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Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning: Who's the Best? - Part IV, Conclusion

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Brady vs. Manning
Who Is the Better QB and Why?

This argument is right up there with Frasier-Ali, Williams-DiMaggio, Bird-Johnson. The discussion has been called "irrational" by FootballOutsiders.com, the premiere site for statistical NFL analysis.

Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning: Who's better and why?

Irrational or not, we've discussed, argued and debated (Part I, Part II and Part III), and today I present the last piece of the puzzle (at least for this year).

Our first discussion focused solely on statistics, and we saw that Manning clearly has better regular season statistics, and Brady clearly has better playoff statistics. Later topics used some elementary statistical analysis as supporting evidence.

But this isn't baseball, and statistics rarely tell the whole story. Hence, people use words like "intangibles" to describe characteristics, skills, talents that don't show up on the stat line. Seldom is heard "intangibles" when talking about baseball players or hockey players. You sometimes hear it in basketball, but with fewer total players on the cout than comprise just one side in football, it's just not the same.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King ranked the NFL's 32 anticipated starting quarterbacks in mid-June. At that time, he ranked Manning first, Brady second. His analysis included just the last two years of statistics, which greatly helped Manning.

Aside of the statistics, upon which he apparently relied very heavily (there's no actual discussion), King did have an "intangibles" category, in which Brady was the only quarterback to score a 10, while Manning and Drew Brees were the only 9's. Brady got the 10, King said, "because he's a coach, an offseason facilitator, a free-agent recruiter -- and he does it while retaining respect from the guys he often has to lean on hard.".

The problem with intangibles is that they are intangible. By definition, they are unquantifiable. Once again, we'll turn to "supporting evidence."

Analyzing the Intangibles

Let's start by asking: What intangibles do Brady and Manning possess? Let me rephrase: When was the last time you saw Manning do something that made you think, "Wow, that was amazing, something very few other players would have or could have done"?

Not often. Manning drops back into the pocket behind his tailor-made offensive line throwing to his tailor-made receiving corps, and he throws and he throws and he throws. When he's under pressure (which is rare, partly because the Colts never seem to get called for holding), he makes mistakes. When he has time, he stands there until someone is open. He rarely scrambles, and when he does, he's running to the sideline and sliding short -- essentially, he's not making plays. Very rarely does he run a quarterback sneak, in part because it's not necessitated with the offensive line he's always had.

Manning executes one of the better play actions in the league. It's certainly effective against ground-level defenders, but it's not mind-blowing. A TV viewer can follow it easily.

Brady does it all, and then some. He runs the fake over-the-head snap like no one's business. His play-action has linebackers tackling empty-handed running backs. His sliding sidesteps under pressure are artful, like a matador executing an estatuario pass on bewildered bulls.

Brian Urlacher searches for his right cleat after
Brady runs past. Ever see Manning take on the
best linebackers in the league like that?
Photo courtesy: NFL.com
When Brady needs to run, he runs, very often successfully. Reference that scramble last November when he faked Brian Urlacher out of his cleats. There was also that play of lesser renown from the alleged "Tuck Rule" game. Down 13-3 in the fourth quarter, Brady led New England on a 10-play, 61-yard drive. The first 9 plays of the drive were all passes, all completions. The 10th play was a Brady scramble, 6 yards in snow, past several defenders, for a touchdown.

A Coach on the Field

One of the highest compliments a knowing observer can pay a player is that he is a coach on the field. He doesn't just do his job, and his contributions extend far beyond physical ability and natural talent. These are the cerebral players, the guys who see the big picture, they guys who don't just lead by example, but direct personnel during live action.

Brady and Manning are both masters. Manning may be the best ever.

Both players come to the line of scrimmage and read defenses. They sometimes know what the defense is doing as well as the defensive players themselves. This comes from constant study and innate powers of perception. They call coverages and blocking schemes. They make predeterminations of how plays will develop.

Where Manning gains a significant edge is his ability to "audiblize" and "fake audiblize." Whatever he's doing, he has the defense paying attention to ever sound, every gesture, trying to extract some iota of information, waiting for Manning to tip his hand. Rarely are defenses successful. Manning has been rumored to audiblize in some situations against the wishes of his coaches and once outright overruled Tony Dungy who wanted to send in the field goal unit, only to have Manning refuse to come off the field and lead the Colts to a touchdown.

