Tomorrow will witness the fiercest rivalry in American football—and maybe in American sports—as Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts travels to Boston to play against Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Many are beginning to believe that football has never seen a quarterback rivalry that matches this one. Which of the two is better is the subject of endless barroom debates.
My allegiance is to Manning, who I have followed closely since he played for the flagship university in my home state, the University of Tennessee. But my preference for him may go deeper than regional loyalty. The two quarterbacks can function a bit like Rorschach tests: who you like best may tell you more about yourself than about them. There is much about Manning that I identify with.
Manning is like an oldest brother (which is what I am), someone who sees his leadership role as an entitlement. This doesn’t mean that Manning doesn’t work hard to be worthy of that entitlement. Indeed, Manning is the ultimate good student, one who meticulously studies the game as few players have. (He was also Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Tennessee.) He is the only quarterback who calls his own plays and, in doing so, has changed the way that we see the position.
Brady is like the second brother. He was drafted in the sixth round (Manning went #1) and had to prove himself. Whereas Manning has always seemed a leader, until recently Brady has seemed like a working class player, one who was outshone by his genius coach Bell Belichick. For many years the match-up between the two teams was always seen as a Manning-Belichick battle, not a Manning-Brady battle.
Is there any literature out there that helps shine a light on the Manning-Brady rivalry? The characters that come to mind are Hector and Achilles in The Iliad. Football would be pleased with the comparisons. It likes to think of itself in epic terms.
Manning would be Hector, who is a good family man and devoted to his wife Andromache. (We know almost nothing about Manning’s wife Ashley, who stays out of the limelight—we just hear stories that their marriage is good.) Though more grounded that Achilles, Hector can’t boast of superior fighting prowess—just as Manning doesn’t have as many Super Bowl victories as Brady (one to Brady’s three). Nevertheless, he is still devoted to his warrior duties. The city of Troy counts upon him to defend it.
Achilles is flashier and more volatile. Flash and volatility did not describe Brady in the past—back when he seemed to labor in Belichick’s shadow—but the comparison seems more apt now. Unlike with his earlier contracts, Brady played hardball with his most recent, demanding that the tightfisted Patriots management pay him top salary. (And unlike Agamemnon, they capitulated–if they hadn’t, we might have seen Brady doing a version of Achilles sitting out the season in his version of Achilles’ tent.). Just as Achilles falls in love with the beautiful slave Briseis, so Brady has married the supermodel Gisele. Brady may never be quite as flamboyant as Achilles but he has let his hair grow out in a trendy cut. He now appears less a working class player from Boston than a celebrity from California, which is in fact his home. He can also be animated in the heat of battle—when the Patriots overcame the feared Pittsburgh Steelers last week, Brady could be seen chewing out receivers for having dropped passes and exhorting his team to play harder. The result was an unexpected and decisive win after he turned in one of the best performances of his life.
A couple of years ago, Brady suffered a season-ending injury during the first game of the season. To match the scenario up with the epic, let’s say this is Achilles sitting out the war because of his argument with Agamemnon. As a result the Patriots, like the Greeks, faltered and, for the first time in years, failed to make the playoffs.
And let’s say that Manning’s remarkable win over the Patriots last season is comparable to Hector killing Achilles’ best friend Patroclus. The win stood out because Belichick, the best coach in the league, chose to take an unprecedented gamble and attempt to convert a fourth down deep in his own territory, even though his team held the lead. The move showed his tremendous respect for Manning, whom he feared would beat him as soon as the Colts’ offense got hold of the ball. The conversion attempt failed and Manning took advantage of the good field position to score the winning goal. Tomorrow, Achilles may be out for revenge.
Of course, as a Manning fan I find the idea that my man is Hector to be worrisome. Does this mean that, although Manning has experienced early glory (he is the only football player ever to have won the Most Valuable Player trophy four times), he will ultimately be surpassed by a surging Brady. Will Brady, whose team is currently ranked #1, win yet more Super Bowls, leaving Manning further behind? Even though Manning will probably retire in possession of many of football’s most prized records, will Brady, like Achilles, in the end be seen as the greater warrior?
I sometimes feel as though Manning, when he plays the Patriots, is always hanging on for dear life, although maybe that’s because I’m a pessimist who fears the worst. I do think that Brady will win the game tomorrow. Manning’s team has suffered so many injuries that every week he must break in untested running backs and wide receivers signed off practice squads around the league.
In fact, at this point the epic figure that comes to mind is less Hector than King Arthur at the end of his reign, his knights decimated by battles. Alone except for a few survivors (wide receiver Reggie Wayne, center Jeff Saturday), this valiant king goes into battle one last time before being carried off to Avalon.
Okay, so Manning is not done yet, even though various experts claim they see signs of a decline. He still is performing at a high level, and in all probability he and Brady will claim several more victories and suffer several more defeats against each other in the years to come. Unlike what happens in The Iliad, their battles won’t be ending any time soon.
But as with Homer’s warriors, their contests rivet our attention. Even though neither the Colts or the Patriots are as dominant this year as they have been in the past, the football world still stops and takes note when they square off. Manning and Brady, if they know what’s good for them, will take a moment and make sacrifices to the appropriate gods.