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The Title, or Titles, of New York’s Best Quarterback


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The debate is hot and heavy: who is the best quarterback in New York’s N.F.L. history?

All anybody can say for sure is that Eli Manning, with two Super Bowl rings for the Giants, has accomplished more than any other New York quarterback. But is he better than Joe Namath, the Super Bowl III icon whose Jets justified the American Football League? Better than two of the Giants’ previous championship quarterbacks in the modern T-formation era, Phil Simms and Charlie Conerly? Better than Y. A. Tittle, a two-time N.F.L. most valuable player with the Giants?

After watching professional quarterbacks as man and boy for more than six decades, I’ve always hesitated to rank them, say, 1 to 10, for several reasons.

As essential as a quality quarterback is, he doesn’t “win” a Super Bowl; he’s merely on a team that wins a Super Bowl. His success depends on how well his linemen block, how well his receivers get open and how well they catch his passes. It depends on how well his defensive and special teams units do their job. Quarterbacks are not golfers or sprinters or skiers. They’re not out there alone.

As much as anything else, a quarterback’s success also depends on how well his skills fit his coaches’ offensive system.

Another variable is what the ever-changing rules allow a quarterback and his receivers to do that a previous era’s quarterback and receivers could not do. And sometimes, his success or failure depends on how much his skill is sabotaged by inclement weather or an injury.

When Namath was told after Super Bowl III that he now was “king of the hill,” he disagreed.

“No, we’re king of the hill,” he said, meaning all the Jets’ players and coaches.

The Jets didn’t upset the Baltimore Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III because Namath guaranteed it. They won because they were the better team that day as Namath engineered their offense, just as the Giants twice were the better team (offense, defense, special teams) in their last-minute Super Bowl upsets of the New England Patriots as Manning engineered their offense.

As feared by opposing coaches as Namath was — “he tilts the field,” the Raiders ruler Al Davis often said — his career was derailed by knee and wrist surgery as well as the gradual decline of the Jets as a contender. He threw too many interceptions, but so did Brett Favre; each believed that his cannonlike arm could zing the pass in there before a defender could snatch it.

To assume that Manning will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame because he has twice been a winning Super Bowl quarterback is, at best, premature. His eventual résumé will include what he does or doesn’t do over the rest of his career.

Jim Plunkett was the Raiders quarterback on two Super Bowl champions, but he’s not in the Hall of Fame. Conerly isn’t there, either. He should be, but he’s not. He once missed election by two votes and was somehow sidetracked. In the pre-Super Bowl era, he was the Giants’ quarterback on the 1956 N.F.L. championship team that pounded the Bears, 47-7, and on the teams that lost the title to Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in 1958 (in overtime) and in 1959.

Tittle led the Giants to three consecutive N.F.L. championship games. They were routed in Green Bay, 37-0, in 1961. He threw for 33 touchdowns in 1962, but against the Packers at Yankee Stadium, a frigid swirling wind broke up his passes in a 16-7 loss. After throwing for 36 touchdowns in 1963, he was hobbled by a knee injury during a 14-10 defeat in Chicago. With better luck, Tittle might have been the first New York quarterback with two championships.

And yet Tittle, who also never led the 49ers to the N.F.L. championship before his trade to the Giants, is in the Hall of Fame. Deservedly so.

Simms was never better than in the sunny calm of Super Bowl XXI at the Rose Bowl, completing 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 39-20 triumph over the Denver Broncos. But when the Giants reached Super Bowl XXV, Simms was on crutches with an injured foot. His backup, Jeff Hostetler, guided a 15-13 win on Matt Bahr’s five field goals at San Francisco in the N.F.C. title game and a 20-19 triumph over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, Fla.

In the 2000 N.F.C. championship game, Kerry Collins threw five touchdown passes in a 41-0 rout of the Vikings at Giants Stadium, but in Super Bowl XXXV the Ravens’ defense hounded him into completing only 15 of 39 passes for only 112 yards with four interceptions in a 34-7 embarrassment in Tampa.

The Jets, for all of Coach Rex Ryan’s recent proclamations and promises, have yet to return to the Super Bowl. But over the years they advanced to the A.F.C. title game four times — once each with Richard Todd and Vinny Testaverde at quarterback, twice with their incumbent, Mark Sanchez.

Todd’s 1982 team eliminated the Bengals and the Raiders in the playoffs but got stuck in the Orange Bowl swamp created by a weeklong rain before the Dolphins’ 14-0 victory in the conference championship game. Testaverde’s 1998 team led by 10-0 in Denver but disintegrated in a 23-10 loss. Sanchez’s 2009 team lost in Indianapolis, 30-17; his 2010 team lost in Pittsburgh, 24-19.

That leaves Namath as the only Jets quarterback with a Super Bowl ring. Among the Giants quarterbacks, Conerly earned an N.F.L. championship ring in the pre-Super Bowl era, and Simms and Hostetler were each measured for a ring after a Super Bowl victory before Manning earned two. (Simms got a second ring for guiding the 1990 team to an 11-2 start.)

But which quarterback is New York’s best? If you go by rings, it’s Eli Manning. If you don’t, it’s Joe Namath.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 20, 2012

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly, in one instance, to the Super Bowl that Phil Simms missed with an injured foot. It was Super Bowl XXV, not XV.

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Thats a nice article you wrote. Id disagree about using Plunkett in any analysis though. Guy was a bust that was basically a career backup that ended up at the helm of 2 Super Bowl teams. Not that Im old enough to really watch those guys closely in anything more than clips Stabler was so much of a better Raiders QB with a far better HOF resume.

As to the original point of the article I kind of think if you take the whole celebrity thing out of it and the fact that Namath is a far more important football player than perhaps anyone who came after him in terms of the history and success of the league, Eli is probably going to be looked at as the better NY QB. Namaths physical abilities cant really be questioned and I think its universally recognized what could have been if his legs werent shot early in his pro career, but the fact is he couldnt maintain a high level for more than a few years. Its kind of like Bill Walton in the NBA. Waltons college career was ridiculous. By the time he got to the pros his body was shot. When he played he was fantastic. But he didnt play all that often. You will never hear a pro conversation start off with the phrase "Bill Walton is the greatest..." and it really shouldnt with Joe either unless its specifically related to the Jets at this point.

Manning has been on a team that has won 3 division titles and two Super Bowl championships, of which he was named MVP twice. Other than his rookie season he has never been on a team with losing record. He never misses a snap let alone a game. Hell never be the bigger star in NY. Joe Namath is John Lennon. Im not sure if Eli is even considered George Harrison in terms of celebrity. But in terms of football accomplishments unless Eli is forced to stop playing tomorrow he should end up looked at as the better of the two players even if he doesnt make the HOF.

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Namath. He played in an era where the head-slap was legal, roughing the passer consisted of hitting him with a three punch combination and QB's called their own plays. There's only been two arms like Namath's in the modern era: Marino and Favre. And only Favre was close to Joe in toughness. Only statmongers think Namath wasn't good. Anyone who's seen him throw knows the guy was a rare talent. He was also a riverboat gambler and tossed a few up for grabs. But the leaugue was more forgiving of that back then, as the upstart AFL teams were brash and flash--the only way they could pull fans from the established NFL at the time.

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