Quarterbacks Tom Brady of the Patriots and Eli Manning of the Giants have… (Photos by Associated Press )
INDIANAPOLIS — For all the hype, grandeur and corporate extravagance of the Super Bowl, this year's version of the nation's most-watched sports event boils down to two little names.
Tom versus Eli.
It's only fitting that the NFL, a league so predicated on passing, is showcasing two of its greatest quarterbacks in New England's Tom Brady and the New York Giants' Eli Manning.
Never has the importance of that cornerstone position been more evident than this season.
And no city is more acutely aware of that than Indianapolis, the host of Super Bowl XLVI, whose Colts were decimated this season by the neck surgeries that sidelined Peyton Manning, the league's only four-time most valuable player.
Without him, the Colts -- among the most successful franchises of the 2000s, in any sport -- were a husk of their former selves, finishing 2-14 then cleaning house, sending coach Jim Caldwell and Hall of Fame-worthy team president Bill Polian packing.
Startling and abrupt as that collapse was, it only underscored the disproportionate importance of the most glorified -- and scrutinized -- position in team sports.
If you have a Brady or a Manning type, you'll be in the Super Bowl hunt almost every year. If you don't, you probably won't.
"The teams that have one are still playing in January," said former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, the league's MVP in 2002. "The teams that don't have one are searching for them.
"The teams that don't have them are replacing their coaches."
Without question, there are positions in other team sports that play an essential role in a team's success -- a point guard in basketball, a goaltender in hockey, an ace starting pitcher in baseball -- but whose thumbprint on a franchise's fortunes is more evident than that of a quarterback?
Consider this: Of the 15 coaches inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame since World War II, all but four had quarterbacks who also have busts in Canton, Ohio -- among them Don Shula, who coached three Hall of Famers in John Unitas, Bob Griese and Dan Marino, and Bill Walsh, who coached Joe Montana and handed Steve Young off to George Seifert.
"A great coach is going to need great players, and certainly the key one is quarterback," said former Buffalo coach Marv Levy, who is in the Hall of Fame along with his quarterback, Jim Kelly. "You hope that the coaches played some hand in developing a guy into an outstanding quarterback."
Young thinks there is no other position in sports that "dictates the terms" of a game the way quarterback does, whether that impact is positive or negative.
"Everybody feeds off of what the quarterback can and cannot do," he said. "Defensively, offensively, everybody reacts to what threats or non-threats the quarterback has. Everything else is secondary.
"The foundation of the game is really built off of responding to what the quarterback presents. That's why it's so scrutinized. That's why when somebody dictates terms like Tom Brady or Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, or now Eli Manning, it's almost indefensible at some times.
"You think about defensive mind-sets. Every week is the same thing: Can we knock him down? So you know that everyone on that side of the ball has one thing in mind, and that's to screw you up. It's their focus."
Former baseball player Todd Zeile, who spent 16 years as a third baseman, first baseman and catcher with 12 major league clubs, said an argument can be made that quarterback is the most influential position in team sports, considering he touches the ball on virtually every offensive play of a far shorter season than baseball, basketball or hockey -- a season in which every game is vitally important.
"The only conclusion I would draw that's different," Zeile said, "is it's hard to deny that a pitcher holding a baseball can dominate, especially in the National League. He could potentially throw a no-hitter and hit a home run, and nobody else on the field mattered. It's hard for [a player in] any other sport to completely dominate a single game like a pitcher can."
However, Zeile said: "The influence that a quarterback has stems from his ability to adapt to the environment, read the defense, see the different kinds of ways that they're trying to adapt to him, and to be the eyes for that head coach that's on the sidelines and knows the plays and formations but can't see the game the way the quarterback does."
Hockey great Wayne Gretzky said he has always appreciated the challenges quarterbacks face, but he gained even more of an appreciation watching his son play the position in high school.