Manning V. Unitas: The Case For The Colts Best QB Of All Time
If you take the top two quarterbacks from each NFL team’s history, no duo would be as great as the Indianapolis Colts’ pairing of Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning. Some teams would come close, like Joe Montana and Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers or Bart Starr and Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers, but no team other than the Colts has two players in its history who each have legitimate arguments to be the best quarterback ever.
But which Colts great is better? Unitas, who helped a new, struggling franchise succeed? Or Manning, who resurrected the team after decades of disappointment? Let’s break it down.
Fairly or unfairly, the first criterion anyone looks at when comparing quarterbacks is championships. You won’t always win with a top-tier quarterback, but you can’t win without one. Manning finally got the monkey off his back in 2006 with his first Super Bowl appearance and win. He made the trip back in 2009, only to lose to the New Orleans Saints. Unitas, meanwhile, secured his second championship in as many appearances in 1959 as a 26-year-old. He would make three more appearances in the league’s final game of the year, losing in 1964 to the Cleveland Browns and in 1968 to the New York Jets, but beating the Dallas Cowboys in 1970. It should be noted Unitas only played half the game in both ’68 and ’70, splitting time with Earl Morrall. But even if you take away both those games, which isn’t fair, Unitas would still have more championships and appearances than Manning. Advantage: Unitas
You can’t just compare total numbers between two quarterbacks who played 50 years apart. The game has changed way too much. Instead, you have to look at each player’s numbers compared to the rest of the league. In terms of career stats, Unitas and Manning have similar stories. Unitas retired as the all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, but was passed by Fran Tarkenton in both categories just three years later. Manning very well could end up as the all-time leader in both categories, but with passing records falling left and right, that probably won’t last long either. However, Unitas has the slight advantage over Manning. He led the league in passing yards and touchdowns four times each and passer rating three times. Manning topped the league in those respective categories twice, thrice and thrice. And let’s not forget Unitas’ 47 consecutive games with a passing touchdown, which stood for over 50 years. Advantage: Unitas
Any quarterback should desire the work ethic and mental toughness of either of these two greats. Manning is known as the biggest film rat in the league now. Receivers didn’t earn Unitas’ respect until they would voluntarily work with him for numerous after-practice hours. Manning is the ultimate wizard at the line of scrimmage, constantly reading defenses and adjusting to run the perfect play against them. Unitas would run a play after being told not to do so by a coach, and of course make it a positive gain. In the end, Manning’s pregame work and pre-snap reads are unparalleled. Advantage: Manning
Another critical category, another incredibly close race. This is also very tough because very few awards have been constant from the ‘50s until now. Unitas was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, but that was in 1994, before Manning was in the league. Manning has one Super Bowl MVP, but Unitas’ first three championship appearances weren’t Super Bowls. The only consistent awards from Unitas’ time to Manning’s are the AP MVP, AP All-NFL selections and Pro Bowls. In Indianapolis, Manning was selected to 11 Pro Bowls, five All-NFL 1st teams and four MVPs, a league record. Unitas had 10, five and three, respectively. Advantage: Manning
Importance to the franchise and the league
As mentioned in the opening of this article, both Unitas and Manning led struggling franchises to years and years of success. Before Unitas came in 1956, the newest version of the Colts was only three years old and had a combined record of 11-24-1. After he left in 1972, the Colts were one of the league’s most successful teams. When Manning arrived to Indianapolis in 1998, the team had only five winning seasons since 1978. All he did was lead the Colts to eleven playoff appearances and eight 12-win seasons in the 13 years he played for them. But Unitas has the edge in importance to the league. He is widely known as the father of the modern passing game and game-winning drives. He also was the star of the ’58 championship, known to be the game that started the NFL’s ascent to the number one sport in America. Advantage: Unitas
Finally, one category that is actually easy to pick a winner. Although Unitas was tough as nails and fought through countless injuries when he maybe should have been recovering, he’s no Manning, who started every single game from 1998 to 2010. Advantage: Manning
Flat top. ‘Nuff said. Advantage: Unitas
So, in serious categories, Unitas and Manning each come away with three tallies. Unitas gets championships, stats and importance to the Colts and the NFL, while Manning takes mentality/work ethic, awards and durability. Overall, I’m giving the slight edge to Unitas because his categories are better measures of a great quarterback. But this is nitpicking at its finest. Again, anyone can argue that either Unitas or Manning is the greatest quarterback ever and have a valid argument. Colts fans should consider themselves lucky to have such excellence at the most important position in sports.
One weak (not convincing) comparison: Durability. For the same reason you can't compare athletes of different eras---It's an apples-to-hamburgers comparison in giving Manning an edge here, because of the rules changes that basically pamper quarterbacks today. Unitas took hits Manning will never see, and Unitas got up from some of them when he should have been knocked out cold or otherwise paralyzed (and/or in court suing the defensive player for gratuitous violence, as would happen today). Thus I give the "easy" pick to Unitas here. Given the old rules, there's very little chance Manning would have started every single game over a 13 year span, let alone be playing now.