Rankings, no matter the form or criteria, are always subjective. Even those rankings that only rely on statistical analysis will place greater emphasis on certain statistics or narrow down criteria based on certain statistics to create a result.
In the NFL, and most sports, rankings are common place amongst fans and media outlets alike. NFL Network released the final installment of their Top 100 players of 2012 rankings this week, with Aaron Rodgers predictably stealing the top spot.
As the reigning MVP, there was very little contention over Rodgers' positioning.
There was one polarizing pick in the top five, however, involving another quarterback. That quarterback wasn't Drew Brees, although it could be argued that the record-breaker can claim he is the best in the league if the criteria were solely based on last year. Brees came in second, ahead of Calvin Johnson at third and Darelle Revis at fifth.
Instead, the ranking that sparked multiple debates was the placement of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who ranked as the fourth overall player in the league despite being the unanimous MVP only 12 months before.
Indeed, a year before, Brady was ranked first overall on the 2011 version of NFL Network's list, but he fell three spots despite a season with 39 touchdowns to only 12 interceptions, 5,235 yards and a 105.6 quarterback rating.
Brady actually threw more touchdowns than he had the previous season and also threw the ball a lot more without dropping his completion percentage.
When Brady was ranked fourth overall, the majority of the outcry that followed claimed he was underrated, but there was also another minority claiming that he was overrated. One group who agreed with that minority was the well respected review website Pro Football Focus.
Pro Football Focus ranked Brady much lower than fourth. In fact, Pro Football Focus didn't even recognize Brady as a top 10 player for the season. Pro Football Focus has a more scientific approach than the NFL Network, as their rankings were completely based on tape review, whereas NFL Network asked a group of players to each rank their own personal preferences before compiling the list.
The debate which has been most palpable, from my own experiences, on Twitter, in articles and with people in general, is over Eli Manning's ranking.
Nobody is going to argue that Brees, a record breaker, and Rodgers, the MVP, shouldn't be ranked ahead of Brady, but plenty of people are questioning why Eli Manning was ranked eighth overall by Pro Football Focus. He landed five spots ahead of Brady.
Prior to last season, Manning (in)famously stated that he was on Tom Brady's level prior to the season. He then proved himself on the field by leading his New York Giants to victory in Super Bowl XLVI over Brady's Patriots.
Even though Manning won the Super Bowl, and the MVP of the game itself, for the second time, there was still no clear recognition from the majority of football fans that he was on Brady's level.
If you just compared each players' statistical prowess, there was undoubtedly a clear gap between the two last year. Brady threw over 5,000 yards and had a passer rating over 100. Two things that Manning couldn't manage, while the Patriots' player also passed for more touchdowns and less interceptions.
What you don't see on the statistics sheet however is the adversity that both players faced. The Giants' offense had a horrid offseason initially with Steve Smith and Kevin Boss both moving on without proven players replacing them.
To a casual fan, Victor Cruz and Jake Ballard came in and not only replaced the departed, but excelled to a greater level than the others had ever reached.
It is true, Victor Cruz was a much more productive receiver than Smith, and Boss' loss wasn't really felt because Ballard proved to be a good player. However, both players had learning curves to go through and Cruz in particular struggled to fully grasp his role throughout the season.
Cruz was learning on the fly when Mario Manningham went down and he was forced into the starting lineup. Was he a very talented game-changing receiver? Yes. Was he still being educated by his coach and quarterback? Yes.
Manning and Cruz repeatedly missed each other as Cruz appeared to run the wrong routes before trotting back to his quarterback to find out what he did wrong. That was something that was noticeable late into the season with Cruz as Manning mentored him into a reliable receiver.
Because Mario Manningham and Ahmad Bradshaw missed a combined eight games, Manning was working with just one receiver, more often than not, who he had any kind of rapport with. Brandon Jacobs was still there to run the football during those games, but as a receiver, he offered nothing while Henry Hynoski, Bear Pascoe, Travis Beckum and Ballard couldn't exactly be considered weapons.
Comparing Manning's arsenal to Brady's is like comparing a naval air carrier to a handmade raft.
Brady's arsenal consisted of the best possession receiver in the league, who he had a great rhythm with in the form of Wes Welker, the best tight end in the league in Rob Gronkowski and arguably the most dynamic receiving tight end in the league in Aaron Hernandez. He also had Deion Branch, a receiver who Brady could completely trust and still had some play-making ability on the outside entering the latter part of his career.
Not to mention a barrage of threats coming from the backfield behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Rarely did the Patriots throw to their backs, but each one of Danny Woodhead, Green-Ellis and, later in the season, Stevan Ridley were trusted blockers and reliable runners.
That is something that Manning definitely didn't have without a fully healthy Bradshaw.
While Brady clearly has the advantage as far as weapons go, the gap becomes an ocean when you compare offensive lines.
The Patriots had their issues upfront with Sebastien Vollmer, Dan Koppen and Logan Mankins' various injury issues, but that pales in significance to the rag-tag bunch trying to keep Manning upright. Veteran center Shaun O'Hara wasn't brought back despite being a vital cog in the offensive line for so long. Neither was long-time starter Rich Seubert.
David Bass was signed from the San Francisco 49ers to replace O'Hara, but he had to fight through injury issues as well as performance deficiencies.
Will Beatty took over the starting left tackle job allowing David Diehl to move inside. Beatty was okay as Manning's blindside protector, but only lasted 10 seasons before being lost to injury and promptly placed on IR. The Giants didn't have a Nate Solder to come in and start straight away and David Diehl had to return to tackle even though he was a natural guard.
Diehl did well, but the offensive line as a whole took another hit having to shuffle bodies around.
Even the offensive linemen who remained in place all season were hindering more than helping Manning. Chris Snee was a shadow of his former impressive self last season while Kareem McKenzie wasn't re-signed this off-season to nobodies surprise.
The Patriots did have their own issues on the offensive line, as I have already noted. However, Dan Connolly proved to be a fine replacement for Dan Koppen. Nate Solder filled in admirably for Matt Light and Sebastien Vollmer when asked to. While Logan Mankins and Brian Waters both had their issues last year, both were clearly better than the Giants' guards.
In fact, based on last season alone, not one of the Giants' offensive linemen would have started for the Patriots. Nate Solder, the Patriots backup swing tackle, would have been the Giants' starting left tackle based on his performances.
When ranking players, we more often than not use statistics and performance. What we don't always do is examine the context of those statistics and performances. Eli Manning carried his team to a Super Bowl victory in one of the toughest divisions in football and easily the better conference.
He overcame adversity from the opposition, beating teams like the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers and Patriots in the playoffs, while also having to handle adversity created by his own teammates.
What really compounds the fact that Manning outperformed Brady last season, is that Pro Football Focus doesn't take into account anything outside of the actual performance that appears on the tape. Injuries, other personnel, reputation or any other kind of adversity doesn't matter. What you put on tape is all that counts.
Rankings are subjective, they always will be no matter what criteria you choose to exclude, include or prioritize but there is definitely a fair argument to make for Eli Manning being ranked above Tom Brady based on the 2012 NFL season.
Although, I'm sure Manning couldn't care less considering he has his Super Bowl ring to erase any question marks over his abilities.
Cian Fahey writes for the Guardian, Irishcentral, Steelersdepot and FFBLife. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf
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