Let it first be known what an honor and privilege it is to write about these two quarterbacks and to watch them play against each other for a 16th time this Sunday. Before they're finished -- which could be a blessed long time from now -- Peyton Manning and Tom Brady easily could vie for the Greatest Quarterback Ever label now widely conceded to Joe Montana.
Thank you, Peyton, and thank you, Tom, for allowing us to behold some of the best pure pocket passing in football history. Forgive us if we lose sight because this has become De Niro vs. Pacino, Spielberg vs. Scorsese, Beatles vs. Rolling Stones.
Now for strictly one fan's opinion: As immense as my respect is for Peyton Manning, and as close a call as this is, give me Tom Brady.
Give me Brady's one-of-the-guys leadership over Peyton's blue-blooded coach on the field. Give me Brady's sixth-round, aw-shucks authenticity over Peyton's product-pitching gift, comedic flair on "Saturday Night Live" and royal pedigree as son of former QB great Archie and older brother of Eli.
Give me Brady's clutch gene and postseason record. Give me Brady as the slightly more solid rock upon which to build Super Bowl teams.
Forgive me, Manning fans, I just can't envision a Brady-led team crumbling on the Super Bowl stage and losing 43-8, as Peyton's Broncos did in February to Seattle. It just seems that some tiny intangible is missing in Peyton that burns fiercely in Tom, perhaps some closer connection with teammates.
But please, this isn't to nitpick Peyton, just to compare his greatness. If possible, he continues to get better at age 38. Nobody, including Brady, has ever played this position at a higher level than Peyton is right now. His brain and release are so much quicker than defenders that he's playing a game he invented on a plane above the typical mud and blood of pro football.
But sometimes it's as if Peyton is playing solitaire. No doubt HE was the most important person in the Indianapolis Colts organization, beyond coaches and executives, as he is now in Denver.
ESPN analyst Jeff Saturday, a close friend of Peyton's who snapped him the ball for 13 seasons in Indy, describes a Peyton who was a player-coach or even coach-player: "He's the offensive coordinator and he's the pro's pro. He's going to lead by example, arrives early, stays late, holds everyone to his level of accountability. If he hears from the strength coach that somebody's not getting it done in the weight room, that player will hear about it from Peyton. ... I used to tell other offensive linemen, if you don't know the answer don't try to fake it in meetings with Peyton or he will embarrass you."
Yet there remains no question who runs the Patriots. The coach does, Bill Belichick. Several Patriots sources say that even in their 15th season together, Belichick maintains an arm's-length relationship with his quarterback.
"Away from football," a source says, "they're not that close."
Brady is more of "just a football player" than Peyton. During games, Brady will still go crazy competitive -- almost Michael Myers in "Halloween" psycho -- and run all the way to the end zone to helmet-bump Rob Gronkowski after Gronk has beasted in for a touchdown. Has any star QB ever shown this much emotion after a mid-game TD, let alone a cinch Hall of Famer at age 37?
"That's what his teammates love about him, what sets him apart," says Jay Feely, who has kicked for five NFL teams and who became a close friend of Brady's when they were University of Michigan teammates. Brady was in Feely's wedding and Feely visits Brady each summer in Boston for a week of golf.
Said Feely: "Even when Tom was a second- or third-stringer at Michigan, guys were drawn to him. He's just such a dynamic leader. He's just so real. He isn't guarded. There's no image to protect. He doesn't give much to the media [in interviews], but Belichick has done a good job with him [teaching him to say as little as possible publicly]."
What Feely loves most about Brady is that after winning three rings and putting a ring on the finger of the world's highest-paid supermodel, Gisele Bundchen, his friend Tom was still the same guy he worked with at the driving range in Ann Arbor one college summer. In fact, Feely gets irritated when he hears Brady detractors define and dismiss him as the pretty boy who married Gisele.
Brady can still hang out with his offensive linemen and commiserate with teammates who have issues with coaches because Brady isn't a player-coach. Brady was genuinely shocked and mad/sad when the Patriots didn't re-sign Wes Welker and traded Logan Mankins because Brady doesn't have Peyton's input into personnel decisions. Brady has his teammates' backs, in the locker room and the clutch.