Brady is certainly among the best in the league, and he has progressed. Whether he will be able to perform in his ninth year as Manning did last year remains to be seen.

Reading the Play after the Snap

There's more to the cerebral game than direction before the snap.

In the comments sections of one of our earlier discussions, a Manning-backer said that Manning is among the best reading through his progressions. Which is somewhat comical, because when you look at the statistics Colts fans love to ride, Manning has no progressions.

Take 2004, for example. That was the season Manning broke Dan Marino's long-standing record for touchdown passes in a season (49). Manning completed 336 passes to 12 receivers* that season. A full 80 percent of all Colts receptions were caught by just 4 players -- Marvin Harrison (86, unbelievably, the third lowest of his career), Reggie Wayne (77), Brandon Stokley (68) and Edgerrin James (51). Tight ends Marcus Pollard (29) and Dallas Clark (25) accounted for most of the rest. The other 6 receivers combined caught just 17 passes. And those 49 touchdowns? They all went to just 6 players; 37 of them went to Harrison (15), Wayne (12) and Stokley (10). That's going through progressions?

* This is slightly ambiguous. Jim Sorgi completed 17 passes that season, so it's conceivable that he completed passes to fewer than 12 and the other numbers could be slightly skewed one way or the other. In fact, it's likely that if Sorgi was in the game, he was throwing to scrubs, guys that Manning generally ignores, too.

In 2006, when Manning hit 10 different receivers, 50.1 percent of the passes went to Harrison and Wayne, as did 70 percent of the passing touchdowns. Give or take a percentage point, Harrison caught 25 percent of all receptions, Wayne another 25 percent, and Joseph Addai, Dominic Rhodes (both running backs) and Dallas Clark and Ben Utecth (both tight ends) caught 10 percent each.

In 2000, Manning connected with just 8 different receivers all season. Manning threw every pass for the Colts that year, so there's no ambiguity. Even so, 2 players caught fewer than 20 passes, 1 of those fewer than 5. However, every one of them caught a touchdown (though 2 caught just one each).

Twice Manning has thrown touchdowns to just 6 players twice, and to just 5 players twice. (Otherwise, he's hit 7 once, and 8 four times).

In 1999, Manning had 2 new wideouts. One of them caught just 1 pass. In 2001, he had 3 new wideouts, but only one caught more than 20 passes. That repeated in 2002. In 2003, he had 4 new wideouts, and only two of them caught more than 20. But let's not be naive, most of the passes went to the same two or three guys year after year. Manning has had 3 years where he had no new wideouts at all, but still the same few guys caught most of the passes.

New tight ends are even more roundly ignored. In the few seasons the Colts fielded a new tight end, only Dallas Clark caught more than 10 passes.

Harrison has been the leading receiver in 7 of Manning's 9 seasons. The only two led by another player was Manning and Harrison's rookie season when Marshall Faulk led in receptions with 94 and Harrison was second with 59, and 2005 when Wayne beat Harrison by 1 reception, 83-82. This all goes back to our previous debate that Manning has had better players and more a more consistent lineup.

Brady, meanwhile, has had 4 different team-leading receivers in just 6 seasons. Troy Brown led Brady's first two seasons, Deion Branch led in 2003 and 2005, David Givens led in 2004, and Reche Caldwell led last year.

Brady has connected with no fewer than 13 different receivers in any given season, and only once did he throw touchdowns to 8 receivers: Brady's lowest is Manning's most. Brady has hit 15 different receivers in 3 years. His touchdowns have gone to 8 receivers once, 9 twice, 10 twice and 11 once. And those are just regular season numbers, because we know that Mike Vrabel has been a consistent touchdown target in the playoffs. (Including the playoffs in 2005-06, Brady hit 12 receivers for touchdowns.)

That's going through progressions.

In 2003, a Super Bowl year, Brady completed 317 passes (Rohan Davey completed 3) to 15 different receivers. Deion Branch led the team with 57. Fifty-seven! (Not 143, as Harrison caught in 2002.) Ten of those 15 caught 10 or more passes. Do you think the top 6 receivers caught 90 percent of the passes? Not even close. Just over 75 percent.

