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The Parallels Between Peyton Manning and LeBron James

I know that Today’s Fastbreak is a basketball-only website. And if you want some of the best football content there is out there, you should totally be checking out Today’s Pigskin. With that said, I wanted to take a second to talk about Denver Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning.

Depending on who you ask, most refer to Manning as one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all-time. Professional football’s leader in passes completed, passing yards, passing touchdowns, game-winning drives, and comebacks, Manning is on another level when it comes to just about every stat for his position. And with the help of the Broncos stout defense, Manning now finds himself heading to the Super Bowl for all of the marbles, for the fourth time in his career.

With the Broncos slated to take on Cam Newton and the surging Carolina Panthers, it’s quite feasible that Manning exits Super Bowl 50 with a 1-3 record in championship games. Already labeled by some as “the best REGULAR SEASON quarterback of all-time,” there’s the notion that if the Broncos lose this game Manning’s legacy will just wind up taking another hit.

Doesn’t that sound silly?

Isn’t it ridiculous that a player who’s been noticeably better than his competition for the vast, vast majority of his career somehow won’t be given the due respect when he decides to hang up his cleats? I’m not going to say anything derogatory about Tom Brady in this column, but why on Earth are there people out there who are comparing Brady and Manning’s records not only against each other, but in Super Bowls as if their other accomplishments should be elevated or tainted because of the result of a team sport?

And specifically this season, the Broncos had the potential to fall out of a playoff spot with two games left in the season, yet have rallied since and will be rewarded with MVP-favorite Newton and 17-1 Panthers. Why should a loss in this game negatively affect the declining Manning?

If you haven’t caught on by now, I’m talking about Manning and his accomplishments and how they relate to his competition as a parallel to LeBron James. The key difference, especially with this season’s version of Manning is his defense has literally carried the team all year, where James is still the catalyst for his team’s success.

James has most recently been a focal point of media attention because his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, just fired its coach late last week. After just a season and a half, which included a trip to the NBA Finals and ownership of the top record in the Eastern Conference to follow it up, it was clear that David Blatt wasn’t the right guy to lead the Cavs to where James wants to go. For James and the Cavs, it’s WIN a championship or bust. Which again, is the most hyperbolic scenario imaginable in sports, especially considering there are two other transcendent teams in the NBA this season in the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.

The Cavs cut ties with Blatt hoping that assistant coach Tyronn Lue could elevate the players to new highs, but how much better could James possibly be? And in my opinion, the fair follow up question is what more could you possibly expect out of him that you haven’t seen yet?

Unlike Manning, James still has several seasons left in his career to perform at a high level, so it doesn’t make sense to look at his statistical all-time rankings in terms of accumulation. With that said, we’re talking about a player who’s led the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating six of his 13 seasons, is second among active players in Win Shares per 48 minutes, and first in NBA history in Real Box Plus Minus and Value Over Replacement Player (all per Basketball Reference).

Dec. 26, 2015 - LEBRON JAMES (23) disputes a call. The Portland Trail Blazers hosted the Cleveland Cavaliersat the Moda Center on December 26, 2015. (Photo by David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

These are all stats that measure a player’s impact in an all-encompassing manner, and with his rankings being so high, it isn’t and hasn’t been an exaggeration to say James is arguably the most complete player in NBA history.

If advanced metrics aren’t your thing, James is second among active players in career points per game (27.2), as well as sixth in assists (6.9), not to mention he has five First-Team All-Defense selections under his belt. But these are all things you’re relatively familiar with.

I’ve always felt knocking James for not being able to win every NBA Finals he got to was ridiculous, just as I’ve felt it’s unfair to try and limit Manning by thoroughly stating you believe he’s only the best regular season quarterback. Strangely enough, the same “regular season” sentiment has been applied to James by certain folks.

As you can see with both the Panthers and the Warriors, and every other team to ever win a championship in any sport, it takes a lot to win at the highest level. Not only do you have to be great, but you have to beat other greats in the process.

Sports fans’ obsession with knocking the second highest on the totem pole in a given season has always struck me as really strange, but more often than not it comes with emotion.

You want reasons to root against Manning and James. I think with the last 13 months or so revealing Manning’s decline, maybe it’s less applicable to him at this stage in his career, but for the last handful of years as soon as it got really cold there were fans who couldn’t wait to remind you that Manning doesn’t play as well in the depths of Winter.

They wanted to remind you that “Brady and Bill Belichick owned him” even though Manning’s teams are now 3-1 against the duo in AFC Championship games. The narratives run wild when you’re a transcendent talent who comes up short.

Aside from the 2011 NBA Finals, how can you possibly find a way to short change James for any of his postseason accomplishments?  We’re talking about a player who’s been head and shoulders the best player on his team for his entire career, and has been in the NBA Finals five straight years now, without any Eastern Conference team looking like a viable challenge to stop him from appearance six.

Yet, James’ career takes a knock because his team gets to the Finals without its second or third best player, and loses despite him averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists?

Without making this a backhanded compliment, James isn’t the same player he was in 2012-13, and in the same token, this season’s Warriors and Spurs teams seem to be steeper competition than the teams James had to defeat to win his jewelry a few years ago.

You can sit here and talk about the realistic decline - which is a relative term as James is still averaging 25 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists while shooting 50.4 percent from the field - but James has already worked himself into the top 5-10 conversation at worst, and losing another championship series shouldn’t work against him in any way, shape, or form.

I don’t know if guys like Michael Jordan and Joe Montana set the bar too high for other athletes, but it’s unfair to make championships the end all be all, especially when you’re talking about truly transcendent talents. Manning is statistically superior to Brady, but because Brady’s played with more elite defenses he’s the better quarterback in a historical perspective? Or how about Manning’s brother Eli, who’s 2-0 in Super Bowl games and has put together some of the most clutch playoff runs in recent NFL history. I suppose that elevates him over Peyton too, because you know, Peyton’s only good in the regular season despite him gearing up to play for a championship for the fourth time in his career.

It’s funny to watch sports fans pick-and-choose who and what they want to prioritize when it comes to legacy, remaining ever so inconsistent in the process. Look, I don’t have an algorithm that adds up accomplishments and stats to further define who’s greater than who, and rankings are definitely subjective to extents. But to look at a player who is clearly in the top one-percent in their sport from a statistical perspective and somehow try to knock them down for not being able to overcome an eventual champion has to stop.

I’m sure within a decade we’ll have two other guys, who are clearly the best players of their eras in their respective sports, and have this conversation about them as well. But for Manning and James, the first two greats of the social media era, they’ve gotten a raw deal when it comes to having their achievements appreciated and their “shortcomings” amplified.

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