For the vast majority of professional athletes, legacies are cemented over the entirety of a career. By the time a player hits his twilight, the bulk of the resume building has long since passed. However, sometimes a player reaches the doorstep of a greater legacy and is subsequently presented with an opportunity to walk through that door. The most recent example of this phenomenon occurred in the Stanley Cup Finals last summer. Had Chris Osgood picked up his third Stanley Cup ring as a starting goaltender—combined with his standing on both the all-time regular season and playoff wins lists—he would’ve been headed to the Hall of Fame. As it turned out, it all came down to a game seven with Osgood’s legacy hanging in the balance. The Wings lost, of course, and it is unlikely that Osgood will get another chance to stamp his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Just as it came down to one game for Osgood, had the Minnesota Vikings not literally fumbled away the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, the Super Bowl would’ve presented what very well could’ve been a one-game duel for the title of “Greatest Quarterback of All-Time.” Favre vs. Manning for all the marbles.
Before I lose you, I want to be clear that I’m not arguing that one game—even a game as big as a Super Bowl—is important enough to define an entire career at face value. Osgood’s legacy wasn’t defined by losing to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Finals any more than it was by all the other Finals he played in. It just so happened that he reached the Cup Finals at a point when his career was nearly over and his resume was just below that of a Hall of Fame goaltender. That same situation would’ve existed for both Favre and Manning had they squared off in the Super Bowl. Consider that Favre is, far and away, the most successful regular season quarterback in NFL history. He is the all-time leader in touchdowns, passing yards, and completions and it’s not even close. While he wasn’t nearly as prolific in the playoffs, he was certainly no slouch in the postseason. However—and this is why winning the Super Bowl was so crucial to Favre’s claim as the G.O.A.T—Favre only has one Super Bowl ring. That might be enough to make Dan Marino jealous but it’s not enough to beat out Joe Montana who while not as prolific as Favre in the regular season was a more efficient regular season quarterback and has four Super Bowl rings to close the deal. A second Super Bowl ring combined with Favre’s regular season exploits would’ve made it pretty easy to argue Favre’s place at the top of the quarterback heap. Favre is easily one of the top five quarterbacks of all-time and one of the 25 greatest players who ever played the game. However, Sunday’s loss closes the door on a legacy greater than that.
Manning faces a slightly different—but equally important—situation. Based on his career progression, Manning will challenge Favre for all of his records and do it more efficiently. Barring an injury, Manning will probably become the most prolific regular season quarterback of all-time—a position that Favre is very familiar with. Like Favre, though, Manning has just one Super Bowl ring. His breakthrough in Super Bowl XLI quieted the notion that he was not a big game quarterback. However, he still posts an underwhelming career playoff record of 9-8. Unless his reputation as a postseason quarterback changes significantly, he will run into the same problem that Favre is facing right now. At 33, Manning is still relatively young but, time is fleeting for aging quarterbacks in the NFL. Favre won his first Super Bowl when he was 27. It’s unlikely that there were many who thought that would be his only Super Bowl win. In fact, he went into Super Bowl XXXII as the prohibitive favorite just a year after picking up his first ring. An upset and 13 years later and Favre is still trying to get back to a Super Bowl let alone win a second. Quarterbacks have remained productive well into their 30’s but they rarely win Super Bowls—at least not recently. Brad Johnson is the only quarterback over 33 to win a Super Bowl in the last 10 years while Johnson and John Elway are the only quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl over the age of 33 in the past 25 years. If Manning has any chance of being considered the G.O.A.T at the end of his career, he needs to win a second Super Bowl. As Favre can attest to, if he doesn’t win this one, he might never get another shot.
As things stand now, Joe Montana still has to be considered the alpha QB. He is the most efficient and accomplished playoff quarterback of all-time. His regular season statistics—although a bit underwhelming compared to the massive pile put up by Favre—are extremely efficient if not gaudy. Having said that, Montana is not untouchable. Tom Brady has nearly equaled his playoff accolades and Manning has surpassed his regular season success. Right now, Manning has an opportunity to bolster the only thing keeping him from being viewed as the greatest QB of all time. Do not be surprised if the outcome of this one game solidifies Manning’s status as either the G.O.A.T. or as a great quarterback who struggled in big games. Now if Tom Brady ever makes it back to the Super Bowl with a chance to duplicate the great Joe Montana’s four Super Bowl rings, we can have a similar conversation about how big of an impact one single football game will have on his legacy. Right now, though, it’s Manning serving for at least a share of the championship.