And if you think I'm picking the "exception" year, think again. The next year, another Super Bowl year, the leading receiver wasn't even the same guy. It was David Givens. He must have caught more than 57, right? Wrong again. Fifty-six. Brady hit 13 receivers that year, and all but Ben Watson (just 1) and Rahib Abdullah (1 also) caught double digits in passes. I repeat, that's going through progressions.

That's just about the most tangible intangible ever, and Brady has the edge by miles.

In essence, what all this means is that Brady makes quicker and better decisions, especially since his usually under greater pressure and has fewer top-talent weapons to exploit.

Playing Big in the Biggest Games

Both Brady and Manning run solid two-minute offenses, but who has enjoyed the greater success? There's no question Brady has done it more often, more successfully, in more high-pressure situations, with far less talent around him.

Brady is the all-time leader in overtime wins (7) without a defeat. Brady is 40-8 (.833) in games played on or after Thanksgiving Day. Brady has 24 game-winning, fourth-quarter drives that broke a tie or took a lead, including 6 (of 14 games, including half his wins) in playoff games. The real difference is the playoffs. Quite arguably, playoff games pit the league's elite against each other. Sure a team or two (especially in recent years in the NFC) slip through, but generally, if you're in the playoffs, you're facing very tough opponents, tough defenses.

Need proof?

Brady has led a game-winning drive to break a tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter of each of the Patriots' three Super Bowl victories, becoming the only quarterback in NFL history to lead three such game-winning drives in the Super Bowl. While St. Louis was little known for defense, both Carolina and Philadelphia were. And Brady shredded the Panthers.

Brady is 12-2 in the playoffs, including three Super Bowl wins (two Super Bowl MVP trophies). In one of his two losses, last year in the AFC Championship against the Colts, Brady had a better quarterback rating than Manning.

Conclusion

We've examined a lot of factors in this series.

In Part I, we looked purely at statistics. Manning has a clear edge in regular-season statistics. There's no disputing that. Brady has the edge in post-season statistics -- arguably far more important, especially considering the quality of defense is generally higher than it is playing the regular-season bottom-feeders. Brady also leads in regular-season winning percentage, post-season winning percentage, career winning percentage.

In Part II, we discussed the surround skill player positions. We showed that Manning has been surrounded by far better talent and had far fewer personnel changes to deal with. Even this year with a group of receivers that are, on paper, far more talented than previous years, Brady still needs to deal with the fact that he's never played a real game with most of them. Brady has had only Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk for more than a few years, while Manning has had Harrison for 9 and other players for at least half or even most of his career. Brady has clearly done the most with the least.

In Part III, we looked at other "extenuating" factors, such as coaching staffs, front offices, home fields and weather conditions. I'm going to call coaching and front office a draw, because Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy are both fantastic, as are Scott Pioli and Bill Polian. Personally, I'd give Belichick the edge over Dungy, and Polian over Pioli, but every time I think about either comparison, I waffle. Both coaching and scouting staffs are top-notch and possibly among the best ever.

But Brady has shown a far greater aptitude and capacity to adapt to and excel in varying field and weather conditions, reinforced by some of the data discussed today. More of today's discussion support Brady's place as the quarterback who does more with less. Manning can confuse a defense like no other, but after the snap Brady makes quicker decisions, better decisions and makes plays himself when necessary. Brady owns the edge in intangibles.

Ultimately, the debate over who is better between Brady and Manning will rage long after their careers have ended, long after these two first-ballot hall-of-famers have their busts installed in Canton. Maybe no one will really be able to objectively and definitively determine which is better than the other.

But while Manning's corner will come up with statistic after statistic, they're leaving out at least half of the facts.

Yes, Manning is the quintessential fantasy player. The best fantasy quarterback, maybe the best fantasy player ever.

But if you're looking for the best quarterback, and you pick Manning. Well, that's just a fantasy, too.

Here at Pats Pulpit, there is no question, no debate: Tom Brady is the best.

Poll

Who's better: Tom Brady or Peyton Manning

This poll is closed

  • 55%
    Tom Brady
    (137 votes)
  • 44%
    Peyton Manning
    (111 votes)
248 votes total Vote Now