Who Really is The Greatest of All-Time: Brady or Manning?

Andrew Fultz

Manning-Brady. Even to a casual NFL fan, the two names are enough to inspire debate. My wife, who’s interest in the NFL doesn’t go much further than, “Did the Bengals win?” has asked me multiple times in the past few weeks which quarterback is better. Truth be told, I’ve struggled with the answer.

The two have had such great success for such an extended amount of time that they are likely eternally intertwined in an endless debate that does not have a wrong answer. At this point, you are well-versed in this dispute. You’ve probably heard plenty of stats. You’ve likely watched more than one game between the two. And almost certainly, you’ve already chosen a side.

As such, there’s likely no stat, no argument, and no amount of data that I can compile to sway you from one side of the argument to the other. This is not true for me, however.
While the majority of sports fans prefer to be right – undoubtedly, you clicked on this article hoping that I have chosen the QB that you prefer – I have a much greater interest in getting it right. To some, this would make me seem indecisive or easily swayed.

Changing sides in a debate carries a stigma. I am comfortable with this stigma. In reality, I see greater value in eventually getting it right, even if it means admitting I was initially getting it wrong. So, while most sports fans will entrench themselves on one side of an argument no matter how much data is thrown their way – there are still people in their 40’s that believe Michael Jordan isn’t the greatest basketball player of all time – I don’t mind admitting I’m wrong and changing sides if I feel I am ultimately on the right side.

Manning UTAs such, I’ve flip-flopped on the Brady-Manning debate multiple times. Being an avid, lifelong Tennessee Volunteer fan, I predictably started firmly in the Manning camp. Desperate to be right, I clung to Manning’s regular season accolades through Brady’s three Super Bowl wins and what felt like countless Brady head-to-head wins.

However, on the back of Brady’s carving of the same Seattle Seahawks defense that had dismantled Manning just a year earlier, I faltered. Manning had floundered at the end of the 2014 season, losing to a woefully overrated Indianapolis Colts team. Brady had ascended into Joe Montana territory. The question seemed to have answered itself. Four rings. Six Super Bowl appearances. Owned the head-to-head record. Brady was the greatest.

And that’s where I stood for almost a year. I even argued with my fellow VFL’s (Vol-for-Life) about it. Mind you, I was still a Manning fan. I still rooted against Brady. I wanted Manning to be the greatest. I just couldn’t find the argument that convinced me he was.

As you can probably guess, I’ve changed sides again. I firmly believe that Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback at all time. It’s not for the reasons you probably think, though. Joe Sports Fan probably believes that the next changing of sides is because of Manning’s recent Super Bowl victory. Remember, I’m a truth-seeker, and the truth is that Manning had as much to do with winning that Super Bowl as Von Miller had to do with losing it.

Let me assure you that Peyton having two rings is not what has swayed my opinion. Let’s take a journey, shall we? Let’s take one more sweeping view of the greatest sports debate of our generation. And as we go, open your mind to the idea of getting it right. Be willing to admit that maybe you have been wrong; that it’s possible that things are not what they have seemed.

Manning vs. Brady (2)

Let Go of Lazy

Since I’ve spoiled the result of my tireless research by admitting in my intro that Peyton is the GOAT, let me go ahead and stop you from creating your account to comment.
Brady has four rings. I get it. I know. It’s what swayed me in February 2015. He’s incredible. He’s fantastic in cold weather. He’s won more playoff games than any other quarterback. I know. I didn’t side with Brady for the better part of a year without knowing my stuff.

To truly sink my teeth into this debate, I had to do one thing. I had to let go of the lazy argument. The low hanging fruit is never the sweetest. At least, I assume it isn’t. I can’t say that I’ve ever picked fruit.

So, I had to let go of Brady’s four rings. It’s too easy, too lazy. While conducting research for this post on Monday, I came across one column and one blog – unsurprisingly both originating from Boston – claiming that Peyton’s second ring doesn’t change Brady’s status as the greatest. Without reading either article, you know the argument they both made. Of course. It was predictable. It was unoriginal. And it was not at all convincing or compelling.

