Gridiron Grudge

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady Don’t Control Their Own Legacies

Individual accomplishments are great, but the hype around the quarterback matchup of the year, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, misses the most important element of their success.

Winslow Townson/Sports Illustrated/Getty

Since 1979, an university has released an annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness. “Selfie” and “twerk,” unsurprisingly, appeared on the most recent list of about 13 words or phrases. Unfortunately, the good language pruners of Lake Superior State University missed one. They should have added a word that has overgrown the sports world like kudzu, reduplicating ad infinitum while strangling intelligent discussion. I’m talking about the word “legacy.”

You don’t need to scroll through the 731,000 Google results a search for “Peyton Manning” and legacy brings up to understand the magnitude of the AFC Championship Game in which the Denver Broncos’ superstar will play this Sunday. The 37-year-old quarterback is coming off the greatest passing regular season in NFL history and will have home field advantage with a berth in his third Super Bowl appearance on the line. Manning may be the best regular season quarterback the league has ever seen, but he’s only 10-11 in the postseason. With two more victories in the coming weeks, he would become a winner when it counts.

Problem is, the New England Patriots and Tom Brady—the winningest quarterback in playoff history—are riding into town. The 36-year-old Brady already has three Super Bowl rings to Manning’s one. In head-to-head matchups, he has 10 wins to Manning’s four. And, of course, he has one marriage to a German Brazilian supermodel to Manning’s zero. With a win on Sunday, Brady enters a record sixth Super Bowl and makes a powerful argument for being the best postseason quarterback ever.

Naturally, most major media outlets are framing this game as Manning-Brady XV. That’s fine. Personal narratives sell. So do the “best ever” arguments which of course have no conclusive answers but are part of what makes being a sports fan fun. What annoys me is the pervasive and deceptive idea that Brady and Manning have their own legacies, and that these “legacies” could be on the line in a single game. This isn’t the case, primarily because people have short memories but also because a legacy is a collective effort, not an individual achievement. It should mean much more than the sum total of an athlete’s number of championships, MVPs, number of records held and record vs. other all-timers. For centuries, the word primarily meant something of value left to heirs. Legacies don’t happen unless two people are involved.

This should be remembered when Brady and Manning square off for what could be their final playoff showdown. For the last 13 years, they have driven each other to unprecedented heights, not unlike how rivals in other sports—Nadal and Federer, Bird and Johnson, Chamberlain and Russell—made each other better. But quarterbacks don’t directly compete with each other. They rely on 21 teammates on offense and defense to get the job done, and the best quarterbacks learn they can’t get better unless they nourish relationships with their teammates. Push them without stepping on toes. Teach them to teach back.

Both quarterbacks are renowned for their attention to X’s and O’s, but their surefire Hall of Fame careers are more directly attributable to how they relate to the people those playbook marks stand for. Brady, for instance, “goes out of his way to involve everyone,” Charlie Weis, the former New England offensive coordinator, explained in the 2006 book Moving the Chains.

“He’s not the quarterback who hangs just with the wide receivers. He’ll hang with the offensive linemen. He’ll hang with the DBs. And that’s very unusual in today’s game. Usually, when quarterbacks have guys that their livelihoods depend on, they turn to them.

Tommy works the whole team.”

Here’s the secret sauce, a vital reason why New England hasn’t suffered a losing season since 2000 when head coach Bill Belichick took over. If Brady were as uptight and acerbic as Belichick often seems, the Patriot train would have long ago run off the rails. Instead, it keeps chugging along—losing a Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and half a defense here; picking up a LaGarrette Blount, Julian Edelman and boatload of random rookies there—and still steaming into Denver with a 13-4 record.

Manning, too, regularly reaches across the aisle, realizing much of his ultimate success is tied to how his defense performs. Manning won his only Super Bowl—in 2007 with the Colts—because Bob Sanders, then a top-notch safety, returned from injury to bolster what had been a porous defense in time for the playoffs. Without Sanders in 2006, Indianapolis had NFL’s worst rushing defense. With Sanders, Indianapolis had the second-best run defense in the playoffs.

Following his 2012 arrival in Denver, Manning quickly established rapport with his new teammates including Tracy Porter, the former New Orleans cornerback who iced the Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV win by intercepting Manning. “If you came up here to the practice facility at dawn, you’d see two cars already in the parking lot: the guy who runs the building and Peyton Manning,” Porter told ESPN The Magazine’s Ryan McGee. “When someone loves the game as much as he does, it kind of takes over the whole team.”

In one spring 2012 practice, Porter intercepted Manning on a series, then got burned by a pass a few plays later. McGee added:

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“As he walked off the field, the defensive back felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the quarterback, who said: ‘You tell me what I did wrong on that first play and I’ll tell you what you did wrong on that next play. That’s the only way we’re going to get better. Deal?’

Months later, Porter still shakes his head while telling the story. ‘Dang right, that was a deal,’ he says. ‘He wants me to be better so he can be better. And he wants to be better to help me get better. I’ll follow a man like that into any game, anywhere, any way.’” On Sunday, Denver’s defense will play just as large a role in the Broncos’ fate as Manning’s brilliance. How Bronco defensive backs like Champ Bailey, Quentin Jammer and rookie Kayvon Webster respond to the loss of cornerback Chris Harris, Jr.—a top Denver defender who tore his ACL in the last round—will be one of the game’s most important variables.

No matter what happens on Sunday, Manning and Brady’s true legacies are already set. Those legacies are found in whatever they have passed along to their teammates in thousands of hours’ worth of workouts, practices and plane flights. Some of that will pass on to future generations and make the game better.

The question of whether either quarterback has a legit claim to being the all-time best remains, though. The answer may seem clearer after the game, but will again muddle in the coming years as time erodes fans’ perceptions. Most of today’s NFL fans would agree Brady and Manning deserve to be ranked somewhere in the league’s all-time Top 10 quarterbacks. But Brady and Manning could not have already ascended into that pantheon unless older all-time greats like Otto Graham, Bart Starr and Sammy Baugh were knocked down a few notches.

Baugh, who starred for the Redskins in the 1940s, is the only player to lead the NFL in passing, punting, and intercepting in the same season. That’s pretty awesome, but unfortunately for Baugh’s reputation, he’s ancient history to most NFL fans. Nobody mentions his name anymore “because nobody’s seen him,” Joe Montana said in 2012. “It’s always about what’s happening now.”

It’s difficult to imagine, but to some future generation Manning’s career tally of 491 touchdowns and 219 interceptions will look as unimpressive as Baugh’s 187 TDs/203 INTs career total looks to us now. There will be quarterbacks faster, stronger and quicker than their predecessors who will in the coming decades earn teammates’ loyalties, shatter today’s records, win at least three Super Bowls and surpass Manning and Brady on most fans’ Top 10 lists. The young, explosive dual-threat stars squaring off in the NFC Championship Game—Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson—remind us Manning and Brady’s time at the top of their profession is limited.