Peyton Manning played a lot of football during the Aughts.
Super Bowl XLVIII gave fans glimpses of the foreign and the familiar.
For the first time in NFL history, confetti rained upon the team from America’s northwest corner. A quixotic franchise best known for its atypically loud home stadium and striking monochromatic uniforms became world champions nearly 12 years after switching conferences for a second time. If the Seattle Seahawks seem to lack a traditional NFL identity, it’s because 1) football fans of a certain age will always associate them with the AFC and classic games against the Oakland/Los Angeles Raider, and 2) they are one of the few current franchises whose head coach is arguably more famous than any individual player—or at least that was the case before a certain post-game interview turned the sports world upside down two weeks ago. The Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory constitutes newfound territory for professional football, though the team’s oodles of talent and relative youth this may allow Pete Carroll & Co. hoist the Lombardi Trophy many more times in the near future.
Not for the first time in NFL history or even recent memory, Peyton Manning, the reigning god of football’s regular season, walked off the field sporting a look that combined consternation, disappointment and more than a hint of petulance, his team humiliated in a game that served as confirmation of a long-held adage: great defense trumps great offense. Because Manning is the most recognizable player in professional football if not all of American sports, his narrative within the context of this game will receive significant attention. As the legion of fans, media members and corporate sponsors file out of East Rutherford, New Jersey, our mediated culture will turn its attention to the subjective exercise of re-evaluating the aging quarterback’s legacy.
In one sense, Sunday’s game didn’t reveal anything new about Peyton Manning so much as confirm what history has already shown: In spite of his penchant for smashing passing records and dominating the regular season, he is very much prone to lackluster playoff performances. That’s not to say the blame for Denver Broncos 43-8 loss to the Seahawks falls entirely in Manning’s lap. Seattle thoroughly outplayed Denver in every phase of the game. But the Seahawks defense did expose Manning for what he has become: An immobile quarterback with spotty downfield arm strength.
All the quick slants, bubble screens and check-down passes that worked so well for the Broncos offense during the regular season failed to make a dent against the superb Seahawks defense, the strangely nicknamed Legion of Boom (title of a bad flick staring Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson?) Unlike his shifty counterpart, Russell Wilson, Manning could not escape the pocket when Seattle’s pass rush brought pressure. He couldn’t connect on the deep ball to any of his talented wide receivers. And on two occasions he very much tried to force the issue, decisions that resulted in interceptions on both occasions, one of which was returned for a touchdown by game MVP Malcolm Smith.
Peyton Manning played poorly on American sports biggest stage. But one terrible Super Bowl performance cannot negate all Manning has accomplished. The records, the wins, his comeback from a debilitating neck injury, the fact that he brought two different franchises to the Super Bowl. These achievements speak to Manning’s singular greatness. And if Sunday proves to be the last time number 18 takes the field as an NFL player—according to ESPN Manning will undergo an offseason exam on his surgically repaired neck to determine whether or not he can continue to play—that’s a shame for football fans, because watching Peyton Manning play football has been one of the great and comforting joys of Sundays in Autumn for the past 16 years.
So what is Peyton Manning’s legacy? Where does he belong in the pantheon of NFL quarterbacks? In considering this question, some surprising comments made this week by former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, the player who was the celebrity face of the NFL before Manning’s ascendancy, come to mind. Prior to the Super Bowl, Favre compared himself to Manning and suggested that from a legacy standpoint he and Manning are quite similar.
Upon first read, the link between Favre to Manning seems ludicrous, since in so many ways the two players display polar opposite tendencies. Throughout his career, Favre was the quintessential gunslinger, a player who thrived on disorder and displayed a preternatural gift for rising above the on-field pandemonium that is professional football and making plays based on whim and guts. He was all heart, instinct and arm strength, a player who made Sunday afternoons at Lambeau look like just a slightly more complicated version of tossing the pigskin in the backyard with a couple of friends.
Manning, on the other hand, is all precision and preparation. His signature in-game tic is not rolling to his right and hurling the ball downfield but changing the play at the line of scrimmage with rapid-fire bursts of speech. He thrives on well-orchestrated play calling made possible by almost unfathomable levels of pre-game study. An opposing player once compared him to a Macbook for his unmatched ability to read defenses and implement the correct read in each situation. He’s more reminiscent of the high school geek who stays in the library memorizing every possible answer to next week’s trigonometry test than he is of the stud senior quarterback who makes playing football look easy. He is mind, effort and intellect to Favre’s heart and easygoing flicks of the wrist.
And yet despite these striking stylistic differences, the two quarterbacks share certain characteristics that bind them in an undeniable way. Both hold many significant individual passing records. Both showed amazing longevity and the ability to stave off injury throughout their careers. Each man won a single Super Bowl, though neither played particularly brilliant in the championship game that their respective teams won. Both were the “face of the league” during their heyday, recognizable via their frequent commercials and memorable on-camera interviews. Each found success with a second team in the twilight of their careers—Favre came within three points of making the Super Bowl as a member of the Minnesota Vikings.
Perhaps this is how we should think about Peyton Manning. An updated version of the genial if flawed Favre. A semi tragic athlete destined to wow us in the regular season and then come up just short on the biggest stages. A player who seems unstoppable every time he walks onto the field yet doesn’t surprise us when he is, inevitably, stopped. Unlike his contemporary Tom Brady, whose good looks and celebrity status can at times make him seem too perfect—like he’s some untouchable, athletic robot created to serve the malevolent genius Bill Belichick—there’s something touchingly human about Manning. Maybe it’s the aw-shucks affectations of his southern drawl or the way he classily answers every question, even the stupid ones, posed to him during post-game press conferences. Like Favre, he comes across as so much more down-to-earth than his contemporaries—if you saw Peyton Manning standing on the sidelines of a neighborhood high school football game casually chatting up the coaches and players would that scene not seem strangely normal? The result of Manning’s layman appeal is that when he loses it’s hard for all fans, even those who tend to root against him, not to feel a little pang of disappointment for the man. The world seems to make more sense when Manning emerges as the victor, which is why his frequent losses on the biggest stages serve as symbolic confirmations that life is, in essence, a damningly confusing undertaking.
If it’s any consolation to these two old-school pocket passers, the records they set may never be touched. The new generation of quarterbacks—the Russell Wilsons and Colin Kaepernicks of the league—are duel offensive threats, and because they concentrate almost as much on rushing as they do on passing, they may never match the stats of their quarterback forebears, even as they rack up the wins. So as Manning sits on the precipice of possible retirement, let’s not bemoan another game in the postseason “L” column—this is part of what he does and part of who he is—but remember him for the great games, great commercials, and everyman appeal he has always brought to the game of football.