I’m sure you’re flipping your lid right now if you’re a Brady supporter. I’m about to make good on that. I promise.

In order to keep the debate balanced, Manning’s side also has to give up a feather in their cap. The low hanging fruit that I cleaved to for all those years? The regular season stats. To make my decision, I did not consider Manning’s career passing touchdown record, his career passing yards record, his single season touchdown and passing yard records, or any of the myriad other records he holds.

It’s likely that Brady supporters are still flipping their lid because they’ve long viewed the rings as greater than the regular season accolades. After all, that’s why you’re a Brady supporter. I get that, okay? I’m not trying to convince you. You just want to be right. I’m talking to the “get it right” crowd. And the get-it-rights can’t lean on something as fluky as a once-a-year single elimination tournament decided by playing a game that requires throwing, catching, and kicking an oblong ball around a 6400 square yard field.

If you boil this debate down to postseason vs regular season, it’s boring. And as you’ll see below, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Don’t believe me? Then look at it like this:

Manning owns basically every regular season record a quarterback can own. And Brady has an 11-6 record against him in games played during the regular season.

Brady, according to the story the media has fed you for fifteen years, owns the postseason, especially when compared to Manning. And Manning has a 3-2 record against him in the postseason.

See? The argument is not as simple as regular season records versus championship rings. If it were, it would be boring. And nothing about Manning vs Brady has ever been boring.

So, let go off the lazy. Let’s find the truth.

Forget What You Thought You Knew

For starters, let’s erase the unfair – and quite frankly, wrong – narratives surrounding both QBs. Brady is not as clutch as you think he is (though he certainly is clutch). Peyton has not choked like you think he has. For one, Peyton simply has more fourth quarter comebacks than Tom Brady. Peyton had seven – SEVEN! – fourth quarter comebacks in his sophomore season alone (SEVEN!). That’s almost half of the season’s games and was more than half of the Colts’ thirteen wins in 1999. But yeah, Peyton isn’t clutch.

Bill Barnwell has more data to debunk the ridiculous notion that Peyton is a teeth clincher. His approach was to look at Manning’s record in close games – namely, those decided by seven points or less. Historically, Barnwell says, NFL teams show no ability to win close games. It is a 50-50 proposition. Yet, in 117 close games, Manning has won 66%, which is good for second all-time for quarterbacks who have started at least 50 close games. The leader? Yep. Tom Brady at 70.5%.

So of course, Brady is clutch as well, I just don’t have to prove that to you. We all believe it because the media told us. It also just so happens to be true.

A little extra data that requires no explanation.

comback chart

The second half of the “Peyton isn’t clutch” argument points to his playoff record. Of course, at 14-13, Manning’s record doesn’t exactly shine. However, simple win-loss record doesn’t tell the whole story. The truth is that Peyton’s teams let him down more often than Brady’s teammates let him down. This is better told with actual data, so check out Adam Steele from Football Perspective, who explains this reality with tons of data that this solitary blogger simply doesn’t have the resources to generate.

The biggest takeaway point? Up until 2004, which was when the Manning-Brady storylines were being eternally written, Brady’s teammates were worth a whopping 14 points more than Manning’s teammates.

So, forget what you thought you knew about Peyton Manning’s playoff struggles and Tom Brady’s playoff successes. They don’t tell the whole story. Much like Manning’s records don’t tell the whole story.

Telling the Whole Story

If there’s one other argument, besides rings, that supports Brady’s claim to GOAT, it’s the comparison of the skill position players he’s had to the players on Manning’s teams. Recently elected Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison spent his entire career with Peyton. Reggie Wayne. Pierre Garcon. Edgerrin James. The list goes on. (I will conveniently forget the laundry list of players who were wildly successful with Peyton and quite pedestrian without him. Stokley. Collie. Clark.)

