Joe Montana vs. Steve Young: A PSA for Peyton Manning Homers

Bleacher ReportSenior Writer IMarch 28, 2009

If you've been with Bleacher Report for a month, you're well aware of how damn tiresome the debate over Tom Brady and Peyton Manning has become.

Fools around the country are watching the sands slipping through the hourglass with increasing anxiety, our clocks have already leapt ahead, and you STILL see a flippin' article dissecting the two NFL stars on a weekly basis.

It's been almost two full months since the season ended and Tom Brady played one quarter! Yet they come out like clockwork—you'll probably see another after this is published.

The great majority come from Manning homers because, well, they're the only ones laboring under the misconception the question is close and worthy of incessant badgering.

Clearly, I'm not in Peyton's camp, so this won't directly be about the current incarnation of a very old argument. If I allow myself to point out how easily Tom Brady outranks Peyton Manning one more time, even I'm gonna start hating Tom Terrific.

Either that or I'll have to file a restraining order on his behalf myself.

Nope, I'm gonna try to put a stake in the issue once and for all by analogizing to the version of the "debate" that finally sledgehammered enlightenment through my thick skull. After I handle this hot potato, I'll be taking down the Middle East hostilities.

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Stay tuned.

The reason Brady vs. Manning was a dead horse from blow one is because it's just an old question with new clothes. And the question's been answered. In fact, there's probably a very good chance all of the above applied with equivalent accuracy to my idea of the original argument—Joe Montana vs. Steve Young.

I don't have a good sense of football history, but, even in the last decade of the 20th century, novelty was dead.

I'm sure there were two quarterbacks from National Football League antiquity who played the roles of The Winner and The Stat Guy to some acclaim prior to Joe's and Steve's virtuoso performances.

Although I caught some of Joe Cool's best performances up close and personal, I was there for the entirety of the Stormin' Mormon's stampede through the NFL...from his hostile takeover in SF right until Aeneas Williams' brutality ended his career.

When I was a teenager, Steve had already assumed the mantle of San Francisco 49er starting QB from Joe. In the wake of this momentous, yet figurative upheaval in the Bay Area (a necessary qualifier since we get so many of the literal variety), Montana and Young supporters threatened to divide a once-united republic of Niner faithful.

I was and still am a fervent Steve Young guy. The only difference is, back then, I would go to the mattresses with anyone who argued against him as the superior signal-caller of the two.

He is and will always be my favorite QB of all-time. But these days, I realize he will be inferior to Joe Cool with equal permanency.

And that's because Steve Young was not cool. If he wasn't incredibly blessed with natural athletic ability, he never would've been mistaken as such.

The dude is a nerd and a weirdo, and neither of those things can be explained purely by his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (although that certainly contributes). More pertinent, however, is that his poise couldn't match Montana's when the bright lights powered up.

Young was by no means a choker, but his postseason record was 8-6 in games where he attempted more than 15 passes. He has a Super Bowl ring, a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award, and some of his single-game performances in football's second season defy comprehension (sound familiar?).

Unfortunately for my man Steve, Montana's mark using the same condition is 16-7 with the loss on Jan. 9, 1988, to the Minnesota Vikings counting against both men. 

Putting further distance between the two all-time greats are Joe's four Super Bowl rings and his incredible ability to find a new level of brilliance apart from his regular season exploits under the heat of the football-watching world's stare (again, sound familiar?).

With the two side by side, Steve's body of work gets fugly. All the more so when you look closely at his legacy.

It will always include his amazing day behind center in Super Bowl XXIX among its loudest moments.  But just as memorable are the Niners' notorious struggles with the Dallas Cowboys' Triplets and Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers under Young's stewardship.

Is that fair? Absolutely not.

Those 'Pokes stand tall in a group of the NFL's best teams of all-time. They featured Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, Alvin Harper, Jay Novacek, Daryl Johnston, Nate Newton, Larry Allen, Charles Haley, Erik Williams, Mark Tuinei, Mark Stepnoski, and Ken Norton Jr. That's off the top of my head.

The Packers weren't quite as loaded, but they had a better QB and a more balanced team with Reggie White anchoring the other side of the ball.

On the other hand, Montana obviously faced some rugged competition and he had less talent around him than Young. Much is made of Jerry Rice only being around for two of Montana's four championships, but other pieces were inferior to Young's as well.

Still, Joe didn't have to face ferocity like the Cowboys of the '90s or the Packers of the same decade with equal regularity (although the Chicago Bears were pretty good based on defense alone).

