Indianapolis Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning just won his record fourth regular season AP MVP award but in the most important game of the year he took a back seat to New Orleans' Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who tied a Super Bowl record with 32 completions en route to leading the Saints to a 31-17 victory. Brees posted an astounding 82.1 completion percentage, compiling 288 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions on 39 attempts, which adds up to a 114.5 passer rating; in contrast, although Manning had more yards than Brees (333 yards on 31 completions in 45 attempts for an 88.5 passer rating) he only had one touchdown pass and he threw the "pick six" that will be remembered as the game's defining moment: the Saints were clinging to a 24-17 lead when Tracy Porter nabbed Manning's pass to Reggie Wayne and raced 74 yards to put the Saints up by two touchdowns with 3:12 remaining. Porter also picked off Minnesota's Brett Favre near the end of regulation in the NFC Championship Game, enabling the Saints to eventually triumph in overtime.
The final score does not accurately convey the reality that this was one of the most competitive and closely contested Super Bowls ever; if not for Manning's costly error, the game likely would have been decided in the final seconds or perhaps even required the first overtime in Super Bowl history. Super Bowl MVP Brees and his Saints deserve credit for their poise, efficiency and courage. Coach Sean Payton made several bold play calls, most notably eschewing a short field goal attempt to try to score a touchdown on fourth and goal late in the first half (the Saints did not score but they stopped the Colts and managed to kick a field goal just before halftime) and then successfully employing an onside kick on the opening kickoff of the second half, the first such "surprise" onside kick (i.e., one done prior to the fourth quarter) in Super Bowl history. New England Coach Bill Belichick was widely criticized about his failed fourth down gamble versus the Colts in a regular season game but in retrospect it seems that Belichick was simply ahead of the curve (as usual): great coaches like Belichick and Payton understand that against Manning's Colts it is important to (1) score touchdowns and (2) keep the ball out of Manning's hands as much as possible, even if this involves "risky" ploys such as going for it on fourth down and/or utilizing an onside kick.
Manning's record-setting regular season career statistics and his MVP performance in Indianapolis' 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI establish him as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in NFL history--but, much as I don't understand the rush to crown Roger Federer as the greatest tennis player ever (a subject that I am still debating with several people in the comments section of this 2009 BEST post), I don't understand the apparent rush to crown Manning as the greatest NFL quarterback ever; even if the Colts had won this Super Bowl I don't think that Manning would have merited that title and the Colts' loss--with Manning's interception playing a pivotal role in the final outcome--simply highlights the fact that despite all of Manning's regular season glory he has not been an exceptional postseason quarterback: Manning owns a mediocre 9-9 career playoff record with 28 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Manning is 2-1 in the AFC Championship Game (five touchdowns, five interceptions) and 1-1 in the Super Bowl (two touchdowns, two interceptions). On six different occasions, Manning's Colts have lost their first playoff game, including years in which the Colts were 13-3 (1999), 14-2 (2005), 13-3 (2007) and 12-4 (2008).
In 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009 Manning made only token appearances in the final regular season game because the Colts were locked into their playoff seed. I have always found it offensive that the Colts used those final regular season games to set regular season milestones for certain players and preserve Manning's consecutive games played streak before essentially throwing those games (yes, I know that the Colts went 2-3 in those games but their attitude was that the result didn't matter at all, which is philosophically equivalent to throwing the games) even though the outcomes could potentially affect playoff seeding for other teams; their actions made a mockery of the league's competitive balance and the full prices charged for tickets to such games. If the most important thing is to win the Super Bowl then why risk having Manning play even one down or why force feed the ball to certain receivers so that they can attain personal single season goals? Manning and/or his receivers could certainly be injured during such plays.
The Colts started this season 14-0 before clinching home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs and deciding to curtail the playing time of several starters in the final two regular season games. I find it very interesting that their own fans lustily booed in response to this and that one fan displayed a sign that said "16-0 Matters to Us," a response to the Colts' statement that a perfect regular season record is meaningless; like that fan, I think that it is disgraceful to treat the regular season with such disdain and I much prefer the way that the 2007 New England Patriots marched to an unprecedented 16-0 record and the way that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls raced to an NBA record 72 wins in 82 games (yes, the rigors of the NFL season differ from those of an NBA season but the principle is the same: greatness is something meaningful and worth pursuing).
Furthermore, it is bizarre that the Colts act as if throwing these games is part of some supposedly tried and true method to improve their chances to achieve their ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl, because the reality is that Manning's only Super Bowl victory came after a season in which the Colts had to play every regular season game full tilt due to their position in the standings. The Colts not only have never won a Super Bowl after resting Manning in the final regular season game but three of the five times that they did this they lost their very first playoff game! I can't prove that resting Manning caused the Colts to lose those playoff games or that it had anything to do with their Super Bowl loss this year but it is certainly fair to say that resting Manning has not helped the Colts because they have yet to win a single Super Bowl after doing so.
One of the most interesting spectacles about this postseason was watching various media members who seemingly could not decide whether they should anoint Favre or Manning as the greatest quarterback ever. Both quarterbacks would likely be on the consensus list of the top 10 quarterbacks ever but if I had to select one of those 10 quarterbacks to win a playoff game or a Super Bowl with my life on the line I would not choose Favre or Manning. Favre went 1-1 in the Super Bowl (five touchdowns, one interception) and 13-11 in postseason play overall (44 touchdowns, 30 interceptions). He is just 4-8 in his last 12 playoff games and the last two times he reached the NFC Championship Game he threw an interception on his team's final offensive possession. If the executioner's sword is dangling over my head then I don't want my life depending on the result of Favre rolling out, chucking the ball as hard as he can and hoping for the best; that may be exciting to watch, it may result in setting a lot of regular season records but it does not produce many championships.
In contrast, Joe Montana went 4-0 in the Super Bowl (11 touchdowns, 0 interceptions) and 16-7 in postseason play overall (45 touchdowns, 21 interceptions); Tom Brady is 3-1 in the Super Bowl (seven touchdowns, one interception) and 14-4 in postseason play overall (28 touchdowns, 15 interceptions). Objectively speaking, it is not possible to realistically compare the statistics of pre-1979 quarterbacks with those of post-1979 quarterbacks due to the drastic rules changes that transformed the NFL into a pass-oriented league but any discussion about the greatest quarterback ever must include Johnny Unitas and Otto Graham. Unitas led the Baltimore Colts to two NFL championships in the 1950s followed by a third NFL title in 1968 (the Colts then famously lost to the AFL Champion New York Jets in Super Bowl III); he also threw the Colts' only touchdown in their Super Bowl IV win over Dallas. Graham led the Browns to the league championship game in each of his 10 pro seasons, winning four AAFC titles and three NFL championships.
Whatever reasonable standard one uses, I simply don't see how anyone can state with confidence that Favre or Manning is a greater quarterback than Graham, Unitas, Montana or Brady. For that matter, Roger Staubach led the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowl wins and had the highest regular season career passer rating in NFL history before 1979, while strong-armed Terry Bradshaw may not have been the most efficient regular season passer but he went 4-0 in the Super Bowl while posting a 112.8 passer rating (the third best career Super Bowl passer rating behind Montana's eye-popping 127.8 and Jim Plunkett's 122.8, which Plunkett earned while leading the Raiders to a pair of Super Bowl wins). Furthermore, if you want to talk about "pure" passing ability then Sonny Jurgenson and Dan Marino have to be included in the discussion even though Jurgenson never won an NFL title as a starter and Marino lost to Montana in his only Super Bowl appearance.
Instead of even attempting to communicate some of the information listed above as historical context for a discussion about who might be the greatest quarterback ever we are subjected to pregame shows that insist that one more Super Bowl win would cement Favre or Manning's place as the greatest quarterback ever followed by postgame shows that try to absolve Favre or Manning of responsibility for their team's respective losses even though both players literally threw away their team's chances to win. Favre is still lauded for being a courageous gunslinger--but when a 40 year old quarterback is that talented and that durable but has only won one championship despite having several golden opportunities it is worth wondering if it is noble or foolish that he has gone from being a dark haired gunslinger to being a gray haired gunslinger without ever changing his ways. Similarly, Manning is rightfully praised for his intelligence and his ability to outsmart opposing defenses yet he has been much less successful demonstrating those traits in the postseason than he has in the regular season.
Apparently, Favre and Manning are so well-liked that many people cannot be objective about how to rank them historically in the quarterback pantheon. This is very similar to the glaring flaws that I have observed about how NBA players and teams are compared. Two of my greatest passions about sports are analyzing how/why games are won and lost and critiquing the poor research techniques, idiotic questions, ludicrous biases and substandard writing skills displayed by far too many members of the media. For instance, ESPN's NFL Countdown show is entertaining and often informative but the panel's biases can be jarringly distracting: why does NFL Countdown treat Marvin Harrison--who quite possibly shot a man to death in broad daylight--and Ray Lewis--who was charged with obstruction of justice in an unsolved double murder for which he was initially the prime suspect--as model citizens with impeccable character while simultaneously demonizing Terrell Owens, whose only "crime" is flamboyance, a trait that is considered harmless or even entertaining when displayed by other players? Why is Favre portrayed as some kind of folk hero even though he repeatedly feuds with coaches/management, makes reckless plays in crucial moments and flouts the importance of practice? Allen Iverson is forever dogged by one out of context quote pertaining to practice--Iverson was not questioning the importance of practice but rather asking why a whole press conference was being devoted to the subject--but Favre gets a free pass for annually acting as if he should be above having to attend training camp.
One thing that we can all be grateful about is that no matter how much the media spins things the media is powerless to change the actual results: despite all of the overblown hype, Manning is still a .500 postseason quarterback with one Super Bowl win and Favre apparently has ended two separate retirements with interceptions in the NFC Championship Game. Manning and Favre are two of the greatest quarterbacks ever and they both deserve praise for their remarkable combination of durability and productivity--but that does not mean that the media should portray them as flawless demigods.