Monday, January 12, 2009

Forget Brady and Montana, the Real Question Is Peyton Manning or Kurt Warner?

Some have accused me of being a hater. Among others, the alleged targets of my hate have been Notre Dame football, Big Ten football, the Dallas Cowboys, the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Los Angeles Lakers, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning.

I will make no excuses—I'm absolutely, 100 percent guilty of hating the Bums and Notre Dame football.

Objectivity is always the goal, but I won't claim to succeed all the time. That's especially true when writing about those two subjects.

The allegations with regard to the others are all ridiculous. Each and every single one.

The problem is that national perception (via the media) is so skewed with regard to these subjects, anyone who is reasonable about said subjects looks like a hater. The Big Ten places multiple schools in the Bowl Championship Series each year, Dallas is a Super Bowl team until they're eliminated from the postseason (abashedly, I was guilty of that sin this year), we're all supposed to love Boston despite them being the New York Yankees in a different uniform, ditto the Lakers, and Brett Favre should be forgiven his plethora of warts because he's a tough guy with a ring.

And then there's Peyton Manning.

I feel kinda bad about it because the elder Manning is, by all accounts, a model human-being. Nor is it his fault that some members of the media watch him and let their fingers runs wild with hyperbole like Usain Bolt after a couple hours with Michael Irvin circa 1996.

But facts are facts—that's exactly what has happened and continues to happen.

For instance, despite Peyton's latest stumble in the postseason, his entourage continues to insist that Manning still belongs among the metaphoric rafters of the National Football League with the absolute best quarterbacks. They want to keep his jersey up there with the likes of Joe Montana, Tom Brady, and John Elway.

I'd argue he belongs somewhere lower on the ladder. Say, several rungs below Steve Young. Right next to Kurt Warner.

Before I elaborate, let me head the Manning homers off at Hater's Pass.

I reiterate: I am NOT a Peyton Manning hater.

If that were the case, I'd be arguing he wasn't 2008's Most Valuable Player—I'm not, he was an obvious and undeniable choice. I'd be arguing he isn't one of the all-time greatest signal-callers—I'm not, that proclamation is so ludicrous that it doesn't even merit acknowledgement (of course, I think that group is larger than people realize). I'd be arguing he's one of the biggest choke artists the game has ever seen.

I wouldn't make that last argument, but I can't totally disagree with it because we've all seen him fail repeatedly on the biggest stage. However, Peyton Manning owns a Super Bowl ring and played no small part in winning it so I can't really agree.

Regardless, my point is that I AM NOT A PEYTON MANNING HATER.

I don't like the football player because I think he's overrated, but I'm well-aware that he is one of the best QBs to ever lace up cleats. Nor do I have the slightest problem admitting that.

But, again, facts are facts.

And the fact is Peyton Manning shares much more with Kurt Warner than he does with any of the four modern-era chuckers I mentioned.

First, the cold hard numbers (both players debuted in 1998 and neither is a mobile QB so rushing stats are omitted):

Games Comp. Att. Comp. % Total Yds Yds/Att. TDs INTs QB Rating
Manning 176 3839 5960 64.4 45,628 7.7 333 165 94.7
Warner 109 2327 3557 65.4 28,591 8.0 182 114 93.8

The raw numbers actually paint a relatively dissimilar picture. But the raw numbers, as is usually the case, only tell part of the story. And not the important part.

Manning has been the unquestioned starter since the jump. That's a lot of pressure to deal with, but it's also a rare security in the modern NFL. Additionally, he's been surrounded by strong (some would say elite) skill players on offense since he was drafted. Most importantly, he's had a beastly offensive line for virtually the entirety of his NFL days.

Peyton's taken essentially every snap since his first one, rarely sees the turf, and often throws unhurriedly from a comfortable pocket.

On the other hand, Kurt Warner's story is well-known.

He's everyone's favorite grocery-bagger-turned-NFL-MVP. He exploded in a three-year supernova of production and dominance, but his star burned too quickly and collapsed into its very own black hole. Warner disappeared from the NFL's night sky only to reappear in 2008, leading the Arizona Cardinals to the National Football Conference Championship game and possibly beyond (just had to reboot—typing that last sentence made my computer crash).

