Peyton Manning is a throwback to old-time quarterbacks with his ability to read defenses and change plays — and he’s doing it against defenses that are much more complex than when quarterbacks called plays. He ranks with the best I have seen since I started covering pro football in 1967. Here is how I rate those who came before him.
- Joe Montana. The epitome of cool, Montana was in an offense that perfectly suited his talents. Nobody was his equal at hitting receivers in stride, so they could run for extra yardage. His poise showed in the 49ers’ third Super Bowl win when Roger Craig ran the wrong pattern, so he shifted targets and hit John Taylor for the winning touchdown.
- John Elway. The most physically gifted quarterback I’ve seen, Elway had a very strong arm that could throw a 60-yard pass or a bullet through tight coverage. Early in his career, he could also run for
- Roger Staubach. He was great leader who could, like Montana and Elway, bring a team back when all seemed lost. The 49ers learned that the hard way in a 1972 playoff game when the Cowboys stormed back from a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
- Dan Marino. Probably the best pure passer in this group, Marino had a very quick release and an ability to throw any type of pass.
- Joe Namath. His bad knees reduced him to a very short peak period, but in his prime, he was as good as any quarterback I’ve seen. Namath was also a very important figure in football history because his “$400,000 contract” put the AFL on the map and his “guarantee” of a win in the third Super Bowl shattered the myth of NFL superiority.
Beyond this group is another I would call very good. In alphabetical order they are: Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Lenny Dawson, Brett Favre, Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, Fran Tarkenton, Kurt Warner and Steve Young.
All the quarterbacks in these two groups are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame except for Favre and Warner, who will be elected as soon as they’re eligible.
There are two HOF quarterbacks from my time whom I haven’t mentioned, Sonny Jurgensen and Bob Griese. I didn’t see enough of Jurgensen to rate him, though he’d probably be in the very good category. Griese doesn’t belong in the HOF. He got in because his team was undefeated in the 1972 season and won two straight Super Bowls, but Griese only started five of the 14 regular-season games in ’72 because of a broken leg. In the two Super Bowl wins, Griese threw a combined 18 passes for a net total of 132 yards. His biggest contribution was handing off to Larry Csonka.
One of my favorites, Ken Stabler, hasn’t made the HOF because he had too short a career at the top. Neither has Jim Plunkett, though he won two Super Bowls. Another of my favorites, John Brodie, played for too many bad teams.
Manning is certainly on his way to the HOF. Does he belong in the great or very good category? We’ll know more after Sunday.