You can set your clock by the annual debate of Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady. Somehow, despite the two quarterbacks not playing in the same division since 2001 and the schedule being locked in stone for 14 of each team’s 16 matchups years in advance, there has been a scheduled1 regular-season matchup between Brady and Manning for the last 11 seasons. In all, Sunday night’s tilt between the Broncos and Patriots will mark the 14th matchup between the two most iconic quarterbacks of this era. Here, I am contractually obliged to note that Brady is 9-4 across the first 13 Brady-Manning Bowls.
I use the qualifier “scheduled,” of course, because Brady’s torn ACL kept him out of the Colts-Patriots game in 2008, while Manning’s neck surgery prevented him from suiting up in the 2011 edition of the same game.
In thinking about Manning-Brady XIV, I started rereading some of those old debates and got thinking about the arguments that justified picking one over the other. After all, Brady-Manning wasn’t really about the players; it was a referendum on how you valued numbers versus winning and how much the rest of the team mattered in subjectively deciding what a quarterback’s production was worth. Trust me: It seems boring now, but this is what we did for fun before Twitter.
After reading those old arguments against Manning, I’m getting struck by the same thing. No, it’s not my urge to yell that Eli’s better than them both. I can’t help but notice that all the old knocks on the elder quarterback now apply to his counterpart. Somehow, some way, the Tom Brady we’ve seen over the past few years has turned into the old Peyton Manning. All the jabs that Patriots fans threw at Manning during the Bush administration? They fit the cut of Brady’s jib these days.
No, really. Let’s go through them.
Manning Brady Can’t Win in the Playoffs
You remember this one, of course. Manning was the guy who came up short when it really mattered, which meant everything from “in the regular season against the Patriots” to “in the playoffs” to “in big games in the playoffs” until he won a Super Bowl. And then he got a couple years’ respite before he made it back to the Super Bowl and was considered to be a choker again. This was the primary thrust of the pro-Brady crowd, that there was something inside Brady that made him come up with key drives to win big games, a final gear that Manning just didn’t have.
And since that fateful game in January 2007 when Manning led the Colts back from a 21-3 deficit2 to win a 38-34 classic over Brady’s Patriots, Brady’s career has been full of disappointing performances in big games. The two Super Bowl losses to the Giants. The two home playoff losses to the Ravens, including the first-quarter meltdown during the 2009 postseason. A home playoff loss to Mark freaking Sanchez. Brady’s playoff victories since that game are over David Garrard, Tim Tebow, Matt Schaub, Philip Rivers playing on a torn ACL, and Joe Flacco in a game when the Patriots needed a shanked 32-yard field goal (after a drop in the end zone) to avoid overtime.
Of course, that 21-3 deficit included a Manning pick-six, but shhh.
The Manning critics from 2006 would have had that playoff résumé memorized and in all-caps on a hot key. I wrote about this last season (and Jason Lisk did it two years before I did), but Brady’s playoff career looks pretty brutal when viewed in reverse. Whatever Brady had that seemed to separate him from Manning in terms of their big-game performance seems to have dissipated.
Brady Plays in a Pass-Happy Scheme With Great Receivers
Since Brady’s numbers from the first half of his career couldn’t remotely compare with the awe-inspiring, record-breaking numbers that Manning was producing in Indianapolis, the solution was simply that Manning played in a system that artificially boosted his numbers. Manning’s pass-first attack was the sort of gimmicky stuff that wouldn’t work if you got aggressive on defense and ran a balanced offense, as Brady did under Bill Belichick. And while Brady was off toiling with the likes of David Givens and Troy Brown, Manning coolly waited for Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne to get open before hitting them for big gains.
Now, the offense that Brady runs in New England bears a heavy personnel resemblance to the one Manning ran in Indianapolis, to the point where the Patriots even brought in ex-Manning compatriots Joseph Addai, Austin Collie, and Anthony Gonzalez for tryouts with varying (limited) degrees of success. The Patriots enjoyed success using a versatile tight end like Aaron Hernandez, just as the Colts did with Dallas Clark for so many years. They’re aggressive with the no-huddle and speeding up a game’s tempo, just as the Colts were with Manning. And their run/pass splits are basically an attack on America; over the past three years, the Patriots have thrown the ball on 57.9 percent of snaps, which is almost identical to Indianapolis’s pass ratio (58.2 percent) under Manning from 1999 to 2010.
The ironic thing about this argument in hindsight, of course, is that the Brady backers were right about what their guy could do with more talent. Brady’s numbers spiked after the team added Randy Moss and Wes Welker before the 2007 season, and stayed high as the team transitioned to an attack with Welker, Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski. This is really Brady’s first year since 2006 when there were serious question marks about his receiving corps heading into the season, and perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also his worst season since that ’06 campaign.
Brady Gets Upset When Things Don’t Go His Way
I mean, I work for Bill Simmons. The Peyton Manning Face — to the best of my knowledge — first became a thing in what appears to be the very first “Yup … These Are My Readers” mailbag, which is basically a portal into a quaint, bygone time. There is now a whole website dedicated to Manning faces at, as you probably guessed, manningface.com, including this beauty:
The flip side of that argument was that Brady, the battle-tested warrior, stayed cool and collected in times of peril. During those rare times when things didn’t go his way, Brady kept his cool and just waited to get his inevitable revenge by winning the next four Super Bowls.
That’s obviously not the case anymore. Brady doesn’t make goofy faces when things don’t go his way; he throws temper tantrums instead. We caught one on Monday night, when he marched off the field cursing and screaming at officials after they didn’t call a penalty on the final snap of New England’s loss to Carolina:
And earlier in the year, Brady basically spent an entire game against the Jets throwing and then neatly arranging each of his receivers underneath the bus. Depending on how you spin all that, it’s either an angry quarterback motivating his receivers by calling them out in public or a frustrated leader throwing a temper tantrum for the world to see.
I could go on — have you noticed how many commercials Brady has appeared in over the past few years? — but it’s besides the point. If you get that awkward #HotSportsTakes feeling from reading these comparisons, well, you’re not far off. I don’t think Brady is all that much like the old Manning, personally, but I do think you could very comfortably slander and shape the modern Brady to fit whatever inferiority narrative you desire, just as people did with Manning during the first part of his career.
And that’s the inherently dumb thing about any Brady-Manning argument that comes down the pike; because we’ve seen each player for so long and had their contexts change so dramatically, we know that a lot of the innate skills each player was supposed to possess or lack were really just the product of context. Brady doesn’t have any innate aura in the playoffs. Manning doesn’t need to play his home games in a dome to succeed. Brady is capable of posting transcendent stats with the right players. Manning is breakable after all. Wait long enough and the attributes change, even if the skills really don’t.
That’s the reality in trying to compare these two guys, especially knowing what we know about them after all these years: You’re splitting hairs based upon entirely tiny distinctions or mistaking events that happened to them for indications of their talent. Their deep balls have each seen better days. Manning is more accurate than Brady these days, both in terms of his statistics and watching his placement of the football during games, but Brady turns the ball over less frequently. Brady is a better sneak quarterback, but fumbles on those plays this year haven’t helped. They both create extra possessions with their clock management, draw opposing teams offside for free plays, and look off safeties before firing darts to narrowly open receivers across the field. They’ve both won and lost Super Bowls and MVP awards. Picking one over the other based on their respective accomplishments is an exercise in small samples; identifying a winner based on their respective talents is nitpicking at its finest.
In other words, in the debate between the first two transcendent quarterbacks of the 21st century, the correct answer isn’t Brady or Manning. It’s yes.