Warner's not come close to taking each snap, has seen the turf with disturbing frequency, and often pays a heavy/violent toll for standing tall in the pocket (admittedly, he often holds the ball WAY too long).

In other words, the career numbers paint a skewed picture for a reason. But something interesting happens when you take each QBs' best five years:

Games Comp. Att. Comp. % Total Yds Yds/Att. TDs INTs QB Rating
Manning 80 1719 2588 66.4 21,008 8.1 168 53 104.6
Warner 73 1617 2441 66.2 20,612 8.4 155 84 99.1

The numbers span 1999-2001, 2007, and 2008 for Warner while they span 2003-2007 for Manning. The results are much closer. Furthermore, you could argue (and I obviously would) that these five years constitute a better basis for comparison.

They represent the only years Kurt Warner has started at least 11 games and/or was the unquestioned first-string quarterback. Additionally, they represent the most similar years between the two players in terms of supporting cast.

Both quarterbacks took snaps for offensive juggernauts that tried to score you out of the arena rather than grind you down. Warner orchestrated the Greatest Show on Turf and an arsenal that includes Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin while Manning captained an ensemble to rival the St. Louis Rams' best group (and continues to do so). Both had the advantage of crushing offensive lines and the disadvantage of sub-par defenses during those nickels.

Both qualified for the postseason almost every year during that run and each won a Super Bowl when the D got hot.

Both won two MVPs (although Manning just added a third this year).

Through the lens of all that similarity, check those numbers again.

Manning played in seven more games, completed 102 more passes, attempted 147 more passes, completed passes at basically the same rate, amassed 397 more yards through the air, average .3 fewer yards per attempt, collected 13 more touchdowns, threw 31 fewer picks, and registered a QB rating less than six points higher.

Only the difference in interceptions is substantial when spread over five years.

That means, when both quarterbacks were at their peaks for roughly 80 games, the numbers are almost indistinguishable.

However, I am no fool. You cannot just eliminate six years from an 11-year career simply because they really hurt your comparison. I have to come up with something better than that. And I have.

Obviously, Warner loses points because he didn't play consistently enough to keep his job every year. He also loses points because of his tendency to death-grip the ball until a pile of humanity sits atop him. That greatly contributed to the injuries that cost him many starts. Contrarily, Manning gains points for doing the opposite (consistency, quick release, making every start, etc.)

On the other hand, Warner more than makes up for his deficiencies in this regard by being a better leader than Peyton. Kurt Warner has shown a knack for leading his team to heights that nobody expected.

Heights measured by shocking wins in the biggest games.

His 1999 St. Louis Rams came out of nowhere to win the Super Bowl and Kurt Warner led the way. His 2001 Rams team went to the Super Bowl where only Adam Vinatieri, Brady, and the beginning of the New England Patriots' dynasty could turn it away. And his 2008 Arizona Cardinals are still going.

That last one might be the most impressive—the Arizona Cardinals franchise had ONE playoff win to its credit before this year and Kurt Warner has them sitting at home, waiting for the Philadelphia Eagles to come calling in the NFC Championship game. This after winning, not one, but TWO postseason games that the squad had no business winning.

That's right. Under Warner's command, Arizona has TRIPLED the number of playoff wins in franchise history and done so against incredible odds. And Warner's still not done.

Meanwhile, Peyton Manning's teams have been notorious for their underachievement since the days his Tennessee Volunteers were losing every year to their hated rival (Florida Gators).

And that underachievement has been a direct reflection on the elder Manning. Almost without fail, the Colts' confounding early exits can be traced to either mediocre or downright miserable play on the part of their leader.

I don't know who I'd pick because they're both statistical leviathans and, while Peyton's been far more consistent, Warner's got the edge in the category about which I care most (impressive wins).

One thing's for sure though, it's time to put all this Peyton Manning-Tom Brady-Joe Montana talk to rest.

Or add Kurt Warner's name to the mix. Because he's shown himself to be every bit the quarterback that Peyton Manning is.

Some would say even better. Not me though, I'm not a hater...

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