— Whenever the Colts play the Patriots, it’s one of the marquee matchups of the NFL season, and its most debated storyline involves Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, two iconic quarterbacks. Their careers and successes are inextricably linked and measured.
Peyton Manning is 33 years old and in his 12th season with three league MVPs, one Super Bowl MVP and one ring. He probably will be the all-time NFL statistical leader when he retires. Manning has never missed a game, so throw in the ironman factor as well.
Tom Brady is 32 years old and in his 10th season with one league MVP (in his undefeated 2007 regular season) and has three Super Bowl rings to accompany his two MVPs in the big game. But he’s coming off a season lost to reconstructive knee surgery and rehab.
This season, their numbers are identical: 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. This week, nearly every aspect of their rivalry has been discussed and dissected, down to Ashley Manning vs. Gisele Bundchen.
But have you wondered what the best ever to play the position think about Brady and Manning? Not the talking heads on TV or radio. Not the columnists or bloggers. There are 20 living quarterbacks in the Professional Football Hall of Fame. We tracked them all down and asked: if you had to choose between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to quarterback your team, who would you pick and why?
The common denominator in all the responses was a groan and a chuckle. “How can you choose between Rembrandt and Van Gogh,” asked Steve Young. Every Hall of Famer agreed you couldn’t lose with either, and picking one didn’t mean you wouldn’t be happy to have the other. Everyone expressed admiration for both players and said, unequivocally, that they, too, would be wearing the yellow jacket one day in Canton. But when pressed to decide, the tally was 13½-2½, with four abstaining.
First, to the “half.” Joe Montana said he would start Brady in the first half and Manning in the second. Jim Kelly had the same idea initially, but when pushed for an answer he chose Manning by the slimmest of margins. Kelly’s reasoning: “Before this season I would’ve gone with Brady, but he’s coming back from a major injury. Tom in his prime, it gets no better. But Peyton is used to running that quick-paced offense and is the best at running the no huddle. My old backup Frank Reich is now Peyton’s quarterback coach, and he’s told me he’d never met anyone who studies more than Peyton.”
Manning’s work ethic and level of preparation provided the swing factor for several of the Hall of Famers. They were also won over by the freedom Manning has earned to run his system.
“Peyton has more leeway as to what he can call,” Len Dawson said. “He is as prepared, if not better prepared, than any quarterback in the league. And over the years, the Patriots’ defenses have been better than (those of) the Colts.”
Dan Fouts also chose Manning. “I like the way he operates. His relationship with (offensive coordinator) Tom Moore goes back forever. I’m impressed with the way he’s in control. What Peyton Manning has done in that style of offense has revolutionized the game, especially the way he conducts himself at the line of scrimmage,” he said.
George Blanda added, “I like Brady, but if I was starting a team I would take Peyton Manning. He's very accurate, and he really seems to love the game, plus he played in the SEC,” laughed the former quarterback and kicker from the University of Kentucky.
Warren Moon said that two years ago he might have said Brady, but now he must factor in the reconstructive knee surgery. Now he chooses Manning. “He takes the talent around him and raises their level. What he demands of himself, he demands of others. It’s scary what he would be like if HE had a Randy Moss on his team.”
Bob Griese agreed. “If you really push me over the cliff, I’d have to pick Peyton. He seems to be in such control at the line of scrimmage. Then you take away all his good players or they get hurt, change his head coach (Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell), Marvin Harrison retires, bring in all the rookies and young players, and he makes stars of them,” he said.
Also swayed by the way Manning elevates the performance of his teammates was Fran Tarkenton, the man whose milestones for career touchdowns and passing yards Manning recently surpassed. “I love them both, but if you put a gun to my head and said which one do you choose, I'd say Peyton. Peyton has not had the players around him that Brady has had, but Peyton is a coach on and off the field.
"They simply do one thing and that's make their teammates better,” Tarkenton continued. “They are as important as the offensive coach. Both of them will always give their team a chance to win. I just think Brady has had better teams and personnel to work with.”
Brady has one distinct advantage that makes Troy Aikman go with Manning. “Peyton’s done it with different head coaches (Jim Mora, Dungy and Caldwell), although he has had assistants Tom Moore and Howard Mudd his entire career. The greatest thing Tom has going for him is Bill Belichick — he’s able to take off a lot of the burden that quarterbacks feel in other places.”
And speaking to the importance of Belichick to Brady’s success, one Hall of Famer pointed out that last season, when Brady went down, Belichick had Matt Cassel, who hadn’t started at QB since high school, and he went 11-5.
Aikman continued, “With Peyton, nobody I’ve seen does more at the quarterback position and has more to do with his team’s success. If you go to a practice, Peyton is basically an offensive coordinator running practice.”
