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Best Quarterbacks in History: Peyton Manning Ahead of Tom Brady?

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Football historian Brad Oremland has ranked the top 101 quarterbacks in NFL history, and has Peyton Manning ahead of Tom Brady. Here's why he's wrong.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

I really respect Football Perspective and all of the work that Chase Stuart and company have produced over the years. They've helped better the world's understanding of advanced statistics and historical perspective. Guest writer and football historian Brad Oremland just completed his list of "The 101 Best Quarterbacks in NFL History" and it's a truly tremendous work. I don't have the knowledge or background to compile a list as thoroughly as Oremland, and for that I respect his product.

The list includes the like of Matt Hasselbeck, Doug Flutie, and Drew Bledsoe. It has Eli Manning ahead of Andrew Luck, but behind Russell Wilson. It has John Elway at 12th overall.

It has Tom Brady at 7th and Peyton Manning at 1st.

Oremland makes a compelling argument as to why Manning should be considered the "best" quarterback of all time- especially because "best" is a subjective measure. He notes that Manning will likely hold all of the cumulative quarterback records by the time he retires, with regards to both production and regular season awards. He highlights that a record seven different players have posted 1,000 yards receiving under Manning, and six of them haven't posted a 1,000 yard season without Manning (the next closest quarterback has four unique receivers).

Manning's made the playoffs with each head coach that he's had, and he's done it all throughout his career. His playoff performances fluctuate between outstanding and ghastly, but his bustitutde is overblown. Oremland calls Manning an artist, with his visionary approach to pre-snap reads and audibles changing the modern game.

As a whole, the argument on behalf of Manning as the best quarterback of all time hinges on his total production, his individual accolades, the length of his career, and the drop in performance by the Colts when Manning was injured. That's fine.

So with his support of Manning in mind, let's do a line-by-line breakdown of his Tom Brady analysis.

7. Tom Brady
New England Patriots, 2000-14
53,258 yards, 392 TD, 143 INT, 95.9 rating

Like John Elway or Roger Staubach, a multiple Super Bowl loser famous for his clutch play.

An interesting way to use the phrase "a multiple Super Bowl loser," as if that's supposed to be evidence against the claim of his "clutch play."

Tom Brady's career has something to please everyone. He has career milestones like 350 TDs and 50,000 yards. He has four Super Bowl rings and three Super Bowl MVPs. He's been regular season MVP twice, he's thrown for 5,000 yards in a season, 50 TDs in a season, a 117.2 passer rating. No matter what measure you prefer, Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play.

This is all true.

Brady spent a few years throwing to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski could become the greatest tight end of all time if he stays healthy. But for much of his career, Brady has played with no-name receivers. Sometimes he's had a running game, and sometimes not. For most of the last decade, there have been questions about New England's defense. No matter who else is on the team, Bill Belichick and Brady find ways to succeed. Such dramatic shifts in approach are not unprecedented, but they're very rare.

Also true. Brady had Moss for two and a quarter seasons, and one of those years was his recovery from a torn ACL. Moss combined for 2,757 yards and 36 touchdowns during the 2007 and 2009 seasons. He had the undrafted Wes Welker for six record breaking seasons (Welker had a down 2010 due to a torn ACL). Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in football, but even he's finished three of the past four seasons as an injured mess.

I really don't have anything negative to say about Tom Brady, but I suppose I need to explain why he "only" ranks seventh — and in particular, some readers will require me to explain why I rank Brady beneath Peyton Manning.

They are contemporaries, so that makes sense.

Let's begin with the Manning comparison. I think most fans would agree that Brady and Manning have been roughly equal from 2005-14. During those years, Manning was 113-31 as starter, compared to 112-33 for Brady. Each has one Super Bowl victory (and two Super Bowl losses), with one Super Bowl MVP (Brady's others came prior to '05). It's hard to find much difference there. Likewise with passing stats:

Search:
Quarterback Att Yds NY/A Rating TD TO +/-
Manning 5317 39,385 7.4 101.4 323 129 194
Brady 5384 38,415 7.0 99.2 307 112 195

Okay, so we're agreed that there's not much difference over the last 10 seasons.