Though it has to be said that the 2007 Patriots looked like the best team ever, and almost were. And then Manning’s 2013 Broncos were better. Brady, with the greatest receiver of all time not named Jerry Rice, wasn’t better than Manning with Demaryius Thomas, who is maybe the fifth best receiver of his generation.

thomasmanning brady Moss (1)

Still, Manning undeniably had the better supporting cast of skill position players. And as such, he amassed the regular season accolades, but we threw those out.

One last nail to hang your Brady hat on is the results of Super Bowls XLVIII and XLIX. Astute fans will recall that these two games featured Manning’s Broncos and Brady’s Patriots playing a common opponent, the Seattle Seahawks. The former coming completely unhinged against the fierce Legion of Boom, and the latter unhinging the very same squad a year later.

But of course, scoreboards don’t tell the whole story.

Working backwards, in Super Bowl XLIX when Brady was carving up the all-time great Seattle Seahawks’ defense, Brady’s supporters will always conveniently forget that elite pass rusher Cliff Avril had left the game near the end of the third quarter. Result: The Patriots offense that had managed a whopping 14 points through three quarters suddenly moves the ball at will.

“Yeah! Brady is so clutch, man! He’s the GOAT!”

No, he suddenly found himself with time to throw because Avril’s absence meant that New England could focus its pass protection on Michael Bennett. Suddenly free of the muddy pocket, Brady becomes Tom Terrific and earns himself a fourth Super Bowl.

A year earlier, lost in the mess of Seattle’s throttling of the Denver Broncos, is that Von Miller – he of the Super Bowl 50 MVP award – and top cornerback Chris Harris were out due to injury. We can’t know how that would have changed the outcome. I’m not saying that we should ignore the blowout because of that. Peyton was terrible that night. He missed open receivers. He made bad decisions. He was uncomfortable all night.
To be sure, he was bad. There’s just more to the story than we remember.

Still, Brady won. Peyton lost. Injuries are a part of the game. They’re just not a part of the game I want to ignore when considering which of the two is best.

What about that time they missed the entire season?

As I mentioned above, Manning’s Super Bowl 50 win is not what inspired this article. It just makes the timing quite fortuitous. This past fall, I read Brady vs Manning: The Untold Story of the Rivalry That Transformed the NFL by Gary Myers. Great read with a lot of interesting stories behind the Brady-Manning rivalry. Myers tells the story from an unbiased perspective. He holds no allegiance. He tells both sides of the quarterbacks’ stories equally. He has no angle. No agenda. He just wants to share what he’s learned. It’s awesome.

And it reminded me of perhaps the most important data point we have regarding Manning vs Brady.

In all of my excitement in naming Brady the greatest shortly after the 2014 season, I forgot about this vital piece of information. Both quarterbacks have missed an entire season. How did their teams fare in their absence?

If you needed any proof of just how much glue Peyton was expending to prop up those terrible Colts teams he played with towards the end of his tenure in Indianapolis, look no further than the fortuitous 2011 season. You know the story. Peyton missed the entire season while having four neck surgeries, and the Colts went 2-14 without him, after going 10-6 in 2010. Yes, they were that bad. Unwatchable. Cringe-worthy.


Rewind three years and head over to Foxboro, and you’ll find the Patriots without Tom Brady. Their record without their offensive leader? 11-5. It was as if they never missed a beat. Now, to be fair, this was the team that returned the core of their 16-0 team from 2007.

Still, the overwhelming evidence that shifts these two data points towards the Manning camp is Tom Brady’s backup quarterback in 2008, Matt Cassel. Ask any Cowboys fan if they believe Matt Cassel is capable of winning 11 games over the next two seasons.
The Matt Cassel season is quite possibly the single greatest anomaly football has ever seen. Either that, or Brady truly does benefit from the “Patriot Way” and the Belichick system. No matter how great Brady is – and he is great – we will always have the Matt Cassel season lingering out there, calling question to how much of the Patriots’ success is Brady’s.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 1.06.51 PM

Truer words have never been spoken, Rich.