Our NBC crew witnessed exactly what Aikman is referring to in Friday’s practice. Manning spends about 40 minutes each Friday with his backs, tight ends and receivers running plays, correcting, directing, cajoling and coaching routes and coordinating reads while the offensive coaches stand by in rapt attention. It’s an uncanny sight to see Manning literally running and coaching this portion of practice.
Because Manning is such a cerebral quarterback, Fouts actually doesn’t think he gets enough credit for his arm and accuracy. That’s why Joe Namath said he chose Manning: his physical size and arm strength.
Sonny Jurgensen said he was very conflicted about whom to pick due to his longstanding relationship with the Manning family, and ultimately he couldn’t go against Peyton.
But Jurgensen said that two years ago Brady played as well as the position EVER has been played. “Some people get in that ‘zone’ for a few games; he was in it for the entire season. His demeanor playing the quarterback position is what I really admire about him. But Peyton has great passion to be the best and he works at it. He’s a perfectionist.”
The two Hall of Famers who picked Brady did so, essentially, for the same reason. The championships. Appropriately, the man who earned four Super Bowl titles, Terry Bradshaw, said it’s all about the rings. “Great stats are important, but the most important aspect is winning. That is all anyone remembers.”
John Elway agreed. “I’d have to lean to Brady because he’s been in more tough situations, had to come back in big games. Plus, he has three rings to one for Peyton, and he played really well in the big games. Brady has had more chances, more of a track record in big games.”
Four of the Hall of Famers surveyed would not pick one quarterback over the other. "No way I answer that, it's just disrespectful to the sheer art of quarterbacking,” Young said. “I believe quarterbacks are artists. It's so rare to have two guys like this in a generation."
Bart Starr said, “I can't choose because each of those quarterbacks is outstanding and has led teams to championships. It's remarkable what they've been able to do. It's just a great happening when you have two outstanding leaders like that going up against each other.”
Marino’s assessment was as quick as his release. “I respect both of them. Neither one of them deserves to be chosen over the other. They are both Hall of Fame quarterbacks,” he said.
And Roger Staubach was diplomatic. “I know both and they’re that even. They are two of the finest quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL, and every team needs two quarterbacks! They represent the best in the history of the NFL. They are physically gifted in different ways. But they have the instincts and mobility in the pocket that you have to have. What they really have in common is that they are very smart under center but the key thing is their leadership. They get their team to believe in them. Both guys have the total backing of their teammates,” he said.
As for the old timers, both Y.A. Tittle and Charley Trippi still follow the game and watch their successors. And they each make their case for Manning. Then there's Clarence (Ace) Parker, who at 97, is the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame. We spoke to him with the help of his longtime friend, Buddy Lex. Although golf is a little more Parker's speed these days, the man who hit a home run in his first Major League Baseball at-bat (yes, he was Bo Jackson before Bo Jackson) says he still watches a little football. "I think the best quarterback is Peyton Manning. Others have their opinion, but that's my thought. Peyton is the best."
Trippi is 86 years old, and according to his wife, loves to watch Manning. He said: “I just can't visualize anybody better than him. He's definitely a winner, and he really moves the ball and can score so quick. He's unique.”
Tittle added, “I have a lot of respect for both of them. They play the same style — both drop-back passers, accurate, don't scramble around ... if it came down to it, I would take Manning because of his tremendous leadership qualities. He's more of an emotional leader. Brady is a great leader, too, but he's more of a quiet leader. I was an emotional player so you tend to choose the one who's more like you. But I just want to be clear that I think they're both excellent quarterbacks.”
So, as Manning and Brady make their eighth regular-season start against one another, enjoy watching the position of quarterback being played at its highest level. And remember that what makes their matchup so compelling is that these are two of the most competitive athletes you’ll ever find, and they have the ultimate respect for one another and truly regard one another as friends. And one day they will actually find themselves on the same team, in Canton, Ohio.
For Peyton Manning: (13½ votes)
Troy Aikman (Class of ’06), George Blanda (’81), Len Dawson (’87), Dan Fouts (’93), Bob Griese (’90), Sonny Jurgensen (‘83), Jim Kelly (’02), Warren Moon (’06), Joe Namath (‘85), Clarence (Ace) Parker (’72), Fran Tarkenton (’86), Y.A. Tittle (’71), Charley Trippi (’68). Joe Montana (’00) (second half)
For Tom Brady: (2½ votes)
Terry Bradshaw (’89), John Elway (’04), Joe Montana (first half)
Abstain: Dan Marino (’05), Bart Starr (’77), Roger Staubach (’85), Steve Young (’05)