Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning: Who Is the Better Quarterback All-Time?

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Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning: Who Is the Better Quarterback All-Time?
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The Denver Broncos will visit the New England Patriots in Foxboro in a meeting between two AFC powerhouses jockeying for playoff position.

For some fans, that is not the top storyline. The storyline for Sunday night's matchup between the Broncos and the Patriots is the battle between the quarterbacks of each teamPeyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Since their first meeting versus one another on Sept. 30, 2001, Brady and Manning have met a combined 13 times since. Along the way, both quarterbacks have cemented their legacies as the best quarterbacks of their generation, and quite possibly the best quarterbacks of all time.

The accolades among the two are staggering—six NFL MVP awards, three Super Bowl MVP awards, four Lombardi Trophies, seven Super Bowl appearances and a number of single-season passing records.

The two have met on a seemingly yearly basis for the past decade-plus, with Brady holding a 9-4 career record versus Manning, including a 2-1 postseason record over Peyton.

Brady vs. Manning has become the greatest football debate of this generation. Both quarterbacks rank in the top five or six all time of every major statistical category out there. Both have the accolades and the longevity. Both are consistent proven winners.

But what is the answer to this debate? Who is the better quarterback between Brady and Manning? Is the better quarterback the two-time NFL MVP who has never suffered a losing season in his career since taking over the quarterback position for the Patriots in 2001, or is it the four-time NFL MVP who is widely regarded as the smartest quarterback to ever play the game?

Let's answer this question once and for all.

 

Career Arcs

Before we can truly answer this question, we need to look and compare the two as far as their careers are concerned. First off, let's look at both quarterbacks' career paths.

Manning entered the league in 1998 as the No. 1 overall pick of the Indianapolis Colts. Everyone knew that Peyton would be a great quarterback. The debate at the time was more so predicated on who would be a better quarterback between Peyton and the No. 2 overall pick, selected by the San Diego Chargers, quarterback Ryan Leaf.

We got our answer rather quickly to that question.

Peyton started from the beginning for the Colts, never missing a single start for the team from the first time he took a regular season snap in the NFL on September 6, 1998, until he took his very last snap for the Colts in their playoff loss to the New York Jets on January 8, 2011. Manning's 227 consecutive starts (including postseason) by a quarterback is the second-longest of all time.

The four-time NFL MVP sat out the entire 2011 season, recovering from a serious neck injury, before signing with the Broncos during the 2012 offseason.

Brady's career started off a lot different than Manning's did.

A sixth-round draft selection of the Patriots in the 2000 NFL Draft, Brady was a little-known quarterback out of the University of Michigan. He started his final two seasons at Michigan, defeating Alabama in the Orange Bowl in overtime during his final collegiate game. There were six quarterbacks who were chosen ahead of Brady in his draft class.

During his rookie season in 2000, Brady went from fourth-string quarterback at the start of the season, to the primary backup to starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe. Despite his ascendance up the Patriots' depth chart, the future three-time Lombardi Trophy winner wouldn't see any meaningful action until his second season when Bledsoe would suffer a serious concussion during a game versus the New York Jets in Week 2 of the 2001 season.

It was this unfortunate injury to Bledsoe—the former No. 1 overall pick of the Patriots in 1993—that served as the springboard to Brady's career—and the Patriots' rise to being an elite team.

Fast forward 12 years later, and the former sixth-round draft selection remains the starting quarterback and the face of the franchise in New England.

 

The Beginnings of the Debate

Manning has been in the NFL since 1998, and is currently playing in his 15th NFL season (having missed the entire 2011 season). 

Brady is in his 14th season, having played the 2000 season as a backup quarterback, while missing 15 games of the 2008 campaign due to his ACL and MCL injuries suffered in the season opener.

Both quarterbacks are eerily similar now in terms of accolades—both have Super Bowl victories, statistical records to their names and outside of Joe Montana, are two of the most successful quarterbacks in terms of winning percentage in NFL history—Brady is tops with a .773 mark, while Manning ranks third with a .697 clip.

But once upon a time, this was a debate that took on a different look.

Imagine a time—let's say 2005—when Brady wasn't a stat machine, and a guy who wasn't seen as capable of winning an MVP award.

At the other end of the equation, you have a guy like Peyton, who was coming off of his second straight MVP campaign in 2004, which saw him have the greatest regular season of all time by a quarterback, breaking the NFL record for touchdown passes with 49 touchdowns, while also setting the single-season quarterback rating mark (121.1).

However, despite not possessing the monster stats and accolades of Peyton, Brady was seen as the ultimate winner. In fact, before hitting the age of 28, the Patriots quarterback had won three Lombardi Trophies—an unprecedented feat. To top it off, he was named the MVP of two of those victories in the Super Bowl.

When the 2004-05 NFL season came to a close with the Patriots defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX, Brady had started his career with a 9-0 postseason mark—an NFL record.

