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Venkataraman: A not-so-simple exercise in comparing legacies

Let’s take a moment and talk about Peyton Manning’s legacy.

I know, I know, you’ve all heard this narrative before. But humor me for a second, because I’m going to take this age-old conversation in a very different direction.

Even the world’s biggest Manning fan would have to admit that Sunday evening was not his finest performance. Harried, hustled and under siege for the entirety of the Super Bowl, he threw two interceptions (both of which, though arguably not his fault, still looked darn ugly) and seemed unable to drive the ball down the field.

Peyton Manning, owner of nearly every single-season passing record and leader of the most vaunted offense in history, was reduced to Captain Checkdown.

To put it bluntly, even on a day on which everything did not go right for Seattle and everything did not go wrong for Denver, it would still have taken a near-perfect performance to unlock Seattle’s swarming and ferocious defense. Scoring eight points in garbage time just isn’t going to cut it.

So what does this tell us? Manning’s career postseason record drops to 11-12, giving him the most postseason losses in NFL history (hardee har). He is now 1-2 in Super Bowls, with a win over the Bears in a sloppy performance in 2007, a game-clinching interception against the Saints in a 2010 loss and last Sunday’s debacle. Oxymoronically, he is without question the most respected quarterback alive, a man who has owned, enhanced and refined the quarterback position as we know it today.

The angry mob will argue that Manning chokes in the clutch, that he cannot handle the pressure of the playoffs and the Super Bowl and that the blame for the 43-8 annihilation at the hands of the Seahawks rests solely on his shoulders. The apologists will say that it was all on the Broncos defense; that if only Manning had more weapons, the Broncos would have been able to compete; that the offensive line didn’t come to play and that Manning remains blameless.

In reality, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Broncos were outgunned from the start, but Manning’s play certainly didn’t help their cause in any way. To separate one factor from another is impossible because football is a team sport. One of the glories (and agonies) of team sports is that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. From such naturally noisy data, how can we hope to glean any accurate or meaningful insights?

The list of truly once-in-a-lifetime quarterbacks is fairly agreed upon: Unitas, Montana, Elway, Marino and more that I am hesitant to list for fear of omitting someone in my haste to get this article done on time.

From the current generation, the guaranteed inductees to this club seem to be Brady and Manning. But it is not enough to be a part of this group these days; for whatever reason, we are the generation of absolute rankings, certainty, hard facts — desirous of some undeniable logic that proclaims one person as truly better than another.

Part of that mentality is why, for the last decade, we’ve pit Manning and Brady against each other so venomously. The dudes are actually pretty close friends who stay in touch and genuinely wish each other well. Still, every failure for Brady is a victory for Manning, and every success of Manning’s countermands some achievement from Brady. In answering the question of legacy, we seem to lose sight of the fact that there are 21 guys on the field who don’t have the (mis)fortune of playing quarterback.

Frankly, I don’t think that there is any way to absolutely rank the quarterbacks who belong to the “elite” clique. Do we ding Montana for being on loaded teams, as we seem to do to Brady when comparing him to Manning? Do we upgrade Marino for being saddled with poor teams, as we seem to do to Manning when comparing him to Brady? What do we do with poor Jim Kelly, who came up just short in four Super Bowls? What about Elway, who lost two Super Bowls at the prime of his career but won two behind much stronger teams?

Without God himself sending down a rankings sheet from the heavens, this is an exercise in futility. The easier question to answer is whether a quarterback is elite or not; past that, the only thing one can get in arguing over specific rankings is a raging headache.

The box score will say that Manning completed 34 passes (a Super Bowl record, just another feather in Manning’s cap) for 280 yards and a touchdown, to go with two interceptions and a botched shotgun snap on the first play from scrimmage. Want to know what is wrong with football fans today? As a diehard Brady fan, with every Manning mistake, the only thing I could think was that Brady’s legacy is secure. That, to me, is a real shame, because I really do want to like and root for Manning.

Get with the picture, folks! Football is a team sport. Stop comparing positional legacies head-to-head. Enjoy the short offseason and enjoy the Spandex Bowl (the NFL Combine) that is soon forthcoming.

As a matter of fact, Vignesh Venkataraman recently gained possession of the quarterback rankings sheet from the heavens. Convince him that trading it for a used iPhone 3 on Craigslist is a bad idea at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.