The great Roger Staubach knows what should have been for Archie Manning

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Archie Manning, one of Mississippi’s all-time sports heroes, will be honored Tuesday night as the Gold Medal Recipient at the National Football Foundation’s 59th Annual Awards Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.

Manning, a former All-American quarterback at Ole Miss and a Pro Bowl player with the New Orleans Saints, is the latest in a long line of distinguished Gold Medal winners, the first of whom was President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958. Since then six other U.S. presidents, four generals, three admirals, one Supreme Court justice and famous luminaries from actor John Wayne to baseball immortal Jackie Robinson have been honored.

The gold medal, presented for contributions to amateur football, is the highest honor given by the National Football Foundation. Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach won the honor in 2007. Now seems a good time to compare Manning and Staubach, two quarterbacks from the same era who had decidedly different professional football careers.

Staubach, who played for the Dallas Cowboys, was voted the NFL’s quarterback of the 1970s. He is a Pro Football Hall of Famer, winner of two Super Bowls, four conference championships and one Super Bowl MVP Trophy.

Manning, on the other hand, never quarterbacked a winning team in the NFL.

The difference between the two?

“Luck and geography,” Staubach has said. “I played for the Cowboys and Archie played for the Saints. In other words, I got lucky. Archie didn’t.”

So I called Staubach, AKA Captain Comeback and Roger the Dodger, to ask him to expound on Manning’s legacy and how the Saints’ No. 8 compares with other quarterbacks of his era.

Rick Cleveland

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

Now 74 years old and wildly successful (and active) in his real estate business, Staubach was eager to talk about Manning, whom he considers a good friend.

“You know the Saints today are a really good team . . . a highly successful organization,” Staubach said. “The Saints that Archie played for were none of that. Archie Manning was a great quarterback on bad, bad football teams.

“On the other hand, I was lucky and went to the Cowboys. I had one coach the whole time. I lost count of how many Archie had,” Staubach said. “Unless you’ve played quarterback in the NFL, there’s no way you can understand how big a difference that makes.”

With the Cowboys, Staubach had Tom Landry and pretty much the same supporting cast for most of his career. He had outstanding, familiar receivers, a strong and stable offensive line and the support of a running game.

In contrast, Manning endured six coaches in 10 seasons. For much of the time, the Saints running game consisted mainly of Archie running for his life. He threw to more receivers than even he can count and one he didn’t even recognize.

We’ll let Archie tell that story:

“We had gone through I don’t know how many tight ends that year,” Manning said. “And this guy comes in with the play and I looked at him. I realized I didn’t know him. I said, ‘Who are you?’”

The guy had been signed the day before. Not much chance for success there.

Then, there was the time when the Saints had a new, speedy receiver named Jubilee Dunbar, who could run like the wind but had other, shall we say, shortcomings. On one play, on one Sunday, Dunbar was supposed to run a short out pattern as a sort of safety valve. But, as usual, Manning was running for his life. And, as was often the case, Dunbar ran the wrong pattern.

Archie threw the ball as far as he could before he was buried by the opposition. And then he heard the roar of the crowd. Jubilee had run a deep post instead of the short out and had caught the ball in stride for a 70-yard touchdown.

“I don’t know if Jubilee ever knew he ran the wrong pattern,” Archie said.

Manning was sacked a record 340 times during his Saints career ­– that, despite the fact he was one of the most elusive quarterbacks of his era. He was often chased back into the pocket, especially against teams such as the Rams and Cowboys. Surely all those sacks have contributed to the four major surgeries (back, neck, knee and back again) he has undergone in the last three years.

“It didn’t seem fair at the time and it still doesn’t,” Staubach said. “But I know how good he was. Everybody in the league knew how good he was.”

Staubach points out a game in 1971, Manning’s rookie season. The Cowboys, on their way to a Super Bowl championship, played a mid-October game at New Orleans. The Cowboys, who were trying to use a two-quarterback system, started Craig Morton at quarterback and the lowly Saints took command early. Manning threw for one touchdown and ran for another and the Saints led 17-0 at halftime.

Landry inserted Staubach in the second half and the Cowboys fought back to within 17-14. And then Manning scored the clinching touchdown himself on a two-year run in a 24-14 victory.

“That turned out to be a big game for me, even though we lost,” Staubach said. “It was a good break for me and you have to have those in your career. Archie never really had any.”

Landry quickly chose Staubach as his guy and the Cowboys won 11 of their last 12 and ended the season back in Tulane Stadium, where they defeated the Dolphins 24-3 in the Super Bowl.

In 1972, Manning would lead the league in passing on a team that finished 2-11-1. In 1978, he was the NFC Player of the Year on a team that finished 7-9.

“I played with Archie in Pro Bowls, and we became friends,” Staubach said. “We still are. I have really enjoyed watching the success his sons have had.”

Staubach strongly believes what many of us have long suspected. That is, with a different franchise or with the Saints at a later time, Archie Manning would have enjoyed similar success.

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at [email protected]