- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? It's the debate of the moment in today's NFL. Which superstar quarterback is the best? Who, between that pair of excellent, future Hall of Fame signal-callers, would you pick if you had the choice? That's not the question that was asked of our Power Rankings panel this week, but it turned out to be the one we answered.
Yes, after weeks upon weeks of power-ranking everything we could think of in the NFL, we've decided to throw all qualifiers and designations out the window and make it very simple: Who are the best players in the league?
As was the case when our panel was asked to rank the league's top quarterbacks, Brady beat out Manning for the top spot in this week's power rankings. Six of the eight NFL bloggers polled ranked Brady No. 1 overall, and the two who didn't -- Mike Sando and Paul Kuharsky -- ranked him second behind Manning. The top four players in our rankings and seven of the top 10 (of the top 11, technically, since Michael Vick and Andre Johnson tied for the No. 10 spot) all play the same position -- quarterback -- which says a lot about the way we value that position.
"Quarterback is the most significant position on the field and can make the difference between a lopsided losing record and the playoffs," said AFC East blogger Tim Graham, whose ballot had quarterbacks in each of the first seven spots and eight of 10 overall. "It takes a truly special running back or defensive player to outweigh the importance of a quarterback. For example, Adrian Peterson is a sensational player. But without Brett Favre producing at quarterback, Peterson couldn't carry the Vikings to the playoffs."
So the question then became which quarterback was the best. The debate these days seems to be squarely between Manning and Brady, though two of our eight bloggers did rank Manning third on this week's list. We'll get to them in a minute. We'll start with the majority opinion -- that Brady is the best player in the league right now.
I was one of the six who ranked Brady in the top spot, and the main reason was that I think Brady has attained a level of excellence in New England that's beyond what Manning has been able to attain in Indianapolis. Brady's accomplishments in 2007, when he combined with Randy Moss to set all kinds of offensive records and went undefeated until losing the Super Bowl to the Giants, were all-time legendary. But what people may not realize (perhaps because of the ludicrous level at which Brady excelled that year) is that the past two seasons have been the second-best and third-best statistical seasons of Brady's career. If Brady hadn't hurt his knee in the first game of the 2008 season and missed the rest of that year, it's very possible he would be on the kind of run right now that would make a Brady-Manning debate seem silly.
After the Patriots traded Randy Moss in the middle of 2010, the question was whether they were giving up on the season. What they were doing instead was committing to a midseason overhaul of the offense that wouldn't have been possible without the confidence they had in Brady to manage it. All Brady did was muster the second-best completion percentage and second-highest touchdown-pass total of his career while throwing just four interceptions and winning at least 14 games for the fourth time.
Not everybody agreed, however.
"Manning is simply asked to do more than any player in the league is asked to do," Kuharsky said. "He's superb at it. I love Brady. But Manning can do more, is asked to do more, and has to do more. Jim Caldwell is an OK coach so far. Bill Belichick is an all-time great. The guy making up the gap in order to have the Colts stay in range of the Patriots is Manning."
But the Colts really weren't in range of the Patriots this year, and for that reason Manning's star has dimmed in the eyes of a couple of our panelists. NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert ranked Aaron Rodgers No. 2 and Manning No. 3. And NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas ranked Saints quarterback Drew Brees in that No. 2 spot ahead of Manning.
"I'm not trying to diminish Peyton in any way. He's going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But, if you look at his numbers and Brees' numbers over the last three or four years, they're similar and, in some ways, Brees' numbers are better," Yasinskas said. "Brees and Manning each have won one Super Bowl title. My argument is that, right now, Brees is even more valuable to the Saints than Manning is to the Colts. Times change and circumstances change. But right now I think Brees is the perfect quarterback for the Saints and is in the perfect situation with their offensive system and coaching staff. In fact, I considered voting for Brees No. 1 overall, but couldn't quite bring myself to rank him ahead of Tom Brady."
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who came in first in the defensive player power rankings, ranked fifth on the overall list. AFC North blogger James Walker ranked Polamalu fourth, and Seifert ranked him fifth. Walker's ballot was the most generous overall to defensive players, as he ranked Polamalu fourth, Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware fifth, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis eighth and 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis ninth.
Walker and Kuharsky (who ranked him 10th) were the only ones who ranked Ware at all, and Kuharsky seemed a little chapped about it.
"If we rate these quarterbacks so highly, how can we not rate the guy we said was tops at disrupting quarterbacks highly too," Paul asked. "Makes no sense. I had him too low at 10. For six of you guys to leave him off entirely dents your collective credibility. Next I imagine you'll say the E Street Band isn't the all-time best backing band."
Paul is grouchy.
"I value pass-rushers, and no player has more sacks the past two seasons than DeMarcus Ware (26.5)," Walker said. "Getting to the quarterback is the best way to combat the league's increasing number of pass-happy offenses, and no one does it better right now than Ware."
The highest-ranked offensive player who wasn't a quarterback was Peterson, who came in sixth after being named on five of eight ballots. Sando, Walker and AFC West blogger Bill Williamson left the Minnesota running back off their ballots -- the third time in three tries that Williamson has ranked Peterson lower than most of the rest of us did.
"This is a quarterback league and that's how I built my top 10," Williamson explained. "There were only three non-quarterbacks on my top 10. After I constructed the quarterback rankings, I went to the best available non-quarterbacks, and the list was quite short. But to reiterate, this is the top 10. The best of the best. I think Peterson is probably a top-15 guy and that’s pretty good in a league of 1,800-plus professionals."
Pretty good indeed. But as Bill said, it's a quarterback league. And for that reason, the debate about the best player in the league came down, once again, to Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady.