Super Bowl titles (two) as Manning does. So does that mean they’re the same level of quarterback? No. Manning has been to four Super Bowls and is perhaps the greatest pure passer in the history of the game.
Many would argue the same for Dan Marino. Interestingly, Marino also won fewer titles than he should have — in his case, zero — which makes one wonder about quarterbacks who preferred passing to winning. But anyone with half a brain would tell you that passing is only part of a great quarterback’s responsibilities.
And that brings us back to Manning and his place in the history of the game. Here is one suggestion for the top five quarterbacks in history:
1. Tom Brady, Patriots
Those who booed Brady during pre-game ceremonies are, of course, delusional — and they’d probably be the first to raise their hands if Brady’s services were auctioned off. Brady has been to six Super Bowls, more than any quarterback in history. He has won four titles, tied for most in league history.
Has he benefited from having Bill Belichick as his coach? Absolutely. Has he often had good defenses? Sure. But Brady has intangibles that few in the game have ever possessed — most specifically, an unrelenting drive. And he has set a new standard of winning against which all quarterbacks will be judged. (Got that, Aaron Rodgers? What about you, Russell, Wilson?)
2. Joe Montana, 49ers
I grew up in the heart of Joe Montana’s career, so dropping him to No. 2 was no easy task. Montana played in four Super Bowls and won them all while throwing 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. Got that? ZERO. His big-game resume is about as flawless as one could realistically expect. And he authored perhaps the greatest drive in Super Bowl history, taking the Niners 92 yards for a touchdown with a little more than three minutes remaining in Super Bowl XXIII. There’s a reason why they called him “Joe Cool,” people. If you never saw him play, you don’t have a clue.
3. John Elway, Broncos
Who’s the best athlete to ever play quarterback? If John Elway isn’t in your discussion, he should be. Elway could throw, run and think, and was indisputably tough. Before Brady came along, no quarterback had ever played in more Super Bowls. And while Elway lost three of the five Super Bowls in which he played, consider the Denver teams he played for. Elway and the Broncos went 14-7 in the postseason during his career, and he authored arguably the greatest drive in postseason history.
Here’s a fun question for you: Three minutes to go, down by 4, ball on your own 8-yard line. Who you got: Brady, Montana or Elway?
4. Peyton Manning, Colts and Broncos
Manning is the only quarterback on this list to take multiple franchises to the Super Bowl — and he won with both of them. Manning’s failures in big games are impossible to overlook, but his impact on the game over the last two decades or so is impossible to overstate. Manning controlled the game from the line of scrimmage like perhaps no quarterback in the history, making the pre-snap read an art form. Was he clutch? No. But he did go to four Super Bowls with four different coaches, an accomplishment that may never be replicated.
5. Steve Young, 49ers
Lots of names to consider here: Troy Aikman, Ben Roethlisberger, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas … the list goes on and on. The problem with guys like Starr and Unitas is that they played a sport entirely unfamiliar to us. Roethlisberger isn’t done yet, but he is certainly a worthy candidate. So is Terry Bradshaw. Marino gets a lot of consideration, but it’s hard to get past the absence of a title.
So we’ll go with Steve Young, whose career accomplishments are light, largely because he sat behind Montana. But when he started, Young went sterling 91-33 with the Niners and won at least one playoff game in six of his seven full seasons as a starter. Like Elway, he had all of the tools.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.