There is no more difficult job in sports writing than criticizing Peyton Manning
He epitomizes what we want in a high-profile athlete. He loves and respects the game. Heís committed and well-prepared. Heís highly skilled, fun to watch and maintains an air of humility. He is easy to like and respect.
However, his accomplishments are rarely placed in their proper perspective. He just won his record fourth Associated Press MVP award. When he retires, heíll own just about every meaningful career passing record and some experts will argue that Manning is the greatest quarterback of all time.
I canít go there. Not now. Not without significantly more postseason success.
Saturday night, when the Indianapolis Colts
face the Baltimore Ravens
, Manning will play the most important game of his career, his 16th postseason start. A poor performance and a loss severely damage Manningís reputation as a champion.
Yes, heís battled a big-game image problem since college, and his lackluster individual performance during the Coltsí 2006 Super Bowl run did little to quiet the critics who question Manningís ability to execute efficiently when pressure is the highest.
But this goes deeper than Manningís 7-8 playoff record, 22-17 TD-to-INT ratio and 10-point drop in QB rating during the postseason (95.2 to 85.0).
Before I go on, marinate on these comparative numbers:
9-3 record, 31-13 TD-to-INT, 93.7 to 104.6 QB rating.
: 14-4 record, 28-15 TD-to-INT, 93.3 to 85.5 QB rating.
12-10 record, 39-28 TD-to-INT, 86.6 to 85.2 QB rating.
8-10 record, 32-24 TD-to-INT, 86.4 to 77.1 QB rating.
14-8 record, 27-21 TD-to-INT, 79.9 to 79.7 QB rating.
16-7 record, 45-21 TD-to-INT, 92.3 to 95.6 QB rating.
Thatís right. Manning compares most favorably to Marino, a great player who dominated the stat sheet but had trouble winning and producing at the same high level in January.
Now, letís take the discussion a step farther. Manning is playing in the QB era, which is somewhat like baseballís steroid era. The rules of the game so heavily favor the quarterback and the passing game that statistics are being distorted.
Itís nearly illegal to touch the quarterback now. Since the beginning of the new millennium, the NFL has passed a series of rules aimed at assuring the players most likely to receive $100 million contracts donít end up on injured reserve. In the mid-1990s, the league installed radio transmitters in the helmet of QBs and renewed its commitment to stop defensive backs from touching receivers more than five yards downfield.
The purpose of the rule changes since 1978 (when the league first outlawed receiver-DB contact beyond five yards) was to create the Arizona-Green Bay shootout we watched last weekend. Kurt Warner and Aaron Rodgers
completed nearly every pass they threw.
Throwing for 4,000 yards in a season used to be a very big deal. No one did it in 1997. Two guys did it in 2001. This past season, 10 QBs surpassed the 4,000-yard barrier. In 1990, three quarterbacks -- Jim Kelly, Warren Moon and Joe Montana -- completed more than 60 percent of their passes. Nineteen years later, 21 quarterbacks -- including future career backups David Garrard, Alex Smith and Chad Henne -- connected on at least 60 percent of their throws.
Playing quarterback is still the most difficult job in all of sports, but rule changes have made the task much easier. No one has benefitted more than Peyton Manning. Heís collected four MVP trophies in seven years by taking advantage of leagueís insistence on providing quarterbacks PEDs -- performance-enhancing defenses.
The lone remaining venue where a QB can distinguish himself from the pretenders is the postseason.
Manning needs a good showing and a victory on Saturday. If not, heís a Dan Marino upgrade and a slice below Brett Favre. Thatís not bad company. But itís not Montana, Elway and Brady. Hell, Manning could fall behind Kurt Warner, if Warner wins another Super Bowl.
Now, the rest of the Truths.
9. The media and fan cry that itís time to end the Donovan McNabb era just so the Eagles can take a flyer on Kevin Kolb is a bad joke.
I was disappointed by the Eagles' performance against the Cowboys, too. I thought early in the game when field position was critical McNabb turned down a couple of opportunities to run the ball for short gains and set up manageable third-down situations. McNabb didnít play smart.