Over in Indianapolis, there was no quarterback regarded as a better pure passer than Peyton. A two-time NFL MVP by age 28, there was one thing that Peyton lacked—the Lombardi Trophy hardware that Brady possessed.

The former No. 1 overall pick took the Colts to the playoffs in 1999, 2000 and 2002—only to be eliminated in their first playoff game each time. It wasn't until 2003, when Manning's Colts knocked out the Denver Broncos in the Wild Card round, that Manning was able to lay claim to a playoff victory.

The problem was, in each of Manning's MVP years, there was this indestructible duo that prevented the University of Tennessee alum to advance to the Super Bowl—none other than Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Brady.

In the 2003 AFC Championship Game, the Colts were soundly defeated by the Pats, 24-14. A year later—even with the rule change limiting defensive backs from making contact with wide receivers past five yards of the line of scrimmage—Indianapolis was again defeated by New England in the playoffs, this time in the divisional round, by a score of 20-3.

So here these two quarterbacks were in 2005—one was the former No. 1 overall pick who was the son of a former NFL quarterback, who had always been destined for greatness. He had lived up to his billing, becoming a multiple-time MVP award winner at the age of 28. The other was the late-round draft selection with zero hype coming out of college, who became America's ultimate winner, notching three Lombardi Trophy in the span of four years.

Yet, Manning lacked what Brady had, while Brady lacked what Manning had.

The debate was a matter of, "Do you prefer stats or rings?".

The debate of who the better quarterback was between the two rivals would take on a whole different meaning in the ensuing years.

 

The Evolution of the Debate

The 2005 season planted the seeds of the evolution of this debate. 

For Peyton, it was a typical season for him up until that point—a 14-2 record and a No. 1 seed in the AFC Playoffs. Another excellent statistical season which saw him lead the league in passer rating for the second consecutive season.

Unfortunately, it was also typical in that his team was eliminated in their first playoff game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers during the divisional round. Which meant that Peyton's Colts were one-and-done in the playoffs five out of the six years he had taken them to the postseason.

It certainly did not quiet down the chatter of Manning being a choke artist up until that point.

While it was a typical season for Peyton—statistically efficient, excellent regular season record, falling short in the postseason—it was a change for Manning's counterpart, the three-time champion, Brady.

Entering the 2005 season, the Patriots were a dynasty. They had won three Super Bowls in four seasons, and were looking to become the first team in NFL history to win three consecutive Lombardi Trophies.

However, it was a 'season of hell' of sorts.

Linebacker Tedy Bruschi suffered a stroke before the season started. Cornerback Ty Law was released before the beginning of the regular season, and New England was forced to start 42 different players during the season—an NFL record for a division champion.

The blueprint for New England's Super Bowl-winning teams was a strong defense, aided by Brady's ability to manage the game. 

The blueprint would completely change in 2005.

Gone was the strong defense that led the Patriots to three Super Bowl victories. In its place was a makeshift defensive unit which ranked 17th in the league in points per game allowed, and 26th in yards allowed—during its Super Bowl years, New England had never ranked any lower than sixth in points allowed.

Key running backs such as Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass went down to injury at various points of the year.

With the lack of stability on the defensive side, and a lack of stability in the running back corps, the Patriots were forced to rely on Brady like never before—and Brady performed.

The 2005 season saw the Patriots quarterback lead the league in passing yardage, while ranking third in touchdowns en route to an AFC East crown.

Number of Times Leading the League
Category Passing Yards Touchdowns Passer Rating Completion Percentage
Peyton Manning 2 3 3 2
Tom Brady 2 3 2 1

www.pro-football-reference.com

In his first season of 'carrying the team,' much as Manning was seen as 'carrying' the Colts, due to their inability to play defense during Manning's MVP years, Brady posted the stats to go along with the winning pedigree that he had made a trademark of his career up until that point.

After 2005, Brady had proven he wasn't just a 'winner,' but a guy you could build your team around. Manning would do the same the following year in 2006.

Peyton would once again lead the league in passer rating and touchdowns in 2006. Not only that, but he would finally get 'the monkey off of his back.' In winning his first Lombardi Trophy and Super Bowl MVP award, the prolific passer would lead the Colts back from a 21-3 deficit versus the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, to a 38-34 come-from-behind victory.

The Colts would then defeat the Chicago Bears, 29-17, in the Super Bowl.

The 2007 season would mark the final major evolution of this debate—Brady would cement himself as a "stat machine" capable of winning MVP awards akin to what Manning did years prior, while falling short of the ultimate goal—winning the Lombardi Trophy.

In 2007, Brady and the Patriots' offense became the most dominant offense in NFL history. Surrounded by an excellent supporting cast at the receiver position for the first time in his career, Brady broke the record for touchdown passes set by Manning three years prior with 50 touchdowns. Receiver Randy Moss broke the receiving touchdowns record with 23, while the offense established an NFL-record 589 points scored during that season.

New England would finish the season 16-0, win their first two playoff games, before losing in one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history, falling 17-14 to the New York Giants.

