Commentary

Manning not quite as great as Johnny U

Originally Published: September 23, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

One of the more interesting debates to surface this week involves Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

On Monday night, Manning recorded his 119th career victory, breaking the Colts' franchise record for a quarterback, which he had shared with Johnny Unitas. That sparked the debate: Who's better, Manning or Unitas?

My vote stays with Unitas. As great as Manning is -- and he is a lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer -- Unitas set the standards for the modern-day quarterback. He revolutionized the game; he went against tradition.

Unitas played from 1955 to 1973. That was a time when defenses were hard hitting but vanilla in concept and offenses were built around the run. Unitas started the idea of the comeback passing offense, currently known as the two-minute offense. He was doing that in the late 1950s, 30 years before the concept became popular.

Remember, teams didn't chart fourth-quarter comebacks until Broncos fans started asking about John Elway's fourth-quarter victories in the 1980s. Trust me, there isn't an exact science for tracking fourth-quarter comebacks, but most seem to accept the numbers tabulated by The Elias Sports Bureau.

For Manning, Monday night's 27-23 victory over the Dolphins was the 37th time he led a fourth-quarter comeback. Focus on that number for a second. The Colts were awful and could barely win a game during his rookie season (1998). Throw out that season, and Manning averages between three and four comeback wins a season over his career.

His ability to win that many games under those circumstances is why Manning and the Colts are at the 12-win almost level every season. But by all accounts, Unitas had 34 fourth-quarter comeback wins during his career -- even though no one thought to chart them at the time.

Unitas won a Super Bowl and two NFL championships. Manning has one Super Bowl ring and the chance to win others. My vote still goes to Unitas.

Let's go to the mailbag.

From the inbox

Q: In your previous mailbag, you wrote that the NFC East will have "four serious playoff contenders, and, yes, I'm still including the Redskins." Yet, in your "Short takes" section you wrote that you see the Cowboys going 8-8 this year. First of all, in what world does an 8-8 season constitute a "serious playoff contender?" Second, if an 8-8 record qualifies you as a serious playoff contender this year in the NFC, then your argument that the NFC has caught/surpassed the AFC in terms of overall strength is a weak one at best. Care to elaborate?

Frank in Denver

A: Understand that the NFC East hasn't had a team with a losing record since 2006. If you are an 8-8 team in a tight division, you are a playoff contender. In a tight division like the NFC East, the difference between 8-8 and 10-6 is how a team does in divisional play. Look at last season. The Giants went 4-2 in the division and won 12 games. The Cowboys and Redskins each won three in the division, and were 9-7 and 8-8, respectively. The Eagles went 2-4 in the division and 9-6-1 overall, and eventually played in the NFC title game. These four teams are good enough to go 5-5, 6-4, 7-3 or better in non-divisional games, which makes them contenders. I expect the NFC to win more games than the AFC this season in head-to-head competition, and I won't be surprised if the NFC East has two or three playoff teams. Stay with me on this until the end of the season. At that time, e-mail me back, and we'll compare notes.

Q: I had a debate with my brother-in-law. I think defense wins championships. He said that's a myth. Look who won last year. And didn't the Giants beat the No. 1 offense of all time the year before? Please let me know if I am wrong.

Jamin in Winnipeg, Canada

A: Defense can get you to a championship, but touchdowns win championships. From 1983 to 2005, the Super Bowl winner was a team that finished the regular season in the top 10 in scoring defense. But that stat is outdated. Here's the reason: Defense can get you to the final four minutes of any game, but if you are going up against an established, great quarterback, one late scoring drive can change everything. The Dolphins dominated the Colts on Monday night, but Manning beat them with a late touchdown drive. In the first two weeks, 30 percent of the games were decided in the final two minutes. That's 2009 football. It's defense that can keep you in games. It's the quarterback who can win them.

Q: John, why are the Steelers struggling to run the ball?

Nick in Akron, Ohio

A: There almost seems to be a consensus in Pittsburgh that running is overrated and Ben Roethlisberger's passing can carry the team. That might work early in the season, but when the weather gets bad, the Steelers must establish a running game. Willie Parker might be fighting a minor hamstring issue, which could be holding him back. I think the Steelers need to give more carries to Rashard Mendenhall. How could he have only three carries Sunday? The Steelers did face good defenses against Tennessee and Chicago. But they do need to run the ball more and forget the idea of using tight end and wide receiver screens to make up for the lack of a running offense.

Q: Why don't the Broncos just give Brandon Marshall a raise? They don't have to give him the $16 million that he wants. Just give him a little raise and maybe then both parties can move on.

Karl in Littleton, Colo.

A: A little raise doesn't work here. In fact, the Broncos offered to take him to the $4 million-a-year level, but naturally, he said no. Marshall has 100-catch ability. He wants around $9 million, and you're not going to get him to accept something he doesn't want to accept. Because of Marshall's trade demands and insubordination on the field, the organization now is in the wait-and-see mode regarding his contract. In Week 2, he wasn't much of a factor for a good portion of the game. Whether it's his hip or his attitude, Marshall hasn't won over the new coaching staff.

Q: If the Jake Delhomme situation continues to spiral out of control, what options do the Panthers really have this year or next year?

Drew in Asheville, N.C.

A: If the Delhomme situation spirals out of control, the Panthers must draft a quarterback next year. If it spirals out of control, the Panthers probably will be at the six-win level, which could get them a top-10 pick. In fact, even if they do make the playoffs, they should look to trade up in 2010 and grab one of the top quarterbacks. It's time.

Q: I saw Jerry Jones' quote about revenue sharing going away. Is that really a possibility, and how would it affect small-market teams like the Packers?

Bryan in Wausau, Wis.

A: Not having revenue sharing would create a league much like baseball. The Cowboys and Redskins would be the Yankees and Red Sox. The high-revenue teams would have the ability to keep their top free agents and sign a few of the other top ones when they hit the market. The Packers, at the moment, are among the teams with higher revenue, but that could change over time. Commissioner Roger Goodell did the right thing by fining Jones for making those comments. The salary cap provides competitive balance, as does revenue sharing. The league needs to keep both.

Q: What would be reasonable expectations for the Bengals? Their defense seems much improved, but the offense appears to have taken a step back.

James in Corona, Calif.

A: I still think it's reasonable for the Bengals to get to eight or nine wins. The loss to Denver in the opener almost made me wonder whether I was crazy for thinking that. The victory over the Packers in Week 2 put everything back on track. The defense is so much better. It improved last season, but now it has playmaking ability. Antwan Odom has seven sacks in two games. I love the cornerbacks, and the linebacking corps is rapidly becoming among the better ones in the conference. The key to the season is keeping QB Carson Palmer healthy. If he's healthy for 16 games, the Bengals should win at least half of them.

Q: Don't the Eagles have to make Michael Vick the backup QB if they want to use him in the Wildcat?

Trent in Ottawa

A: No, they don't have to make Vick the backup. He's not ready to be the backup quarterback. That's why the Eagles have Kevin Kolb and Jeff Garcia available. It's going to take Vick most of this season to feel comfortable at quarterback. He missed two seasons. He's rusty. Plus, he doesn't need to be rushed into service other than the specialty plays he's learning.

Q: Drew Brees is the best QB in the NFL. Don't get me wrong, I think Manning and Tom Brady are great, but Brees is No. 1 right now. Do you agree?

Jim in Ocean Springs, Miss.

A: It's pretty clear this is going to be Brees' year. I think he will throw more than 40 touchdown passes. He's on pace for another 5,000-yard season. For him to pass Brady or Manning, he's going to have to win a Super Bowl ring, but Brees should win the stats game and be one of the main MVP contenders this season.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer