Super Bowl: Is Peyton's place No. 1 among all-time quarterbacks?
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Great Debate began when the Indianapolis Colts earned their second trip to the Super Bowl in the past four seasons. Where does Peyton Manning fit among the greatest quarterbacks of them all, and who are those quarterbacks, anyway?
The World Wide Web has been taken over by the lists, and the debate helped keep sports talk radio humming for two weeks.
Among the most contentious points is whether Manning's team has to win a second Super Bowl tonight when the Colts play the New Orleans Saints in order to "validate" his standing among the best of all time. Ridiculous, come the counterpoints; did Dan Marino ever have to "validate" his standing with a Super Bowl win?
The Post-Gazette sought one of the foremost authorities on pro quarterbacks over the past 40 years, Ernie Accorsi. He retired a few years ago as general manager of the New York Giants, where he acquired Eli Manning. Before that, he was general manager of the Cleveland Browns and the old Baltimore Colts, where he drafted John Elway only to have his owner trade the great quarterback days later to the Denver Broncos. Accorsi quickly quit his job because of it.
Accorsi, a Hershey, Pa., native who splits his time between his hometown and New York and remains a paid consultant to the NFL, has long valued the position of quarterback above and beyond what even most others do.
He picks the Colts quarterback as the best. Not Manning. Johnny Unitas, a Pittsburgh native.
Said Accorsi: "I've always made quarterbacks my focus of attention, and I've been around some great ones, starting with the first guy."
The first guy was Unitas. Accorsi grew up a Colts fan and went from Penn State to work for them in 1970, toward the end of the quarterback's career. That summer, the Colts trained in Golden, Colo., and Accorsi was troubled by what he saw in Unitas and said so to one of the team's scouts.
"I said he can't throw anymore. Can we win with this guy? He said, 'Remember one thing: you define a great quarterback with his ability to take his team down field with a championship on the line, on his back, and into the end zone. If a guy can do that with the game on the line more than once, you call him a great quarterback.' "
Unitas and the Colts won the Super Bowl that season.
Accorsi never forgot that advice, which is why, in 1983, he drafted Elway in Baltimore with the first pick even though owner Bob Irsay ordered him not to. Elway had played the previous two summers in the New York Yankees' minor league system and threatened to stick with baseball if the moribund Colts drafted him.
Accorsi called his bluff and drafted him. Irsay quickly traded him to Denver and Accorsi quit. Elway went on to become one of the all-time greats at taking his team down field late in big games, and he won two Super Bowls at the end of his career.
When Accorsi had a chance to do it again, he acquired Eli Manning in a draft-day swap of QBs after San Diego drafted him. Manning led one of the great late-game drives in Super Bowl history to beat the favored New England Patriots in 2008.
Now big brother Peyton is going for his second. The Colts beat Chicago, 29-17, in 2007 in the same spot where they will try to do it again tonight. Manning was MVP of Super Bowl XLI. South Florida has been good for the Colts. Johnny Unitas' team beat the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13, in Super Bowl V in the old Orange Bowl in 1971.
Manning, who turns 34 next month, already has established himself among the game's all-time greats and, rather than "validate" his standing, he can only enhance it with a victory tonight.
"He's not going to retire. He has other chances,'' Accorsi said. "He's already won one and he's at the doorstep every year. He can climb that ladder. I don't care about statistics or passer ratings. The passer rating is for people who don't know how to evaluate a quarterback."
Accorsi has Manning on his list, but he does not have him among his top four. After Unitas, he rates Otto Graham next, then Ringgold High School's Joe Montana and Elway. But there's a big difference for Manning; he is still playing and can keep climbing all those lists, including Accorsi's.
"He has a chance to win two titles and the thing about Peyton is he's at the top of his game; he may win two more," Accorsi said. "He's still playing. And they're good enough and he's sure as heck good enough, he's still climbing up the leader board.
"It's hard to win a Super Bowl, especially today. That road is a long road. In the old days, you'd win your division and you'd have to win one game to win the title."
Accorsi does not have a top 10 list -- he has a dozen quarterbacks and did not rank them after his first four. A few of his others may come as a surprise: Tom Brady, Roger Staubach, Bobby Layne, Bart Starr, Dan Marino, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning.
"I think to be able to play your best in big games with the game on the line, in part, to me, that defines the great ones," Accorsi said.
That is why Bradshaw, Starr, Aikman and Layne are on his list. It probably is why he does not list East Brady native Jim Kelly, who led his Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls without a victory. Had that kick gone through in Super Bowl XXV, who knows? Accorsi could not keep Marino off, though, because he was so dominant.
"I like Brett Favre, and he'd probably be the next one, and I didn't see Sid Luckman. Had I seen Luckman, I probably would have him in there.''
Tom Moore, 71, has been Manning's offensive coordinator his entire career. Moore also helped coach Bradshaw after arriving with the Steelers as their wide receivers coach in 1977 and staying through 1989. He always has talked reverently of Bradshaw, who along with Elway and Aikman are the only quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Manning one day will make it four.
So, who was better, Bradshaw or Manning?
"You couldn't bait me if you sat here for three weeks," Moore answered.
Yet his words said something different.
"Bradshaw was great. There's greatness all over the place, great players way back then and great players now. But it's not fair to compare people because the game's changed. Everything's different -- your personnel, what you do with your personnel, all that stuff enters into it, and certainly Terry was a great quarterback. But Peyton's something special. Peyton's special. He's truly a great, great quarterback."
Accorsi figures the debate will never end. Perhaps it will come down to which Colts quarterback was the greatest of them all, No. 19 Unitas or No. 18 Manning?
"Comparing 18 to 19 is like comparing 7 to 5, Mickey Mantle vs. Joe DiMaggio," Accorsi said. "They're all great. All great. I'd take any of them."
First Published February 7, 2010 12:00 am