When Peyton Manning dismissed concerns about the rust he might carry in his return to the NFL Sunday night, passing for two touchdowns and no interceptions, it brought up thoughts of another quarterback who recently took one last stab at Super Bowl contention.
When Manning and the late, crazed Brett Favre eventually fade into the record books years down the road, there will be a contrast that critics come to acknowledge. That contrast, between a man who survived for nearly twenty years by overcoming his lack of wit with his rocket of an arm, and one who made a living off of both his football IQ and his superhuman precision, will signify the moment when the rocks-for-brains quarterbacks of the old guard became obsolete and the new breed officially took over in the fast paced, pass oriented NFL of the 21st century.
This is because, unlike Favre, Manning is one of the fastest thinking QB's in the NFL, and this attribute doesn't go away with age.
On his initial drive Sunday, Manning's passes landed directly into the hands of fairly open receivers. Every pass on the opening drive hit its mark in either the palms or the numbers, and no passes were forced. No incompletion was Manning's fault. Four quarters and two touchdowns later, it became apparent that Manning's targeting system was working just fine against the respected Steelers defense.
Compare Manning's unfolding legacy to Favre's. In both 2007 and 2009, Favre's Super Bowl aspirations were shot down by none other than his own, dumb self. No. 4 should have taken both Green Bay and Minnesota to the Promised Land those years. Instead, he killed their seasons with vomit inducing interceptions.
With the two being somewhat contemporaries, you can observe a parallel. How do two future Hall of Famers, a dopey gunslinger and a sniper with a brilliant knack for X's and O's, end their careers? Who comes out on top in the 2010's?
The answer is that Manning, whether or not he makes it to the big stage in February again, will end his career with grace, not with shame. You can bet money on the AFC Championship game not ending with Manning throwing a dumb interception. Not this year, and not ever.
Manning's excellence under center Monday night, though only a small sample, demonstrated again just how unprecedented his combination of accuracy and football IQ is. Network broadcasters are notorious for their slobbering, and celebrating Manning certainly was the agenda on Sunday Night Football this week. However, the most cynical Patriots fan, decked out in his or her "Manning Sucks" regalia, would have to acknowledge that even "Tom Terrific" doesn't have quite that kind of accuracy at 35. Sunday night was as good as any night for Manning worship.
Favre's interception in the 2009 NFC Championship game was the official end of the big arm era. Manning's return to the NFL will be the deal sealing reminder of what kind of quarterback runs the show in today's football.