This ignores that Manning spent half that time frame in a dome, which absolutely leads to higher statistical performances, and it also conveniently cuts off at nine seasons played, to remove both a Brady Super Bowl and Manning's best season as a quarterback.

Since 2005, Manning's top five receivers (by yards) have been 1st round pick Reggie Wayne, 1st round pick Demaryius Thomas, 1st round pick Dallas Clark, 1st round pick Marvin Harrison, and 3rd round pick Eric Decker. His top three running backs (by yards) have been 1st round pick Joseph Addai, 1st round pick Knowshon Moreno, and 1st round pick Edgerrin James. It should be noted that all of these players were drafted by Manning's team.

In comparison, Brady's top five receivers are undrafted (acquired by trade) Wes Welker, 2nd round pick Rob Gronkowski, 1st round pick (acquired by trade) Randy Moss, 7th round pick Julian Edelman, and 2nd round pick (acquired by trade) Deion Branch. His top three running backs have been 3rd round pick Stevan Ridley, 1st round pick Laurence Maroney, and undrafted BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

When Bill Belichick says that it's important for the chef to purchase the ingredients, it's absolutely obvious that Manning's shopping in the gourmet aisle, while Brady is buying second-hand. When comparing the statistical production of Manning and Brady after 2005, it's critical to highlight that Manning has been playing within a far more talented offense.

The question is whether Brady was a greater QB, from 2001-04, than Manning from 1998-2004.

The answer is no. Through '04, Brady made two Pro Bowls and won two Super Bowl MVP Awards. Manning made five Pro Bowls and won two NFL MVP Awards. Brady passed for almost 13,000 yards, Manning for almost 30,000. Manning had six 4,000-yard seasons, Brady none. Manning broke the single-season records for TDs (49) and passer rating (121.1), while Brady's single-season highs were 28 and 92.6, respectively. Manning had a perfect passer rating (158.3) in a playoff game, which Brady has never done, and led a 21-point comeback in the final five minutes of a Monday Night Football game against the defending Super Bowl champions, which no one else has done.

Ignoring that this a flawed method of comparison that highlights, circles, and underlines the fact that Oremland values volume, and that he rounds Brady's 13,919 yards to "almost 13,000" and Manning's 29,442 yards to "almost 30,000", we have something to work with.

We are comparing seven seasons of Manning to four seasons of Brady. Peyton averaged roughly 2 attempts and completions more per game than Brady, for a 1.9% greater completion rate, including 38.4 more yards per game and a touchdown rate of 0.8% greater than Brady.

Of course, Manning's 2004 is a major outlier (remember that arbitrary nine season cut-off) compared to his 1998-2003 seasons. Brady's four seasons from 2001-2004 yield near identical touchdown rates to Manning's 1998-2003, and also features an interception rate 0.7% better. Manning had a better yards per attempt by 0.45, but more on that in a bit.

For their careers, Brady has thrown fewer completions, with a lower completion percentage. Many fewer yards, and fewer yards per attempt. Fewer touchdowns, and a lower TD%. More sacks for more yards, and many more fumbles. He does have a lot fewer interceptions and a better INT%. He's less wild than Manning, and he doesn't seem to get rattled or frustrated as easily.

I'd add that he also has fewer attempts per game, but yes, Manning's rates are superior. But again, here's that dome effect in play. Per Mr. Dan Marowni, quarterbacks complete passes at a 2.6% greater rate indoors than outdoors, their touchdown rate is 0.7% greater, and average 0.6 more yards per attempt. Manning's career completion rate is 1.8% better than Brady's, his touchdown rate is 0.4% better, and he averages 0.3 more yards per attempt. All of that falls within a potential realm of indoor benefit.

Coincidentally, Manning has played exactly 50% of his games inside, so a fairly easy projection could be made for Brady under the same circumstances.

Split G Cmp Att Cmp% Yds Y/A YPG TD TD% Int INT% Rate
Brady 50/50 209 4477 6882 65.1% 54569 7.93 261.1 409 5.9% 167 2.4% 99.3
Manning 50/50 256 5927 9049 65.5% 69691 7.70 272.2 530 5.9% 234 2.6% 97.5

If Brady had the same indoor/outdoor split as Manning, his rates would be nearly identical to Manning's, and he's done it with a much weaker supporting cast.

