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Seeking Peyton's place in history

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  February 5, 2010 10:21 AM

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – In the paradoxical world of professional sports, we want them all to be team players, yet we judge them individually. We often promote our own agendas while seeking to discredit, diminish, or denounce.

Which is why I’m rooting for Peyton Manning this weekend.

Here in New England, where the Patriots have won more games since the turn of the millennium than any team but the Indianapolis Colts, we hardly qualify as objective. The Pats/Colts rivalry is currently the best in football. We have Tom Brady and they have Manning, a matchup of stars that rivals every pairing from Mantle and Mays to Larry and Magic. Picking between Brady and Manning is fodder for one of the great sports debates of our era, and the truth is that there is no wrong answer.

And yet, largely because we are here and they are there, there are those who will tear down Manning based on the simple fact that he has played on only one Super Bowl winner to date while Brady has played on three.

Can we stop with this nonsense? Please? The admission that Manning and Brady are the consummate peers does not less anything Brady has accomplished (or will accomplish) during his career. The suggestion that Manning is every bit as good (or better) does not qualify as sacrilege, treason, or infidelity. And yet, there remain those who forever try to knock Manning down a peg based on the fact that he doesn’t have as many championships.

Know what drives those kinds of absurdities? Insecurity. My quarterback is better than your quarterback has become the grown man’s version of my brother can beat up your brother, making it an utterly petty, stupid and downright childish debate.

Brady’s greatness is too far cemented to change. The same is true for Manning. We will never know how each might have done in the other’s shoes, the same way we never will know how things might have been different were Ted Williams a member of the Yankees and Joe DiMaggio a member of the Red Sox.

As a New Englander, it’s time to be entirely honest and admit something to yourself: You would have been just as fortunate to have Manning as you are Brady. The guy is that darned good. The most popular argument against Manning in New England concerns Manning’s poor big-game performance during the early stages of his career, an obvious attack point given Brady’s early-career success in the postseason.

Of course, when you get down right down to it, that argument doesn’t really work. Did Manning have a shutdown corner like Ty Law in the way that Brady did? Did he have an even remotely comparable defense? Did he have the same kicker? On the one hand, we here in New England want to celebrate the 2001 Patriots for being introduced as a team before their historic Super Bowl victory over the Rams; on the other, we want to say Brady drove them down the field in a way that Manning never could have, as if the quarterback was entirely responsible.

Talk about hypocrisy. Ask Kevin Garnett about this kind of thinking. Or even LeBron James. Both are consummate team players, having drawn criticism for passing up the final shot in favor of the open shot at various points during his career. Garnett ultimately overcame that overly simplistic nonsense. Sooner or later, presumably, James will, too. (We hope.)

All of this brings us back to Manning, who is now eying his second Super Bowl title, an honor that would silence his critics for good. It’s one thing to win a title; it’s another thing entirely to win multiple ones. Ten quarterbacks in history have won multiple titles, and the list reads like a Who’s Who of NFL history: Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw (four); Troy Aikman and Brady (three); Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, John Elway, Jim Plunkett and Ben Roethlisberger (two).

As for Manning, he currently rests in a group with, among others, Jeff Hostetler, Trent Dilfer, Mark Rypien and Brad Johnson. Not a single one of those players ever should be mentioned in the same breath as Dan Marino, whose exclusion from the list of Super Bowl titlists had far more to do with the absence of a defense and/or running game during his career than anything else.

The reason Marino fell short all of those years was because the Dolphins did not have capable teams. The quarterback was the least of their problems.

In the case of Manning, ask yourself this: Had he won a Super Bowl early in his career rather than in the middle, would his reputation be different? Would we perceive him more like much of America now perceives Brett Favre (another Super Bowl winner) or more like we once perceived Alex Rodriguez (as a choker)? Manning has had to work far harder to change his reputation in big games than he did to build it in the first place, something that could change dramatically come the late hours on Sunday.

After all, people won’t be able to say, ``Yeah, but he won only one Super Bowl.’’

When you think about it, "He won only two’’ just doesn’t have the same force.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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