Quin, it’s an interesting proposition to say that if such and such a player hadn’t been on a great team, he would not be considered the success he turned out to be. We’ll never know, will we? We have to judge by how the player dealt with the hands he was dealt. I can’t say much about Archie Manning, not ever having seen him play; the only thing I knew about him was what I read in such periodicals as Sports Illustrated, which had been hyping Manning as the greatest college player of his day when he was at Ole Miss. In time I learned not to trust SI on such matters. Remember what it tried to turn the Bill Bradleys into (not just Dollar Bill, but Texas high school phenom Bill Bradley who went on to UTexas as the next great quarterback, only to flop and see himself demoted to defensive safety — the position at which he ended up an all-pro during his many years playing for the Philadelphia Eagles). But I did get the sense that Archie suffered in the pros in part because he wasn’t very big; without a line to protect him, his thin frame wasn’t much to fall back on.
Joe Montana wasn’t probably even as big as Manning, but he had an uncanny sense of the game — timing, openings — and the coolest can-do competitive confidence ever seen. But imagine him coached by somebody other than Bill Walsh or not having a Jerry Rice to throw to. We’ll never know. But we do know that he spent his last few years playing for a weaker Kansas City team and was never the same. Yet because of what he pulled off in San Fran he’ll forever remain in the top three of all time QBs. Another reason he’s ranked that high is that he rose along with a team that had never been there before. Steve Young inherited Montana’s team, and no matter what he also achieved there was no way he could supplant Montana as the great one for his franchise.
Maybe Favre was in a related bind to Young’s, given what Bart Starr accomplished a few decades earlier in Green Bay; the most coolly efficient, unspectacular QB in memory, a befits a QB whose most memorable play is probably a simple quarterback sneak at the goalline in the final seconds of the coldest game in world history to defeat Dallas in the NFC championship. My point in all of this is to single out the quarterback as manager who never beats himself.
Which brings me to Bradshaw. What counts is what his team accomplished. Did he ever cost Pittsburgh a fifth or sixth Super Bowl? I don’t think so. He had terrific passing numbers for a team that was built to run. His many years of steady, strong play remain a model of efficiency, and as the years move on I’m confident his singular achievement will only loom more impressive. In his day, many did think he was replaceable. But that was only because he was ridiculed as a hopeless hick when he was drafted out of little known Louisiana Tech. Then his first year his team went something like 1-13. But then things turned around as better players joined the team and he learned the pro-game. And he was the one to lead a perennially losing franchise to dominant status. What more could one have possibly asked of any player? It turned out he wasn’t easily replaceable either. Joe Gilliam, anyone? Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers’ first solid QB since Bradshaw. Great ones just don’t come along very often.