And he brings me to my final point.


belichickBrady has Belichick. The Hoodie. The magical intimidator. The man who turns other teams’ castaways into pro-bowl players. Brady has had the luxury of playing for the greatest coach of all time. This is an advantage that cannot be quantified, nor can it be overstated. Bill Belichick has such a power over teams that Chuck Pagano quite poetically tripped over himself trying to elaborately beat the man who is so rarely beaten.

Manning has not had the same kind of good fortune that Brady has when it comes to head coaches. Manning was fortunate to play under newly elected Hall of Famer Tony Dungy. Dungy was great. His players love and respect him. However, Manning only got 6 years with him. And Dungy is no Belichick.

Belichick may have his name beside Vince Lombardi’s on the championship trophy one day. At best, Tony Dungy may have been a top five of his generation coaching talent. Belichick is the greatest coach ever.

Do not misunderstand my point. We do not have Belichick without Brady. The two stand together. They hold one another up. Belichick was run out of Cleveland without Brady. Brady could barely win the starting job at Michigan, yet has flourished under Belichick. The two have been wildly successful because of each other.

Would he be as successful without Brady to hold him up? Certainly not. However, Belichick has absolutely played an integral role in shaping the narrative of Tom Brady.


Ultimately, Peyton is the leader in the clubhouse, but when you consider that Brady expects to play several more years, you can view Brady as still out on the course with a couple of birdie opportunities in play. In fact, Brady averages one Super Bowl appearance every 2.67 seasons, so it’s pretty safe to assume that Brady will appear in at least one more big game. If you omit Brady’s 2008 season that was missed due to an ACL tear, that number improves to every 2.5 years. As it stands, the data points to Peyton with a slight edge over Brady, but if Brady manages ring #5, or manages to chase down some of Peyton’s gaudy career regular season records, it’s conceivable that Brady will finish #1.

For now, however, the day belongs to Peyton.

One thought on “Who Really is The Greatest of All-Time: Brady or Manning?

  1. Great piece! One thing I would have also mentioned is the supporting cast and how both players helped evolve their teammates. I feel like Manning wins that argument. Brady’s best single season receiver was Randy Moss: 98catches, 1493 yards, and 23 TDS (NFL Record). But it’s Randy Moss. He posted awesome numbers with Brad Johnson in Minnesota. Manning had Marvin Harrison when be got to Indy but Harrison but he never took off until Peyton started. Then Reggie Wayne who was the sixth receiver taken in the 2001 draft and the only one Canton bound. Through out his time with the Colts he had four 1,000 yard running backs and four 1,000 receivers all of which were in the beginning of their careers. Brady also had four backs reach that but that includes Corey Dillion and Antowine Smith who were already established. You can argue they helped Brady more than he helped them. Brady had 5 players with over 1,000 receiving but that group includes Moss and Troy Brown both of which were Pro Bowl players before Brady took over. The remaining three are Wes Welker, Julian Edleman and Gronk. I would argue that Welker wasn’t made great by Brady. He was a small slot possession receiver, who got alot of possessions. I don’t think Brady developed him into a star. Edleman was a QB in college and Gronk is a monster. I’ll say Brady had something to do with that.

    But then Manning went to Denver. New receiving corps, new backs, new philosophy. There he took an underachieving Demariyous Thomas and an unknown Eric Decker and put them on the map. Add Emmanuel Sanders to that list, as well as Knowshon Moreno to the 1,000 rushing list.

    So Brady arguably developed 2 running backs (Bengarvis Green-Ellis and Steven Ridley and neither has done anything since) and 2 receivers (Gronk and Edelman).

    Manning helped develop Harrison, Wayne, Brandon Stokley, Dallas Clark, Thomas, Decker, Sanders, Marshall Faulk, Edergain James, Dominic Rhodes, Jospeh Addai, Moreno, and got pro bowl performances from Julius Thomas and Marcus Pollard.

    A great player creates other great players.

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