I realize we live in a world in which snap judgments and instantaneous conclusions are expected, and even encouraged, especially in the world of professional sports. Who's the best ever? Which game was the most memorable? Which team was the most dominant?
I bring this up a week before the biggest information and opinion overload in sports, otherwise known as the Super Bowl and all its attendant hype. The machine will start cranking Sunday, and will continue at a mind-numbingly frantic pace up to, including and after the Colts and Saints meet in Super Bowl XLIV.
One of the story lines no doubt will revolve around Colts quarterback Peyton Manning's place in NFL history. The questions will go something like: If he beats the Saints, will Manning go down as the best quarterback ever? If Manning loses, does that mean his legacy will fall short of Joe Montana, John Elway, Johnny Unitas or even Tom Brady?
But here's the thing with judging Manning against all the greats: Regardless of whether he wins or loses next Sunday, it's still too soon to issue a final verdict about his place in history.
For starters, Manning's career isn't over yet. At age 33, he still might have six elite seasons left in him. And perhaps even more Super Bowl appearances. So no matter what happens against the Saints, there is more history to be written. Maybe a lot more.
But the fact that Manning got the Colts to a second title game certainly enhances his standing among all the great NFL quarterbacks. And his unprecedented fourth Most Valuable Player selection during the regular season underscores that brilliance.
How does the all-time list go so far? Here's the way I see it:
Johnny Unitas, Colts: Not a coincidence that Manning has modeled his career after Johnny U, the greatest downfield passer ever. And don't forget that Unitas played in an era in which defensive backs were allowed to push wide receivers all over the field; now contact is prohibited beyond 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. Unitas threw for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns before retiring after the 1973 season.
Joe Montana, 49ers: The greatest playoff quarterback ever? Absolutely. Four championships for Joe Cool, who mastered Bill Walsh's West Coast offense better than any other QB. Montana made everyone around him great, and his game-winning drive against the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII remains one of the sport's signature moments.
Tom Brady, Patriots: Great coach in Bill Belichick. Quality defenses with Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour. But Brady has been the biggest single reason the Patriots have been to four Super Bowls and won three since 2001. Still a lot of football left in him, and still more debate about whether he or Manning will end up on top.
Peyton Manning, Colts: For my money, the greatest regular-season quarterback ever, and maybe the most entertaining. It's almost as if he's a conductor at the line of scrimmage with all those pre-snap histrionics. Unparalleled accuracy. He has 360 career TD passes and 50,128 passing yards. The big blemish when it comes to best-ever debates: He has lost the Colts' first playoff game six times. Obviously, a win next Sunday, and he raises his stature.
John Elway: His two Super Bowl wins came long after he'd established himself as one of the top quarterbacks of all time. Five Super Bowl runs in all, 51,475 yards, 300 TD passes, with little help until Terrell Davis came along to provide a running game.
Dan Marino: Maybe the best pure passer we've ever seen. In 17 years, he had 61,361 yards and 420 touchdown passes, incredible numbers. His biggest regret is only one Super Bowl appearance, but you can hardly blame Marino; he never had a good enough running game or defense around him.
Brett Favre: Still near the top of his game at age 40, Favre has an NFL-record 497 touchdown passes in his 19-year career. Also has 317 INTs, which you can't ignore. The picks at the end of his last two NFC Championship Games come into play in any greatest-of-all-time discussion.
The list will remain the same through Super Bowl XLIV. The only thing that figures to change is where to put Manning. And even then, there won't be a final answer. Still plenty more history to be written by a player we all can agree is in the debate about the best ever.