NFL.com recently published a piece on the best player to be taken at each slot of the first round. The number 1 overall spot went not to 3 time League MVP, 4 time All-Pro, 9 time Pro Bowler (all before his 33rd birthday) Peyton Manning, but to John Elway. Elway is a HOF QB, but he's clearly not the passer Peyton has shown himself to be through his first 11 years in the league and as the league honors show and wasn't as highly regarded in his day as Peyton is in his (in addition to being vastly inferior statistically).
Usually it would be unfair to compare a player in his prime to a retired player with per season numbers because most stick around past their prime dragging down their average, but both popular opinion and the stats say Elway went out on top with 2 Superbowl wins, two Pro Bowl trips and two above career average statistical seasons. Here's the same table with Completions, Attempts, Yards, TDs and INTs all expressed as per season.
Despite shouldering a much larger role in the offense with almost 100 more attempts per season Peyton was a far more efficient passer, completing 7.5% more of his passes, gaining .8 more yards per throw and over a yard more per dropback (adjusted for TDs/INTs).
Elway went out on top, which makes people forget how long he took to get there. Elway didn't have a season with a QB Rating over 90 for the first DECADE of his career as a starter (for comparison Jeff Garcia who is now the backup in Oakland had a QB rating of 90 last year) and never had a single season as high as Peyton's career rating of 94.7. Peyton blows Elway out of the water as a passer. It's not a product of the Eras either. Peyton's 3rd season, just two years after Elway retired was superior to ANY year Elway had in Yardage, TDs, QB Rating and ANY/A and better than all but one year in Comp % and yards per attempt.
It's true that Elway did more with his legs than Peyton. Averaging 213 yards on the ground and 2.1 TDs to Peyton's 65 yards and 1.5 TDs, but first of all 150 rushing yards and half a TD doesn't nearly make up the massive gap between the two as a passer and secondly with all that extra running around Elway's ball security was an issue. Elway fumbled 137 times in his 16 year career. Elway fumbled as many times in a 5 years stretch from 1991 to 1995 as Peyton has fumbled in his 11 year career (52). 150 rushing yards doesn't seem like a much of a bargain when it comes at the cost of 4 extra fumbles.
Finally we'll bring the subjective opinion of the football media into the picture. As I said in the opening. Peyton is a 3 time League MVP, 4 time All-Pro, 9 time Pro Bowler (all before his 33rd birthday).
Elway on the other hand was never named an all pro, however he was named league MVP once, and made 9 Pro Bowls in his 16 seasons.
In five more years (which spanned his late bloomer prime rather than a decline) Elway made the same number of Pro Bowls, was named All-Pro 4 less times, and won two less league MVPs.
Finally I'll end with the winning. Even the measures I hate and think are useless and only believed in by the ignorant and idiotic like Peyton better.
True Elway wears one more ring than Peyton, but he had none through his first 11 years, while Peyton has taken home a title. Through the first 14 years of Elways career he was .500 in the playoffs. Peyton sits a game under .500 through 11 years.
In the regular season too, Peyton has won games at a higher clip .665 to .640
Peyton Manning has been a vastly superior passer, was more far dominant over his comtemporary QBs, won a SB earlier with plenty of time to match or pass Elway's 2 and won a better portion of his regular season games. That's why Peyton Manning is a superior Quarterback and the best #1 overall pick in NFL history.