Friday, October 14, 2011

Mann Down

The Latest Twist in Manning-Brady Rivalry

Quarterbacks, more than any other athlete performing any other task, rely on their teammates.

Up to half a dozen man-mountains block for them. Freakishly large-handed speed demons catch the passes thrown by them. QBs hand the ball off to quick and powerful men who run for them - which helps make it easier for them to throw. They are guided by a team of brilliant workaholics who come up with detailed and intricate plans, who literally write books about what quarterbacks should do.

I'm not saying quarterback is an easy job. In fact, it's arguably the hardest job in the world to excel at. Think about it: at any given point in time, there's only about 15 people on the planet who are doing a good job as an NFL quarterback. Are there more than 15 good neurosurgeons in the world? Does the 16th best particle physicist on the planet perform at a higher level than Joe Flacco? Could you find twenty to thirty outstanding nuclear submarine captains in a pinch?* The answer to all of these questions is yes.

* There are several hundred nuclear submarines in the world. I'm thinking the 16th best captain is pretty damn good.

The challenge is separating a quarterback's greatness from all those other factors. What if, for example, Joe Montana was drafted two picks earlier in the 1979 draft, by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Instead of the brilliant Bill Walsh, he would've inherited John McKay as head coach. His premiere wide receiver in the 80's would have been Kevin House rather than Jerry Rice. The average defensive rank of his team from 1980-1989 would have been 20th rather than 7th*. And he would've had to wear those ridiculous orange uniforms.

* The Niner defense was genuinely great in the 80's, not merely a nice complement to a great offense. Their rank in Points Allowed from 1981 to 1989 was: 2, 23, 4, 1, 2, 3, 3, 8, 3.

What kind of career would Joe Montana have had if he'd been picked by the Bucs? I should add that I did not choose the Buccaneers by random. I chose them because in the mid-80's Steve Young spent a couple of seasons as the Tampa quarterback. It did not go well. He won 3 games, threw twice as many interceptions as touchdown passes, completed 52% of his passes, and looked ridiculous in that orange uniform.

In 1992, however, he replaced Joe Montana and had five brilliant seasons, one of the great runs in quarterback history. He got behind the wheel of that 49er sports car and drove it faster than Montana.

All of these variables - head coach, receiving corps, defense, running game - make it therefore very difficult to truly judge the value of a quarterback, and nearly impossible to conduct something close to a controlled experiment.

But something very close to that is being performed in Indianapolis right now.

Painting a Picture

A while back, I made the case that Tom Brady-Peyton Manning was the best "Who's Better?" debate in sports history. My argument went like this:

From 2001-2006 Brady-Manning followed the usual script of great player debates. Like Wilt-Russell, Marino-Montana, and ARod-Jeter, one player put up the monster stats and one player put on the rings.

But in 2006-2007, the players reversed roles. In 2006 Manning became Brady. The Colts beat the Patriots multiple times, including a thrilling comeback victory in the 06 AFC Championship game. The Colts went on to win the Super Bowl and Manning was crowned Super Bowl MVP.

More shockingly, in 2007 Brady became Manning. A guy who had been an efficient 3500 yards/25 TD guy suddenly went off for 4800 yards and 50 TDs. After missing all of 2008, Brady has continued as a brilliant quarterback, an elite passer in the NFL. (And to complete his transformation into early 2000s Manning, he stopped winning Super Bowls.)

A handful of rings and elite passing statistics? It's never been done before. Add in the fact that Manning plays in a dome and Brady in the New England winter? As a longtime Manning supporter, I was forced to admit that Brady just might be the better quarterback.

But here's where we come to our controlled experiment. In 2008 Tom Brady got hurt in Week 1 and lost the season. A kid named Matt Cassel, who literally had not started a game at quarterback since he was in high school, got under center. (In fact, he is the only QB in league history to start an NFL game having never started one in college).

How'd he do? The Patriots went 11-5 and had the 5th ranked offense in the NFL. Cassel threw for 3700 yards and 21 TDs with a 63% completion rate. Not bad, huh?

This year, Peyton Manning is out for the season. Curtis Painter is under center for the Indianapolis Colts. Painter has a much more impressive resume than Cassel had. As a sophomore at Purdue, he set the Big 10 passing record. He broke a bunch of Drew Brees' records at Purdue, and would have broken more if not for an injury Senior year.

Painter hasn't been terrible. He's only thrown one interception, and his completion rate and QB rating are both very respectable. He's actually 3rd in the league in Net Yards per Pass Attempt, behind Brady and Rogers.

But the Colts are ranked 31st in total offense, 27th in points scored. And they're 0-6. Since Manning's second season, the Colts have won 10 games or more every year but one*. This year, they've already lost 6.

* That one was 2001 when they went 6-10. It wasn't Manning's fault - the Colts had the #2 offense in the league in 2001. But as has often been the case in Manning's career, he had a bad defense. Colts were ranked 31st in Points Allowed in 2001. The average rank of Colt D since 1998 is 16th in the league. In 2006, Manning won the Super Bowl with a defense ranked 23rd.

Remove Brady from the Patriots' offense and it slows down. Remove Manning from the Colts' offense and it comes skidding to a halt.

It's another interesting twist in the greatest individual "Who's Better?" debate ever.

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