Through the years, Manning and Brady evolved from quarterbacks with 'given labels', to the complete quarterbacks that they are today. 

Neither quarterback has won a championship since the 2006 season, but both are still regarded as the top quarterbacks in the game today.

But which one is truly better?

 

Expert Opinions

When it comes down to the Manning vs. Brady debate, most experts don't want to come to a definitive pick when it comes to two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

As ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer points out in ESPN.com columnist Greg Garber's own look at Brady and Manning's legacies, you can't go wrong with either quarterback:

It's like in politics. You'll never see a liberal convince a conservative his way is the right way. No one in the Peyton camp will ever be convinced that Brady's better.

Both of these guys will go to the Hall of Fame -- and their graves -- with a smile on their face. Why argue? let's put them on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks. In the final analysis, it's not final.

But that's the problem—whereas fans have no problem picking a side, experts are afraid to toe the line by picking one of the two, as if a certain amount of backlash would ensue.

In that same article, while on the topic of the value of Super Bowl rings, Bill Polian, who was team president of the Colts from 1997-2011, seems to add more questions rather than answers to the debate:

That is to me an artificial argument. First of all, Peyton Manning has been to two Super Bowls, Tom Brady to five. The three Tom won were largely because of a phenomenal defense. The two he lost was because the defense wasn't as good.

The one Peyton won was because of how well the defense played through the playoffs, when we finally got things straightened out. The Super Bowl we lost, the defense played as poorly as it did all year.

 

Let's answer this question once and for all.

 

Who the Better Quarterback Really Is

When it pertains to accolades, the debate is a wash. Both quarterbacks have accolades, with one having more MVP awards, while the other has more Lombardi Trophies to his name.

Major Achievements
Tom Brady Peyton Manning
3-time Super Bowl Winner 1-time Super Bowl Winner
5 Super Bowl appearances 2 Super Bowl appearances
2 Super Bowl MVPs 1 Super Bowl MVP
Single-Season Touchdown Record (50 touchdowns) 227 Consecutive Starts (Second-best at the quarterback position all-time)
2 MVPs 4 MVPs

www.pro-football-reference.com

When it comes to actual skill level, the debate is also just about a wash. Both quarterbacks are amazingly accurate, with strong arms and the ability to prolong plays with excellent pocket presence, despite both being immobile quarterbacks.

And finally, what separates these two quarterbacks from the rest of the litter in the NFLpre-snap reads—is a category that they both excel at almost equally.

So how does one decipher who is the better between two quarterbacks who are just about equal in every category?

Who is truly the better quarterback?

It's Peyton Manning.

For all of his perceived postseason failures and his shortcomings in the Super Bowl titles department, there is no quarterback who has ever had control of the game the way Manning does.

Pre-snap reads, audibles, the ability to make the players around him better, and most importantly—the value to his team.

As much as Patriots fans want to undermine the argument as much as possible, you can't ignore it—Matt Cassel leading the Patriots to an 11-5 record in 2008, the year Brady missed the entire season.

Manning missed the entire season in 2011, only for the Colts to end up with a league-worst 2-14 record, while grabbing the No. 1 overall pick in the following year's draft.

The seventh-round draft selection Cassel—who unlike Brady, never had any collegiate highlights because he never started a single game in college—started the first 15 games of his career in 2008, en route to leading the Patriots to a winning record, and a tiebreaker away from winning the AFC East.

Simple equation—Brady is injured the Patriots go from an undefeated wrecking machine, to a postseason-caliber team with an 11-5 record.

Manning is injured, the Colts go from a 10-6 Wild Card playoff team to being the worst team in the NFL.

As much has been made of Brady's ability to elevate the play of his receivers—he does—many undermine the ability of Manning to elevate the play of his receivers, too.

One can just look at the development of receivers such as Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas under Manning's tutelage.

This isn't to say that Brady is a system quarterback—he's not. If you put Brady on just about every team in the NFL, that team will be a playoff contender.

But we're talking about value here. And in a debate between two quarterbacks who are so evenly matched in every category, value has to be considered of the utmost importance.

The value of Manning to a team is far larger than the value of Brady to a team. That isn't opinion. That is proven fact.

A former teammate of Brady's, Rodney Harrison, believes that the Patriots would have still won three Super Bowls with Manning at the helm. Via Mike Klis of The Denver Post:

I think Peyton has been so unfairly judged because he really didn't have that defense over the years like Tom," Harrison said. Tom had a lot of veteran players, a lot of really good defenses, where if he didn't play particularly well, he knew that he had a defense with a lot of veteran players that could save him. Whereas, Peyton didn't really have that advantage. If Peyton was on our team, I think we could have easily won three Super Bowls, no doubt about it.

No quarterback in the history of the game adds as much value to his team as Manning does. That's not a knock on a Brady—it's a testament to how truly great Manning is as a quarterback.

The better quarterback in the debate of "Brady vs. Manning" is none other than Peyton.

 

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