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Bob Ryan

Peyton’s place: At the top

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / January 31, 2010

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What’s this I hear? Some people are saying that Peyton Manning can’t make a claim to being the greatest quarterback in NFL history if he doesn’t get himself more than one championship ring?

Forgive them, Lord. They know not what they do.

If accumulation of rings were the final measure, then Terry Bradshaw (four) would automatically vault ahead of everyone who has ever played the game except Bart Starr, a guy who won five championships without ever throwing more than 16 touchdown passes or reaching 2,500 yards in a season. (There’s Otto Graham, too, but we’ll get to that.)

On second thought, Lord, I’m not sure I want to forgive them.

I’m not dissing Bart Starr. He was great. He’s a drop-dead Hall of Famer. He was a vital contributor to a team that was the best in its time.

Note those final three words.

To paraphrase Jack Nicklaus on the subject of the randy fellow who has been pursuing him for career majors, I’m having Bart Starr say of the current Indianapolis quarterback, “That young man plays a game with which I am not quite familiar.’’

With all due respect to St. Vince and his five-time NFL/Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, these Colts, as currently constituted, would have beaten you, as you were constituted from 1959-67, by four touchdowns. And perhaps you guys had better cover your ears when I opine that the St. Louis Rams would likewise impose their will on you, probably by two TDs.

Hey, the Lombardi Packers would have pounded the Decatur Staleys into the turf. Starting to get the picture?

The game Manning plays is, at best, distantly related to the game Starr played. The contemporary NFL game is played by bigger, stronger, faster athletes than the ones playing the game in the ’50s and ’60s, and they are coached in a manner that suggests the difference between grade-school arithmetic and MIT-level calculus.

Oh, sure St. Vince did say that football was a game of blocking and tackling, and the team that better executed those fundamentals would more than likely emerge victorious. Well, it still is. But these guys aren’t so easy to bring down, and that’s before we even discuss the sophistication of today’s passing attacks and the complex defenses. Half the battle nowadays is figuring out which opposing player you’re supposed to cover on the one hand, or whom you’re supposed to block on the other. Vince Lombardi never had to defend an empty backfield or a five-receiver set. And a zone blitz? Hah.

Starr was a man of his times, just as Sammy Baugh was a man of his, Norm Van Brocklin a man of his, Johnny Unitas a man of his, Terry Bradshaw a man of his, Dan Marino and Joe Montana men of theirs, and John Elway a man of his. But may I suggest that Manning and (a healthy) Tom Brady are the highest evolutionary form of the species, with, the way it’s starting to look, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and even Matt Schaub right behind?

Then there’s that Favre guy, coming off a season in which he had 33 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions at age 39 going on 40. If this is the end (if, if, if, if, if), his résumé will include six 4,000-yard seasons and 18 (of 18) 3,000-yard seasons. The league he played in this year is far more advanced than the one he first encountered 18 years ago, but he seems to have adapted pretty well, save for the unconquerable desire to make a play where there is none to be made, something he seems to save for the most damaging moments.

It’s risky to compare eras in any sport, and it’s undeniably true that an athlete is an athlete and all some of the old-timers would have needed to compete with today’s studs is access to the same training methods. I believe, for example, I could give you a 12-man team of NBA players whose prime years were in the ’60s and early ’70s, and who, simply by showing up as they were, could easily compete with the best this David Stern league could offer. But no one could make any remotely serious comparable claim for professional football.

We could start with the fact that when Bradshaw was in his mid ’70s prime, there was one player listed at 300 pounds in the NFL, and there was no such thing as a Ray Lewis. In due time there would be a Lawrence Taylor, and an argument can be made that with him modern defense took shape.

But the coaching minds have evolved just as much as the athletes’ bodies. Marino (1983-99), with his 5,084-yard season in 1984 and his five other 4,000-yard years and his plus-168 TD/INT spread (as opposed to Joe Namath’s minus-47) never faced defenses as intricate and mystifying (or physical) as the ones Manning is confronted with just about every Sunday. Some of the big QB names of yesteryear had enough problems with the athletes of their day, so it’s almost unfair to think of them showing up, unprepared, to face what Manning sees in every game. Some might have coped with it, but most would have been embarrassed.

I used to say I’d take Elway over any QB, in part because he could help himself with his legs as well as his arm and brain, but now give me Manning and never mind that he runs like a catcher on the day game following a night game. It doesn’t matter. There is no defense he can’t solve, no pass he can’t make, and no receiver he can’t turn into Jerry Rice. We are watching an artist at the peak of his creative and athletic powers.

If it were just about being the quarterback of the team that wins it all, the greatest ever is Otto Graham. From 1946-55, he played in a championship game in either the All-American Football Conference or the NFL in all 10 seasons, winning seven and losing three. But that was a Pleistocene Era of football in which the most passing yards Otto Graham ever compiled were 2,816 in 1952.

Look, winning is important, and I agree that Manning should have won more than just one championship. But the issue here isn’t what he hasn’t done in the past but what he is doing now. There have been a lot of great quarterbacks, but no one has ever played the position better than Peyton Manning is playing it in the first month of the 11th year of the 21st century.

You could argue with that, but you would be wrong.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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