No matter how hard he tries, Peyton Manning will not be able to throw a pass that wins three Super Bowls on Sunday afternoon.
That means all of the "Count the Rings" and "Winnerz Win" arguments are safe, for Sunday and almost certainly forever. If you are the type of fan who takes us on a tour of Tom Brady's trophy case every time Manning breaks a record, don't bother. We get it.
What Manning will do Sunday is complete a pass that travels more than three yards. He will break Brett Favre's all-time passing yardage record. The game will stop, not very long after it starts, for a ceremony that's supposed to be jubilant but will leave us all feeling a little awkward, like a surprise birthday party for someone who doesn't want to be reminded that he's turning 40. Even the guest of honor will act like he wants to be somewhere else.
Quarterback statistical achievements make us uncomfortable. We're conditioned to think of them as consolation prizes for quarterbacks who generate gobs of yardage but don't win (or rarely win) Super Bowls. We downplay passing records at best, denigrate those who set them at worst. There's even a dirty word to sling around in arguments: stat compiler. Your guy was busy chasing personal glory while our guy was winning a ring. Grind that narrative wheel hard enough and an all-time passing record can be honed into a mark of selfishness instead of greatness.
It's ridiculous. Manning is breaking one of the most prestigious records in American sports Sunday. It's a mark that has been passed from undisputed Hall of Famer to undisputed Hall of Famer since professional football rose to prominence. Manning is further cementing his status as one of the titans of professional sports history. We shouldn't act like he is grubbing after some kind of runner-up trophy.
The all-time passing-yardage leaderboard is not a clearinghouse for quarterbacks not good enough to win multiple championships. It's safe harbor for quarterbacks who weren't lucky enough to play for dynasties. It's a place for quarterbacks who had to do a little more, for a little longer, than their also-legendary counterparts who enjoyed extended runs at the heights of their powers with super coaches, super playmakers, super protectors and super defenses.
The spot at the top of the all-time leaderboard is the place for Brett Favre, not Troy Aikman.
It's the place for Dan Marino, not Joe Montana or even John Elway, who escaped a "can't win the big one" rep that would make even Manning cringe at age 37.
It's the place for Fran Tarkenton, not Terry Bradshaw or Roger Staubach.
Long ago, it was a place for Johnny Unitas, not Bart Starr.
The passing-yardage crown has been the place for quarterbacks remembered for their unique talents and contributions: Favre just havin' fun out there, Marino's lightning trigger and laser accuracy, Tarkenton running figure-eights in the snow, Unitas defining the modern dropback passer, Manning redefining it by barking plays at the line of scrimmage from a shotgun spread formation. When we close our eyes, we see them passing and running. When we think of the other guys, we think of them surrounded by their teams or just hoisting the Lombardi Trophy with the confetti flying.
Manning, Favre, Marino, Tarkenton and Unitas, who after Sunday will have passed along the all-time yardage leadership baton for nearly half a century, are a combined 5-8 in Super Bowls or NFL championship games. Their championships do not stack up to those of the dynasty quarterbacks at all: Starr alone has as many rings, and Brady could join him (though Manning could also still up the ante). We see the yardage kings as runners-up, because we have been trained to judge quarterbacks like boxers, entering the ring to battle man-to-man. We should really see valiant challengers who kept leading ragtag armies against Steel Curtains or Bill Belichick's Death Star. And then, when beaten back, they charged again.
(This is the point at which the trophy-case crowd pokes its collective head up again and starts listing the all-time greats who coached or played with the passing leaders. Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James! Don Shula and the Marks Brothers! The Purple People Eaters! Yes, it's a team sport on both sides. And no one in their right minds questions which side had better teams.)
We can define the "stat compilers" forever by their handful of defeats, or by the hundreds of victories represented by those tens of thousands of passing yards, Sunday upon Sunday, when they needed an 80-yard drive to tie the game and 50 more yards to set up the game-winning field goal, Sundays when they compiled their stats to lead very-good-not-great teams to glory.
Manning is poised to break Favre's record for wins by a starting quarterback, soon if not Sunday. He already holds the touchdown record and some benchmarks for "clutch" performance: the all-time game-winning drive and fourth-quarter comeback records defined for Pro Football Reference by writer/researcher Scott Kacsmar. The numbers paint a vivid picture of who Manning is, and who he is not. (Choke artist. Also-ran. Stat compiler.)
Ah, but records are fleeting, say the trophy case curators. Records are inevitably broken, sometimes within a few years. Championships are eternal.
Conversely, championships represent single events. Passing records represent long-term commitments. Sports fandom is about moments that feel transcendent and connect us with something greater. Championships are the most significant of such moments, but there are others: playoff wins, epic comebacks, record-breaking performances and ordinary Sundays when friends can share high-fives over touchdowns and toast a win. When Manning breaks Favre's passing record, it will represent greatness that accompanied us through autumn Sundays for a generation.
But does it measure up to Tom Brady's four Super Bowl rings? Who cares? Greatest is not an either-or proposition. One person's success does not have to come at another's expense.
Manning has coped with a weird denier movement for his whole career, and not just from Patriots fans. Manning bashing practically spawned an industry. Modern media sports coverage—midday talk shows, blogs, comment-thread arguments, Bleacher Report—all grew up around the conceit of tacking Manning, the top draft pick with the famous name and gaudy stats who couldn't even win the big game in college, to the ceiling like a pinata and taking lazy swings to knock him down as "overrated." Manning provided the template for how we treat everyone from Jameis Winston to LeBron James, making the job easy by falling just short enough just often enough to keep the fire perpetually stoked.
At least the "stat compilers" of past generations were granted the dignity of peacefully coexisting with the dynasty champions. Marino and Tarkenton earned credit and respect without the other side in a hot-take debate thumbing its nose and taunting "neener-neener" at their ringless fingers. They never had to feel guilty about breaking a record.
Manning will pass Favre sometime before 5 p.m. Eastern on Sunday. It's a major accomplishment. Let's not shrug, golf-clap, equivocate, harrumph that it should have happened last week or, worst of all, act like he has won some kind of booby prize. Let's cheer, celebrate and remember Super Bowl victories and losses, regular-season games without Roman numerals and the thousands of passes that seared themselves into our consciousness for many years until we long ago began taking for granted how remarkable they were.
Manning's next three-yard pass will be a historic achievement. Let's make sure we treat it that way.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.