In truth, none of that really matters because football is the consummate team game, and the quarterback is always considered the leader of his team. He is expected to deliver wins—by hook or by crook and against whatever caliber of competition—because W's are the only thing that has ever mattered to true football Illuminati.

When his team wins, a QB gets the lion's share of glory. When it loses, he gets the same portion of blame. Such is the nature of being a leader in any capacity—you take responsibility for a unit's ultimate success or failure.

Without qualification. Any effort to do so compromises your ability to lead and your right to do so.

Furthermore, the NFL is not like Major League Baseball where individual success evolves almost independently of the team's due to the game's discrete nature.

Baseball is said to be a team game assembled from distinctly individual confrontations and anyone who has watched or played knows this is an appropriate description.

Nonetheless, the most valuable players on an annual basis usually come from contenders—thus paying lip service to the idea that the most important contributions are still those to winners. Even in baseball.

The premium placed on contribution to ultimate team success is infinitely higher in the NFL.

In pro football—any way you slice it, using any statistical analysis—a win will always be a win and a loss will always be a loss. Nothing else matters except whether it was a playoff or regular season W.

The postseason is where the best of the best are born, then proven via baptism by fire.  And Steve Young's teams lost many of the most critical baptisms—that is the reality.

You can try to parse out blame and lay it at the feet of the defense or fumbles by other players or whatever. You can point out how individually sublime Young was, even in defeat. There is some truth to it and I would love to back the theory—it just doesn't work.

Believe me, I spent a good portion of my more idealistic days trying to force the issue.  No joy.

Take the time-tested and specious argument about the defense.

There will be exceptions to the rule as there are with all rules, but you usually can't point to a defense and say it's better because of those numbers applied from this angle.  Again, football doesn't work that way.

How can you definitively show that Montana's defense was better than Young's without reference to the quarterback?

How can you prove, beyond the doubt created by three extra championships, that Montana wasn't one of the primary reasons his defenses performed better?  After all, if I'm getting nice long rests on the sideline while my quarterback chews up time and yardage, I'm going to be a better player when I get back on the field.

I'm not saying this is necessarily the case with Montana and Young (or Brady and Manning by analogy through The Winner vs. The Stat Guy). What I am saying is the complex interplay between all sides of a football team are far too hard to separate and accurately analyze with any of the current metrics.

Maybe ever.

There are literally thousands of variations similar to the intangible link between QBs and the defense.

Homers will always try to exploit them and that is their right afforded by the same complexities.  They will invent hypotheticals and shiny statistical approaches tailored to deliver a favorable verdict for their guy—that's precisely what I did for Steve Young.

But football is no more a game of what-ifs than it is one where true value is reflected by individual achievement.  In this regard, football is no different than any other sport.  Or area of life for that matter.

It doesn't matter what might've or could've happened, because what might've or could've happened DID NOT happen.

Ryan Leaf might've been the best NFL QB of all-time if Scenario A shook out rather than what did.  Bo Jackson might've been the best running back the planet's ever seen if he didn't get injured.  Archie Manning might've been the best Manning if he'd taken snaps for a better team.

Steve Young might've beaten the Triplets given Montana's defense or offensive line or Bill Walsh or whatever.

Shoot, anything might've or could've happened.  But it didn't.

The hypos are interesting and, by all means, keep 'em coming. Be aware, though, their probative value is exactly squat because we don't know that Young plus Walsh would've been enough.

Even if I think it's a safe bet, how can you put high probability next to certainty and choose the safe bet? Montana DID win four Super Bowls, but, because there's a good chance Young would've won just as many given Joe's [blank], he gets the benefit of the doubt?

How insane does that look in print? Good lord.

And that's essentially what Joe Montana versus Steve Young boils down to.  Same for Tom Brady against Peyton Manning.

"What if" against "what did."

What did happen is that Joe Montana and Tom Brady won when it mattered most—far more frequently than they lost. They have demonstrated a consistent ability to use the glare of the spotlight as fuel rather than to shrink from its suffocating presence.

And Tom Brady's obviously not yet done.

Steve Young never put together enough big wins to change the gap in perception between Joe Cool and him, as much as it pains me to admit.

If Peyton Manning ends his career suffering the same imperfection, his homers will eventually enjoy the same revelation—that Tom Brady always was and will always be the better quarterback; Peyton was just their favorite.

And, on that day, there'll be ice-skating on the river Styx.

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