18, 19 in horse race

Manning, Unitas: It's tough to say who's greater QB

Super Bowl Xli


Alex Hawkins sees it in the mannerisms, the way Peyton Manning sometimes cocks his helmet back on his head or the look on his face coming off the field.

Gino Marchetti sees it in the way Manning stands in the pocket and in the way his shoulder pads sit on his broad shoulders. "They're kind of up a little bit," the Hall of Fame defensive end said.

For Hawkins and Marchetti - and perhaps countless others - there is an undeniable, almost eerie similarity in the way Manning plays quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts and the way John Unitas used to play quarterback for the Baltimore Colts.

From the set of their jaw to the decidedly overhand throwing motion to the short, mincing steps in their drop-back, Manning and Unitas are virtual carbon copies. From their mental makeup to their physical skills, they are kindred spirits.

When Manning's Colts meet the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl on Sunday night, it will be like watching the great Colts teams of Baltimore's past come alive again.

Instead of No. 19 at quarterback, however, it'll be No. 18. Instead of John Mackey and Lenny Moore catching passes, it'll be Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.

Still, the calendar's pages will fly back to another place, another time, when the horseshoes command center stage again in Miami.

"When Peyton checks off at the line of scrimmage, just like Unitas, I feel like I know what play he's checking off to," said Hawkins, 69, a halfback who played with Unitas for nine years in Baltimore.

"I bet I had a dozen former teammates call over the last five, six years and say, `Doesn't he remind you of John?'"

The answer is always "yes."

Champion and MVP

Unitas' Hall of Fame career with the Colts stretched from 1956 to 1972, spanning 206 games and 287 touchdown passes. He was named the NFL's most valuable or most outstanding player three times. He won three league championships.

And on one historic day in December 1958, Unitas did more to put a face on pro football than any other player before or since: He won the sudden-death championship game against the New York Giants.

That's why Ernie Accorsi, the retired NFL general manager and unofficial sports historian, equates Unitas to Babe Ruth and Manning to Lou Gehrig.

"Eighteen is to 19 what four is to three," Accorsi said this week. "Gehrig [No. 4] was great, but he wasn't Ruth [No. 3].

"Like Ruth brought baseball back from the 1919 World Series [betting scandal], John elevated football from a secondary professional sport to the No. 1 professional sport. There were a lot of other people, but he was the key one. And if Peyton's Gehrig, that's not bad."

Barring catastrophic injury, Manning is certain to obliterate virtually all of Unitas' passing records with the Colts. In half of Unitas' 18 NFL seasons, Manning has thrown just 15 fewer touchdown passes. He already has surpassed Unitas with 3,131 completions.

But in this quarterback comparison, it's impossible to match eras. There is a serious disconnect between the physically grinding game Unitas played some 35 years ago and the wide-open game Manning plays now.

"It's an entirely different game," said Ron Wolf, another retired NFL general manager who saw both quarterbacks. "In those days, the quarterback got hit. Now, if you brush by him, you get [penalized]. ... Unitas took some shots. Guys would be thrown out of the game today for the shots John took. And it wasn't just Unitas, but all guys from that era."

Wolf agrees with the critique once applied to Unitas by Colts coach Weeb Ewbank: "The most mechanically sound of all quarterbacks and precise in all his movements."

Wolf also sees Unitas in Manning's drop from center and in his release point on passes. But he won't go much further than that.

"If you're going to model yourself after somebody, I don't know that you could model yourself after anybody better than Unitas," Wolf said. "That's where the similarity ends."

Marchetti, 80, who spent 13 seasons with the Colts, pointed to another obvious difference.

"John called his own game," he said. "That's a big difference. He went into a game with 150 offensive plays. He had to know all 150 plays and what was good against whatever defense we faced."

Marchetti said he thought both Unitas, who died in 2002, and Manning, 30, could transcend the difference in eras and styles. He declined to say which quarterback he thought was better.

"I think if we had Peyton, we'd have done just as well," Marchetti said. "And if John was still living and young, they'd do just as well with him."

Asked who was the better quarterback, Hawkins hedged.

"I would say John at this point because Peyton's still playing," he said. "John was winning the big games early in his career and Peyton has been losing them. That could turn around very easily.

"Peyton has a little stronger arm than John did, a little quicker release. But John responded to pressure. He played so much better when the pressure was on."

`No hoopla'

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