But Phillyís offensive line was terrible and Andy Reidís management of his offense suspect. Legitimate playoff quarterbacks canít be found on every street corner. The Carolina Panthers
gave Jake Delhomme a contract extension last season. And people want the Eagles to discard McNabb like heís spoiled milk?
No way. McNabb deserves another year with Phillyís young playmakers. And the Eagles need some safety and linebacker help on defense.
8. How did the Bengals win 10 regular-season games and sweep the Steelers and the Ravens?
Scientists may study this for the next 100 years and never come up with an answer. Cincinnati runs the most vanilla offense in the league. The Jets did nothing special to stop Carson Palmer and the Bengals offense.
Palmerís lack of confidence canít be explained away by a thumb injury. He looks like a QB who doesnít believe in what the Bengals are doing. Cincyís tight ends donít have the speed to challenge the middle of a defense. Cedric Bensonís running should give the Bengals a strong play-action passing game. But itís unimaginative, too.
The Bengals shouldíve entered the Charlie Weis sweepstakes.
7. There are several holes in all the Green Bay whining about the uncalled facemask penalty on Aaron Rodgersí game-deciding fumble.
The refs miss calls all the time. Rodgers missed Greg Jennings deep on the first play of overtime. The fact is, Brett Favre wouldíve connected with Jennings. Packers
fans know it and thatís why theyíre whining about the hit on Rodgers.
Itís a distraction so they wonít have to deal with the reality that Favre still throws the long ball better than Rodgers.
I like Rodgers. I like the way he played in that game. He has yet to justify Ted Thompsonís decision to run Favre out of Green Bay. Maybe next year.
6. Billionaire owners are not all that different from millionaire athletes: They both make the rules up as they go.
Thatís the lesson from the Redskinsí and the Seahawksí flouting of the Rooney Rule, which stipulates minority candidates shouldíve been legitimately interviewed before Mike Shanahan and Pete Carroll were handed jobs.
Iím for ending the Rooney Rule. It served its purpose as it relates to coaches. The key now is to provide networking opportunities for minority coaches and executives. The spirit of the Rooney Rule would be best served by creating a day at the annual owners meetings for qualified minority coaches and executives to interview and interact with ownership.
5. You know who Tom Brady looked like against the Ravens? Peyton Manning.
At the beginning of the year I wrote that we may never see Fearless Tom Brady again. His knee injury would produce timidity in the pocket. Thatís exactly what happened against Baltimore. Under duress, Brady made poor throws.
Wes Welker is the receiver Brady can throw to in rhythm. Randy Moss is the kind of receiver a quarterback must locate and read before unleashing the football. Mossí route running isnít consistent.
Reading and reacting takes time and allows the defense to get to the QB. The Ravens hit Brady early in the game and Brady started thinking about his knee. Itís natural.
4. Prediction: Ravens 23, Colts 21.
This is about karma. The football gods are going to make Indianapolis pay for spitting on history and quitting on perfection. The Ravens jump to a big lead and hold on down the stretch. Ray-ven Lewis and Ed Reed both create critical turnovers. The Ravens get their licks on Manning despite dropping eight into coverage half the game.
3. Prediction: Chargers 20, Jets 16.
This game is closer than expected thanks totally to Rex Ryanís defense. The Chargers wonít rush for 50 yards, and their one-dimensional attack will play into the hands of cornerback Darrelle Revis, who will snag two picks. San Diego trails after three quarters and Phillip Rivers leads the Chargers to victory late.
2. Prediction: Cardinals 51, Saints 45.
Thatís right. Itís a repeat of last weekís Green Bay-Arizona classic. Itís more seven-on-seven flag football. I canít bet against Kurt Warner. Heís a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer now. Heís the best postseason quarterback weíve ever seen, and heís got a boatload of good receivers. Plus, New Orleans has been lousy lately.
1. Prediction: Vikings 30, Cowboys 24.
I want Favre to win. Itís that simple. Heís a great story. He makes my job easy. If he loses, Ted Thompson gets to pretend he did nothing wrong. If Favre makes it to the Super Bowl, I get to write another column ripping Thompson. Rooting against Thompson is kind of like rooting against Charlie Weis when he was head coach at Notre Dame. Itís all about the quality of my column.