It’s not just that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have taken parallel career paths since the former became the Patriots starter in the second week of the 2001 season.
It’s that Brady and Manning have concurrently built respective cases as not just the premier quarterbacks of this era but of every era, performing for more than a decade in a stratosphere so far above the vast majority of their peers that those career paths begin to look like vapor trails.
Praising one without acknowledging the greatness of the other was difficult even for those with a passionate rooting interest.
For any fan of the NFL and a good sports debate, the game of Compare And Contrast, Legendary Quarterbacks Edition, is impossible to resist. Why would you want to?
Brady has had the better coach and, in his early years at least, the superior defense. Manning typically has had higher-grade offensive weapons and took up a larger chunk of the salary cap. Brady has won more. Manning has won more recently.
Which is why the usual surveying of the various NFL studio programming Sunday morning felt so unusual, and a little jarring, too. For the first time in memory – at least during seasons in which Brady and Manning were both healthy – the perception of the iconic-in-their-own-time quarterbacks differed.
The abbreviated conclusions: Manning is still soaring. Brady? His Patriots might have nothing left but vapors.
There’s nothing wrong with praising Manning at any point in time. But that especially applied Sunday, when his pursuit of his 500th career touchdown pass – a milestone achieved a little more than 10 minutes into the Broncos’ victory over the Cardinals – offered an opportunity to apply context and color to his remarkable career.
ESPN’s Bill Polian, who as the Colts GM drafted Manning in 1998, delivered an insightful video retrospective on the quarterback’s career.
It must be acknowledged, though, that those who remember him pounding his fists in a rage in the press box during Colts-Patriots games a decade ago have a right to be bewildered about his transformation into mild-mannered television essayist.
But the topic of the day was Brady. The Patriots submitted one of their most hideous performances of the Belichick/Brady era Monday night in a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs, and Brady was a culprit rather than a victim. He was the talk of the town in the buildup to Sunday night’s showdown with the Bengals, and not at all in the usual way.
Chris Mortensen reported on “Sunday NFL Countdown” that there is a rift of some measure between Brady and the Patriots brain trust.
While any reports of insider information regarding the Patriots must be accompanied by a healthy skepticism – very little news gets out that they don’t want to get out – Mortensen’s dispatch certainly jibed with the current perception.
“Sources say Brady is uncomfortable with the personnel and coaching changes,” Mortensen said. “The consequences have led to tensions between Brady and the coaching staff.”
Other elements of his report were vague in a no-kidding-Sherlock kind of way. “Others close to the team now believe that when the Patriots used that second-round pick [in 2014] on Jimmy Garropolo that they were, in fact, choosing Brady’s successor,’’ Mortensen said.
Well, sure, you’d hope so. That’s a high draft pick. And Brady isn’t playing forever, though according to CBS’s Jason LaCanfora, he is reiterating to friends that he wants to play into his 40s, which is as close to forever as it gets in the NFL. The buzz-worthy hypothetical in LaCanfora’s report is that Brady’s quest for forever may have to continue with another franchise.
“Tom Brady has no intention of slowing down,’’ said LaCanfora. “He continues to tell friends he thinks he can play deep into his 40s. He just turned 37. He has three years left on his contract beyond this year for the bargain basement total of $24 million. So at a time when his frustration is mounting about the lack of talent around him, it’s fair to ask, would he do another team-friendly deal in New England? If the Patriots went into a rebuild mode, it’s worth noting his current contract would slide easily into any team’s payroll and salary cap structure.”
Brady made rumors of his Patriots demise seem laughably premature in Sunday night’s 43-17 win. And after the game he said, “I love all of those guys, my coaches, and I’ve never had an tension with them, truthfully. It’s unfortunate that some things get said and talked about, especially because they don’t come from me.”
Of course there is a chance Brady wears another uniform someday.
Of the NFL’s top 10 all-time leaders in passing yards, only three played for one team – Dan Marino, John Elway, and , so far, Brady. Brett Favre played for four – forgot the Falcons, didn’t you? Johnny Unitas was a Charger, Joe Montana a Chief, Joe Namath a Ram. It happens.
But if and until the shocking day arrives, the single-team career remains a rare difference between Brady and Manning, whose 500th TD pass was his 101st with the Broncos since coming over from the Colts before the 2012 season.