Is Manning the most talented quarterback of all time? No. Lack of athleticism, inability to throw the deep ball, and the occasional inability to throw a tight spiral take him out of the discussion.
Is he the most successful quarterback of all time? Not even close. Manning's career playoff record: 11-12. 5 quarterbacks have won more playoff games. 96 (!) have a higher career playoff winning percentage. 23 have won more Championships. No quarterback in history has suffered as many playoff losses.
Manning is the greatest ever at something, though.
Calling Peyton Manning the greatest quarterback of all time is like declaring the Big Mac the best burger ever. It's nonsense.
Successful branding can work miracles for a business. A strong brand can allow a business to sell an inferior product more frequently--at an equal or sometimes even higher price--than a superior competitor.
Good brands aren't easy to create. It takes a lot of work to market the brand effectively. Inherited connections (the family you are born into and the access to capital that family provides) and luck also are significant factors.
The currency of the NFL is popularity, not simply money. The more popular a player is, the more people watch him on TV, and the more valuable NFL broadcasts become.
Therefore if you have a player with an inferior skillset (meaning his talent, by itself, won't do the job) you make him popular by building his brand and marketing it well. No player has ever done this as well as Peyton Manning.
Manning is the son of one of the SEC's most beloved quarterbacks, Archie Manning. Archie used his connections as a former New Orleans Saint and broadcaster to convince the New Orleans coaching staff to let Peyton sit in, and sometimes even run plays, at Saints practices during his junior year of high school.
It also helped that Manning was lucky enough to be drafted by Indianapolis, who play their home games indoors. Quarterbacks who play indoors generate 15% better statistics than those who play outdoors.
All the factors are present here. Manning had inherent connections at birth, and used them wisely. He had good luck to play where he did, because he had no control over where he would be drafted.
Manning has also been marketed more intelligently than any player ever. No athlete is on more commercials than Peyton Manning. Few have ever hosted Saturday Night Live. Seldom are athletes as comfortable and humble in front of the camera as Manning. This has made him a media darling.
Businesses pay large sums of money to public relations firms for a reason. Effective public relations can improve public opinion of a brand without letting their actual product do the talking. PR creates demand that the product itself doesn't create on its own.
Manning is a public relations dynamo. He displays remarkable humility when interviewed, and his gifts to charities are well-known. No football player in history has been more adept at controlling their media narrative. But none of this tells the public anything about Manning's demeanor on the field.
These 3 factors combined to make Manning a very popular quarterback (especially in the South) very early in his career. And the NFL took steps to make sure they could profit as much as possible from this popularity.
Rulemakers often tweak the rules to help promote a successful brand. Politicians frequently give successful businesses incentives to develop and grow in their areas because they know they'll get something in return--in the form of jobs, tax revenue, or other political capital. The NFL did the same thing with Manning.
The NFL did this in two ways. First, the NFL tweaked the rules to decrease the risk of injury to all quarterbacks in the league. Then, the NFL significantly changed the type of pass defense teams were allowed to play.
Take a look at the timeline:
1998: Manning was drafted #1 overall by the Indianapolis Colts.
1998-99 season: The Colts go 3-13, and Manning leads the league in interceptions, in his rookie year.
1999-2000 season: Colts go 13-3, Manning makes the Pro Bowl, but loses his first playoff game.
2001 offseason: NFL decides to more strictly enforce the roughing the passer penalty in order to keep quarterbacks from getting injured.
2002 offseason: NFL bars all helmet-to-helmet contact with the quarterback, even if a change of possession occurs. Helmet-to-helmet hits are still legal against any other player at this time.
2003-04 season: Manning wins his first MVP and wins his first playoff game in his 4th attempt. In the AFC Championship, Manning struggles against the New England Patriots' bump-and-run coverage. Manning puts up a 35.5 passer rating and throws 4 interceptions in a 24-14 loss to the Patriots.
2004 offseason: NFL bans bump-and-run coverage.
2004-05 season: Manning wins second consecutive MVP and throws for career-best 4500 yards. He also completes an NFL record (at the time) 49 touchdown passes. In his first 6 years, Manning had averaged 27.8 touchdowns per season. 2004-05 brought a 76% increase over his yearly average. But he still loses to the Patriots in the AFC Championship, 24-3.
2006 offseason: NFL bans all hits below the quarterback's knees.
2006-07 season: Manning wins his first, and only, Super Bowl.
There have been no further quarterback-related rule adjustments since Manning's Super Bowl victory.
When Manning entered the league, defenses were allowed to play "bump-and-run" coverage. A defender could make contact with a receiver to keep him from running his intended route so long as the ball wasn't in the air. This sort of coverage forced quarterbacks to be able to throw the ball deep. If you could throw it deep, you could force opposing defenses to play more conservatively, sitting further back to avoid getting beat for big plays.
One of Manning's most glaring weaknesses has always been his arm strength. He lacked the ability to make opposing defenses honor the deep pass, and struggled to complete passes and avoid interceptions against more physical, bump-and-run defenses early in his career.
In 2004, after one of Manning's worst games ever (against the league's best bump-and-run team in the AFC Championship), the NFL made this style of play illegal. Starting in the 2004-05 season, defenses could only make contact with opposing receivers within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Any contact deeper down the field would result in a penalty and an automatic first down.
The result of this rule change was a complete change in the skills required to be a valuable quarterback. Deep passing had, for a long time, been the most valuable attribute a quarterback possessed. Eliminating bump-and-run meant receivers would be open earlier in plays, making accuracy on shorter throws much more vital than it had been before.
The NFL tweaked its rules to maximize offensive firepower at a time when Peyton Manning was the MVP and league's most popular offensive player. Ray Lewis, who had been recently charged for murder, was the league's biggest defensive star at that time. The NFL wanted to promote offense (and thus Manning) as much as possible. They wanted quarterbacks to be ambassadors of the sport to the public. And they wanted to run as far away from Lewis (and thus defense) as possible.
Manning is not the only one to benefit from these rule changes. Drew Brees, Tom Brady and many other quarterbacks have seen their careers lengthen and their stats inflate in the last decade.
Manning will retire with the greatest statistics of all time. He will retire as the most popular player ever. All while competing against other higher quality players.
Substitute "player" with "burger," and "statistics" with "sales." All of a sudden you are talking about the Big Mac.
Manning is very intelligent, he works extremely hard to improve himself, and he possesses many other excellent qualities. Peyton Manning is a consistent, Hall of Fame quarterback who has had a remarkable career. He's got a "special sauce" about him, that's for sure.
But when compared to Warner, Brady, Favre, or Rodgers--Peyton Manning is the inferior product.