Legacies are made on Super Bowl Sunday. Seriously. Go walk around NFL media day or around the streets of East Rutherford or New York City or even your local town and ask someone to describe the Super Bowl in one word.
Other than "football," "beer," and "go away," the most prevalent word you'll hear is legacy.
It's a strange, often cringe-inducing word that often leads to sweeping generalizations from talking heads with nothing better to say. Legacy is abstract, able to be morphed and redefined within the construct of any argument, whether to vilify LeBron James' quote-unquote inability to hit a game-winning shot or deify someone like Joe Namath, a wholly mediocre quarterback whose one truly brilliant moment granted him a lifetime of impunity.
So, yes, legacy is stupid. And, no, no one's legacy is on the line on Sunday. Peyton Manning is one of the best two or three quarterbacks to ever play this game no matter what any loudmouth friends or #columnists want to say, and Champ Bailey is a Hall of Famer regardless of whether his first Super Bowl ends in victory or defeat. Pete Carroll's decision to bolt USC for the NFL remains as smarmy as ever, but he's proven he can hack it as an NFL coach no matter what.
The NFL has fostered a culture of self-importance, where everything means everything to everyone at all times. This Sunday isn't just one football game. It's all football games wrapped into one, your entire season rendered meaningless with a loss and your life made with a win.
While I'm 100 percent sure I buy 0 percent of that, the legacy question—or, more specifically, a dichotomy—at quarterback is worth examining.
Russell Wilson, on the surface, would seem to have little to no Legacy Points (a fictional creation I just made in my own head) on the line. He's 25 years old. He's just two years into his NFL career. There is nothing about the Seahawks roster that says they must win this season or face the risk of dropping out of playoff contention.
Wilson is everything that Manning is not in some ways. He's young, smart (they share this quality, obviously) and of the new generation of quarterbacks who can beat you with either their legs or their arm. Another decade at least will go by before we even begin to think about Wilson dropping the pads and where he stands among his peers.
So, why legacy for Wilson? Because they can be crafted early and define your entire career. Just ask Tom Brady. When you talk to folks around the league and ask which quarterback they would most want in a one-game playoff, Brady's name invariably comes up the most. He is, to some, the 2000s' answer to Joe Montana. The ultimate winner. The ultimate leader. The ultimate ultimizer of ultimism.
The Patriots have been so good for so long that it's easy to forget their last Super Bowl title was almost nine years ago. Manning has reached three Super Bowls to Brady's two, and he's actually won one. If the Broncos win on Sunday, Manning is only one championship behind his greatest rival—the "winner" of the bunch.
Wilson can begin carving himself out a similar, Brady-esque niche. Like early-career Brady, Wilson eschews gaudy personal stats to lead an offense buoyed by a power running game and elite defense. Wilson's overarching role isn't to be a "game manager" per se, but to work within the framework of the offense, always make the smart read and put up stats that look better as a whole than they do in individual contests.
And it's worked like a charm. The Seahawks are 27-9 (including playoffs) in Wilson's first two seasons. Here are the quarterbacks post-merger who have started at least 20 games in their rookie and second seasons and had career quarterback ratings of 100 or better: Dan Marino, Wilson. That's it. That's the list.
No Manning. No Brady. No Andrew Luck. