In ranking Colts all-time quarterbacks, Mike Tanier did not take the easy way out. He looked at signal-callers who played in both Baltimore and Indianapolis, which meant a head-to-head Peyton Manning vs. Johnny Unitas debate.
Manning wins, and Tanier makes a strong case, keyed around this: “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in any of the records like Manning’s body of work over the last decade.”
This is as good a piece on Manning’s historical standing as I can remember.
In it, Tanier sorts through a complicated issue in a discussion of how to compare greats from very different eras. Excuse the giant chunk, I promise it's worth it:
"One thing that often happens in these arguments is that we adjust the contemporary player down because careers are longer and stats are more prolific, but we never adjust the old timer down for the fact that media coverage has changed. In Unitas’ heyday, sportswriters were almost uniformly fawning and invested in mythmaking. The football media was also rather primitive, compared to the modern football mass media and to baseball media of the time, so players weren’t scrutinized heavily or scouted minutely. We don’t have detailed scouting reports documenting every minor Unitas mistake, long columns explaining how Unitas lacks the courage or gumption to defeat Bart Starr, or bloggers making fun of Unitas’ post-interception facial expressions. We had a hero-champion-warrior king. You cannot compare that bronze bust to the guy who will take the field in September (I type this with ever-increasing confidence) and possibly lose or throw two interceptions. You have to make harsh judgments when comparing old legends to new. You have to notice the fact that from 1961-63 Unitas was the third-to-fifth best quarterback in a 14-team league. You have to remember that Colts did just fine without him the year they reached Super Bowl III, a sign that his “leadership” was not all that important to a team that did darn well with his backup at the helm.
"There are other things to adjust for. Unitas won three titles. Winning an NFL championship in 1958 and 1959 meant winning one championship game, no playoffs. The other title came in 1971, when the NFL Colts got to share a division with four newly-arrived AFL teams, three of them terrible. The Jets, Bills, and Patriots combined to win seven games the year the Colts won Super Bowl V. This sounds like I am picking away at Unitas, and I don’t mean to do that to one of the best quarterbacks ever. I am just explaining that “adjustment” is a two-way street. Unitas’ 1950s Colts won 12-team leagues. It was an accomplishment, and a sign of excellence, but not a cudgel that can be used to beat another player over the head for winning a 32-team league “only” once.
"There’s a reflexive need to argue against Manning’s greatness, and I noticed it when looking through the message boards in the last few weeks when some of you were anticipating this Colts list. For Manning, we have amazing stats, wins, and longevity. Leadership that in any other era would be universally lauded. Uniqueness and durability at a position where a missed game is potentially a disaster. We toss them all away and point to a handful of playoff losses. The problem isn’t bad here at Football Outsiders, where you guys really delve into the evidence and come away with measured conclusions. In other places, it is pathologically nutty, and some of them aren't even Patriots fansites."
The entire piece is worth a read. And a re-read. And a bookmark.