By Jason Keidel
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It makes people thumb through the montage of memorable foes, from Ali-Frazier to Borg-McEnroe to Russell-Chamberlain. But it really feels like a more recent rivalry.
Montana vs Marino.
If you were old enough and lucky enough to watch them, you were treated to two of the five most divine yet different quarterbacks in NFL history. And if you had to pick one to lead your fledgling football team, most would pick Joe Montana.
More than ever, the singular QB metric is winning, and no one did that more than Montana.
But despite the disparity in Super Bowl bling, I would pick Dan Marino. Still the best thrower of a football I’ve ever seen, Marino had half the horses that fellow Pennsylvanian Montana had, and shredded records when everyone knew he was going to throw almost every play.
Montana had Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Tom Rathman, Dwight Clark, and John Taylor, with a star-spangled defense featuring Ronnie Lott. Marino had Andra Franklin, Jimmy Cefalo, Tony Nathan, and Joe Rose.
Yet Marino threw 48 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards in 1984, back when cornerbacks and safeties could mangle wide receivers long before the ball arrived, long before the handcuffs clicked on defensive backs.
Montana played in four Super Bowls, and won four Super Bowls. He threw 11 touchdown passes, and zero – yes, zero – interceptions. Marino played in one Super Bowl, lost one Super Bowl – yes, to Joe Montana – and never returned despite his breakout year coming before he really learned the game.
Montana is the best big-game QB the world will ever know. Marino is the best overall QB I will ever know. One is judged by his bejeweled January bio, the other by his annex of passing records. Sound familiar?
It revives the ancient debate. If you’re starting a football team, whom do you pick? Brady or Manning?
Tom Brady is 10-4 vs Peyton Manning, including 2-1 in the playoffs. Brady has three rings. Has played in five Super Bowls. Brady has the Hollywood cheekbones and requisite billboard wife and resultant opulent life.
Manning is the jock genius, the comparative slob who gobbles his Papa John’s pizza under a cone of projector’s light, dissecting plays and predicting tendencies based on some forgotten game in 1998. Manning is a savant. Brady is swagger. Both are undeniably dedicated to the proposition that no quarterbacks are created equal.
Brady dashed to three world championships in four years. But in his first seven playoff victories, the Pats averaged just 18 points. Manning has essentially been the offense and defense for the bulk of his bejeweled career. Manning never had Belichick’s brain and defensive wizardry behind him.
Manning had more heralded weapons around him, from Marvin Harrison to Edgerrin James to Reggie Wayne. But Brady had a more stout defense with Pro Bowl mainstays. But no matter their gridiron sidekicks, there’s no doubt Brady has been more efficient, proficient, and, frankly, clutch, than his iconic colleague.
It’s eerily symmetrical. While Marino took a giant eraser to the record books, Montana was racking up rings. While Peyton was penning his own (“Omaha!”) audible-drenched, Matrix-style dissection of defenses, Brady became a hybrid heartthrob/perennial champion who seems to have his mail forwarded to the Super Bowl. He’s already in his 8th conference championship game, most in history.
Their paths belie their looks. Manning was the Chosen One. Son of Archie, Peyton had pedigree and publicity behind him, his path to Canton seemingly preordained. Brady was benched at Michigan, ran an eternal 40-yard-dash that would make Wade Boggs blush.
And he was plucked in the 6th round of the draft, notoriously known as the Brady 6. 198 players were picked before Brady, including 5 quarterbacks, most of whom we can’t recall, and a pick by the 49ers who’s now a goat farmer in California. (That would be the immortal Giovanni Carmazzi.)
Brady, born and raised in San Mateo, dreamed of replacing Montana and Young in San Francisco, but ended up an icon as far from the Bay Area as possible: Boston. Now he finds himself passing his boyhood hero (Montana) in almost every salient statistic, including most playoff wins and touchdowns. Should he win two more games, he will join Joe with four Super Bowl rings.
Ten years ago, we said Manning just needed a Lombardi Trophy to hush all whispers about his place in the pantheon. He just needed to nudge by Brady in a playoff game on his way to a ring for his name to ring endlessly among the cognoscenti. Well, Manning did both and we still question his Hall of Fame fortitude.
It’s as if Manning didn’t beat Brady in an AFC title game, storming back from a monstrous first-half hole to overtake New England for the first time when it really mattered. Then he beat the Bears to bag the Big One.
Yet we’ve forgotten about that. We dismiss Peyton Manning’s rare playoff prowess as exceptions to his general playoff implosions. We thought that would close the door on his doubters, but after losing to the Ravens last year as the overwhelming favorite, Manning’s place on the Mt. Rushmore of signal-callers still isn’t assured.
Frankly, Manning doesn’t need to prove anything. Every TD he throws is superfluous and gratuitous. He, like Brady, merely plays for the competition, for the adrenaline jolt that comes with winning as a veritable geriatric.
Yet at his advanced age, Manning just finished the best season a QB ever had, including 55 touchdowns and over 5,400 yards. He turned the turf into his personal video game. If it appeared at times that he was playing with the opponent, it’s because he was. To paraphrase Mr. Spock, Manning is as far above us on the evolutionary scale as we are above the ameba.
No matter who has the edge Sunday, it seems the nation is rooting for Manning, because it’s been harder for him to win, because he’s not so pretty, because he’s considered one of us, because you get the sense that his aw-shucks, southern refrain is real. You even imagine a pair of overalls under his shoulder pads, which he thumbs on the sideline while reading those black-and-white snapshots just taken of the opposing defense. We feel like it came instantly and easily to Brady, whereas Manning had to grind for every yard.
Lost, of course, under the sparkling facade of Tom Brady’s five-diamond lifestyle is an ardent blue-collar ethic and unmatched hunger for victory. Despite his overnight stardom and centerfold status, he still plays each game as though his job depends on it.
Somehow, with all the glittering fortune around him, he’s infinitely more humble than haughty. He still cries when reflecting on draft day, walking around his modest San Mateo home, while each NFL team passed on him five times, his father assuring him that he’s worth more than the television screen tells him.
No matter what happens this weekend, we won’t ever see two players of this skill, will, and age wage war against each other this many times. The NFL is indeed a quarterback dependent league. And the NFL has depended on them more than they care to admit.
While the league’s mission statement of parity often borders parody, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have not only carried the sport for over a decade, they are impossibly better now than they were in their physical primes. Which leaves one more primetime matchup this Sunday.
Personally and professionally, Brady and Manning are quite different, yet are equally brilliant. If this indeed is their last fight for the right to a final Lombardi, sit and savor two savants, two immortals, who can only be framed by the most famed writer we will ever know.
He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.
Consider the characterization plural.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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