The word 'elite', as a description of an NFL quarterback, has become an over-used cliche. With the ever-growing wealth of data (increasingly available online) measuring various aspects of their performance, fans, gas-bags and pundits alike can argue like never before over who merits that description. More traditional stats like yards and touchdowns have been cycled out in favor of more mathematically-inspired formulas like passer rating. Whatever other stats are available, there is one metric that seems, at least as public opinion goes, to dwarf them all: Super Bowl titles.
In the NFL, winning a Super Bowl elevates a quarterback to conversations about which one is the 'greatest ever'. The headlines write themselves: a young QB who wins a Super Bowl ‘is on his way to becoming an all-time great‘; a veteran cements his place as an ‘all-time great’. As long as a QB - superstar or not - has yet to win a Super Bowl, that 'failure' is immediately brought out as the first rebuttal disqualifying him from 'greatest' or even 'elite' labels.
Nowhere else in team sports is one players legacy decided with the outcome of one game.
Peyton Manning is unquestionably one of the best signal-callers in the history of football. Regardless of any personal bias you have, he has legit credentials for the QB Mount Rushmore (Brady, Elway, Manning and a spot for people to bicker over) as he heads into his third Super Bowl.
Which is where things start to get ridiculous.
If his team loses, it will be counted by popular opinion as an ‘X’ on his resume even if he plays really well. If they win - even if he plays like crap - it's a checkmark instead, and the postgame commentary will become the latest chapter of odes to Peyton’s greatness.
How does this make any sense? Are fans still so lazy that they don’t remember individual performances or stats, just the result of the game, in judging a player? So much information is accessable on a (web-enabled) cell phone, and yet so often all that's remembered are winners and losers. The how and why are forgotten; the processes that lead to the result are considered irrelevant.
Bill Parcells is an example of Super Bowl titles blurring actual results. His teams won two Super Bowls with him as head coach, one of which because Scott Norwood missed a field goal. If Norwood makes this field goal, maybe people start spending more time evaluating Parcells’ qualifications. Going a bit further, without Bill Belichick on his staff, Parcells never won a playoff game and had a record of 55-57; not really hall of fame numbers. But '2-time Super Bowl-winning head coach trumps all other labels as far as most fans are concerned.
Manning, too, is already the beneficiary of this Super Bowl bias. For all his regular season dominance, his performances in his previous two Super Bowl appearances have been weak at best, including arguably the least-deserved Super Bowl MVP trophy ever awarded (247 yards, 1 TD, 1 pick - it was a career achievement award. Dominic Rhodes, you are not forgotten).
I’m not going to point out Peyton’s career playoff record - of course his numbers in the regular season will trump his playoff numbers, where you play against superior competition. There is rarely an easy game in the playoffs, let alone the Divisional round where he usually started his playoff runs, because his teams have tended to earn first-round byes.
The most overlooked fact about Manning’s regular season supremacy is he played most of his career in a division with the Jags, Texans and Titans, all organizations that have struggled to find a franchise quarterback and have generally been league doormats during Manning’s tenure. Patriot fans - don’t snicker too much, who is the 2nd best QB in the AFC East since Brady arrived... Sanchez? Favre for that year with the Jets? Chad Pennington? A large factor in one club's dominance of a division is incompetence of the other three teams in it.
Ultimately, when Peyton’s career legacy is decided, using this weekend's Superbowl as a benchmark is misguided. The NFL has only added to this confusion by staging their biggest event where one of the most important factors going into Sunday is the weather. Do Montana or Bradshaw become better quarterbacks if Manning throws 3 picks in a blizzard or freezing conditions?
Does it matter who the greatest of all time really is? The quarterback is unquestionably the most important position in North American sports, getting a consensus among fans is near impossible, and trying to create one has only ever resulted in annoyance. Why can’t it be enough to have Manning on the Mount Rushmore of signal callers, remembered for his sheer contribution to the changes he’s ushered in -whether it's his own brand of the no huddle offense (aka ‘Hurry and Wait‘), or his love of Omaha?
Shouldn't these contributions be more important to a legacy than the results of Sunday night's game?