Weighing Winning Against All Else
Every year, the start of the NFL playoffs brings to life a whole handful of discussions and conversations that we just keep recycling year after year so sports talk radio has something to argue about with callers and so the guys on PTI have something to put on their daily rundowns. For example, every year we hear about how important homefield advantage is and how some teams/players just can't win on the road or in cold weather — until one of them does — and then we forget about that conversation again until next year.
Another popular topic of conversation during the playoffs involves the importance of winning in regards to a quarterback's career and how that particular quarterback's legacy is perceived in the future. We've had this conversation about everyone from Dan Marino and John Elway to guys like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and even Joe Flacco, and every single year the argument is the same. Do we give too much importance to winning when we compare it to everything else a quarterback has done in his career, whether it's good or bad? The consensus seems to be that winning trumps all, but does it really?
Legendary head coach Vince Lombardi once said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." It's a nice quote, it's inspirational, and it came from the human football quote machine, so we slapped it on billboards and painted it on the walls of locker rooms. But how much truth does it hold? Think about sports and the way we play them, the way we watch them, and the way we analyze and discuss them. What's the one constant? The one topic that remains the same no matter which sport you're talking about? Winning. That's because winning and losing are the most universal concept in sports, and it's the only true barometer of greatness — the only thing that really separates the haves from the have-nots. When you tell somebody about a game you went to or a game you played, what's the first question that they'll most likely ask you? Almost 99 percent of the time it's this: who won?
When you apply this rationale to NFL quarterbacks when discussing their legacies, it's important to understand what we mean when we talk about winning and the role it plays in this discussion. When the NFL season begins every September, all 32 teams have one goal and one goal only to accomplish by season's end: win the Super Bowl. Everything they work for on that field during minicamp and two-a-days in the summer and on Sundays in the fall is so they can hold that Lombardi trophy high over their head come February. So why shouldn't we give more weight to winning when discussing the careers of NFL quarterbacks?
Here's the thing, though: we can't only argue for the importance of winning when it's convenient for us. Take Eli Manning, for example. When he was in the middle of winning two Super Bowl titles in five years, despite regular season play that always left us feeling a little underwhelmed, we used his postseason prowess and his Super Bowl MVPs to defend him — to say that we can forget all of his transgressions and all his mistakes, as long as he wins. The argument was that his propensity for winning the big one far outweighed his propensity to turn the ball over too much and we were okay with that argument — when he was winning.
This season, when Manning had the worst season of his career, that argument evaporated. Now, all of a sudden, winning didn't carry as much weight as it once did. The fact that he won two Super Bowls was attributed to "a few lucky breaks" and great play from the defense, as if Manning wasn't the one who delivered those miracle passes to both David Tyree and Mario Manningham, and he wasn't the one who engineered heroic fourth-quarter comebacks on some of the biggest stages in sports.
Ultimately, if we are to make the argument that winning is the most important stat of all when discussing the legacy of quarterbacks, we have to be consistent with that argument and not only use it when it's convenient. If this changes the way we look at certain quarterbacks, then so be it. Will Dan Marino always be considered one of the greatest quarterbacks that ever lived, regardless of the fact that he never won a Super Bowl? Of course he will, but the fact that he never won one will also always keep him from that rarefied air where guys like Joe Montana, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady reside. Is it a little unfair? Sure, but so are sports a lot of the time; likewise, so is life — I don't make the rules.