As for Brady's composure...

It's to Brady's credit that he's played well without elite receivers, but it's also true that he hasn't looked like the best in the game without weapons like Welker and Gronkowski. That doesn't apply to Manning. Edgerrin James left, and the Colts won the Super Bowl. Marvin Harrison retired, and Manning won NFL MVP. And then we all said, well, okay, but it's not like Reggie Wayne is chopped liver. So Manning overcame a career-threatening neck injury, switched to an entirely different team, with entirely new receivers, and set single-season records for yardage and TDs. Eric Decker left in free agency and Welker got suspended, so Manning turned Emmanuel Sanders into a Pro Bowler. Every receiver Manning plays with turns into a superstar.

What does "weapons like Welker and Gronkowski" mean? It doesn't apply to Peyton, because Manning has never played without a weapon like Harrison, or Wayne, or Thomas. Manning's number two weapon has gone from Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James, to Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and a season of Pierre Garcon, to Eric Decker and Emmanuel Sanders. Harrison, Wayne, Faulk, and James are all Hall of Fame worthy.

Brady had a couple seasons of Wes Welker and Julian Edelman as his #2 target, but David Patten, David Givens, Ben Watson (in the Reche Caldwell season), post-Seahawks Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd, and Danny Amendola have been his second options. Only Wes Welker and maybe Edelman would have had the chance to crack any of Peyton's starting line-ups.

And sure, Manning switched teams, already stacked with talent, and managed to set records in their second season. In that second year, Brady met Manning in the 2013 AFC Championship with receivers who picked up less than 30% of the Patriots 2012 receiving yards.

In fact, Brady's been the center point of three of the six largest receiver turnovers in league history. And in each year, he brought the Patriots to the AFC Championship game (and even lost to Peyton in two of them).

"Every receiver Manning plays with turns into a superstar" is a little bit much. As Oremland stated, Manning hasn't been lining up with chopped liver. He's been lining up with multiple top players and, yes, of course he makes them better. But Deion Branch would top out as Peyton's third most talented receiver in any given year. Kenbrell Thompkins wouldn't make the roster.

In the two seasons that the Patriots featured offensive talent that could rival Peyton's talent (2007 and 2011), Brady's numbers were right in line with Manning's top years. And that quarterback with four unique 1,000-yard receivers that was second to Manning? That's Brady (Troy Brown, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman), and he didn't have the benefit of joining a brand new team to add to his counter.

I just don't know how you look at these two QBs and conclude that Brady is more critical to his team than Manning. It doesn't match up in the eye test, the passing stats, the receivers, or the team results. When Brady missed the 2008 season, the Patriots still went 11-5. When Manning missed the 2011 season, the Colts dropped to 2-14.

How about framing it this way: The Patriots went 18-1 to 11-5 (net loss of 7 wins) from Brady to Matt Cassel (who is still considered a starter, albeit a terrible one, in the league) against the easiest NFL schedule since the realignment in 2002, while Manning's Colts went from 10-7 to 2-14 (net loss of 8 wins) with two rookies and a third new starter on the offensive line, and two quarterbacks that have a 2-18 combined career record and neither of whom have started a game since their disastrous 2011 with the Colts.

It's not a fair comparison when Brady's replacement made the Pro Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs, while Manning's replacements couldn't find their way out of the locker room.

Additionally, the 2007 Patriots scored a record setting 3.46 points per drive (PPD), while the 2008 Patriots scored 2.48 PPD. The Colts fell from 2.37 PPD in 2010 to 1.24 PPD in 2011 (and if we want to use standard deviations, the Patriots fell from 3.28 to 1.51, while the Colts fell from 1.34 to -1.14). The Matt Cassel-led Patriots attack was so stacked and played such weak competition, they performed better than the 2010 Peyton Manning-led Colts offense. For what that's worth.

Tom Brady has been one of the best QBs in the league for over a decade. He's passed for 50,000 yards, nearly 400 TDs, and he's never thrown 15 or more INTs in any season. He holds several postseason records, he's started in six Super Bowls, quarterbacked four Super Bowl winners, and won three Super Bowl MVPs. He's an obvious Hall of Famer, a great quarterback by any measure.