That's why Brady has been more valuable than Belichick. The quarterback has made the coach more than vice versa. A Patriots source says Belichick feared he was about to get fired in 2001 (for a second time, after the Browns canned him) before Drew Bledsoe got hurt and that skinny kid who ran one of the geekiest 40s ever at the combine took over and ... history happened.
How lucky has Belichick been to have Brady? Not once in Brady's 15 seasons have the Patriots drafted a receiver in the first round. When the Pats acquired Randy Moss at age 30, for the 2007 season, and kept Moss relatively happy for a year, Brady produced what is widely regarded as the greatest passing season ever -- 50 touchdown passes to only eight interceptions. That year, the Patriots also lucked into adding Welker, who hadn't been anywhere near the slot machine Brady made him. His 67 catches for Miami in '06 went to a league-leading 112 with Brady in '07.
Peyton has thrown 204 more TD passes to former first-round picks than Brady has. Peyton has had 12 more 1,000-yard receivers than Brady and six more 1,000-yard rushers. Last season, and through September of this season, Brady's go-to target was Julian Edelman, a former college QB drafted in the seventh round. Brady keeps saving Belichick the GM.
Suffice it to say that Peyton has routinely had better weapons than Brady. Yet Brady is 10-5 versus Peyton. Here, Jeff Saturday defends his man: "Come on, Tom had better teams than Peyton. I can give you a Who's Who on their defenses. McGinest, Vrabel, Bruschi, Ty Law, Harrison, Ted Washington, Seymour ..."
OK, but none of Brady's defenses belong in the same debate with the Steel Curtain Steelers or the '85 Bears or Ray Lewis' 2000 Ravens.
And there's this: Though I considered Peyton the Greatest Regular-Season Quarterback Ever before the Colts eased him out the back door, Peyton remains under .500 in the playoffs -- 11-12. He's 1-2 in Super Bowls, the win coming in his first, against Rex Grossman's Bears. His interception returned for a touchdown with about three minutes left helped cost the Colts a Super Bowl against Drew Brees' Saints. Then Seattle happened.
Brady is 18-8 in the playoffs. He won his first three Super Bowls, and his two losses were basically one-play games against Eli's Giants. Eli's late prayer was answered by David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII, then (in the view of most Pats fans) Welker failed to catch a Brady pass that probably would have led to victory in Super Bowl XLVI.
Suffice it to say that Brady easily could be 5-0 in Super Bowls ... and that Peyton hasn't consistently been able to cash in the high playoff seeds he consistently has earned with great regular seasons. This can't-win-the-big-ones reputation followed Peyton from his four college years at Tennessee, when he failed to win all four big ones against Steve Spurrier's Florida.
Maybe Brady's teams have overachieved for him because he has been able to build a deeper reservoir of love and trust with teammates. Maybe Peyton creates more awe and (in some cases) fear among teammates. Maybe he is so much the driven perfectionist, operating on a scary level of QB genius, that he and his weapons can crumble under his excruciating playoff expectations.
Brady is more about heart and guts and channeling his explosive emotions into laser late-game focus.
In January 2006, after Peyton's top-seeded Colts lost their first playoff game at home to Pittsburgh 21-18 -- devastating -- Peyton criticized his offensive line. Brady will not do that. Two games ago, after Peyton broke Brett Favre's all-time TD pass record, Peyton's receivers let slip that the little game of keep-away they played with the record-breaking ball was not spontaneous. Peyton had suggested it during practice. No way Brady choreographs that.
Give me Brady.
But give me both, head-to-head, for many Sundays to come.
Says Saturday: "Peyton is not even close [to retirement]."
Neither, it appears, is the Brady written off as "washed up" just a month ago. In October, Brady threw 14 TD passes without an interception. Meanwhile in October, Peyton managed 14 TD passes with just two interceptions.
Thank you both.