Several? How about nearly all the postseason records, including fourth quarter comebacks and game winning drives. Oremland highlights Manning's 2006 comeback against the Patriots, but neglects to mention that game is the only time that Manning has ever comeback to win or led a game winning drive in the playoffs.

The idea that he's the greatest ever — better than his contemporary Manning, or better than fellow four-time champion Joe Montana — I think represents incomplete, over-simplified analysis or recency bias.

This could also very well be true, although no other quarterback in NFL history has enjoyed the same degree of statistical, individual, and team success as Tom Brady.

The idea that Brady might be the best QB in Super Bowl history is absurd: Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, at least, are comfortably ahead of him. Brady is still a good player, and it's likely he will rise on this list before his career is over.

There's no question that Montana's four Super Bowls are fantastic, although some might point at his 14/22, 157 yards and 1 touchdown in his first Super Bowl as a lackluster performance.

But the Terry Bradshaw who went 9/14 for 94 yards and 1 touchdown in his first Super Bowl? Or the Terry Bradshaw that went 14/21 for 309, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions in his fourth Super Bowl?

No way.

Of quarterbacks with at least 10 pass attempts in four or more Super Bowls (Bradshaw didn't break 20 attempts in two of his, and Jim Kelly was injured in his third Super Bowl and only had 7 attempts), Brady stacks up well against them all. There's Montana, Bradshaw, Brady, John Elway, and Roger Staubach.

Staubach had a stinker against Bradshaw's Steelers in 1975, going 15/24 for 204 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. Elway had three lousy performances in 1987, 1989, and 1997, combining for 36/86 (42%) for 488 total yards, 1 touchdown, and 6 interceptions.

Brady's weakest outing was his 29/48, 266 yards, 1 touchdown, and 0 interception game against the Giants in 2007. Of the "stinkers", his is better than anyone else's.

If there's any playoff quarterback that Brady might be chasing, it's Montana and Montana alone, and even that argument is fading. Brady shouldn't be penalized for attending two more Super Bowls than Montana, and Montana has the edge in one-and-dones with 4 out of 11 seasons, versus just 2 out of 12 for Brady.

There's no question in my mind that Manning and Brady both rank in the top five quarterbacks of all time (along with Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, and Bart Starr), and the order just comes down to personal preference. Oremland prefers to value quarterbacks on cumulative individual statistics (as exampled by his usage of Brady's first four seasons and Manning's first seven as a justifiable tiebreaker, and the disregard for full evaluation and appreciation for the difference in quality of supporting cast).

Others value championships, and others highlight individual accolades. It's impossible to separate the quarterback's individual performance from that of the team when looking through a statistical lens. Offenses hinge upon the success of the lineman and the quality of the skill players. Team success will not come unless the defensive side of the ball performs at critical times. Brady is just as close to 6-0 in Super Bowls as he is to 1-5.

As Oremland notes, Brady will continue to climb the ladder as he marches down the winter of his career. He will leap John Elway into 5th all-time in pass attempts this upcoming season to match his 5th place in passer rating and passing yards- he'll need two more seasons to pass Dan Marino in yards. With 29 touchdown passes, he'll jump Marino into 4th all-time in touchdown passes, and if he throws for four more touchdowns than Drew Brees, Brady will rank 3rd. He's 2nd in all-time interception rate, and with two fourth quarter comebacks he'll rank 2nd as well (he's had nine over the past two seasons).

In fact, if Brady is able to play at his current level for at least three more seasons after Manning retires (to match the three season head start Manning received at the beginning of his career), it wouldn't be a surprise to see him match or pass Manning's accumulation of regular season statistics.

I don't think there's much argument over who is the more talented quarterback; just like how Manning was the most talented quarterback for the first half of Brady's career, so has Aaron Rodgers been the most talented for the second half. From my perspective, talent alone doesn't make a player the "best".

For all of the reasons that Oremland lists for justification that Manning is the best in the history of the league (other than the Most Valuable Peyton awards), it's hard to overlook that Brady should be right alongside him, if not ahead, for the exact same reasons.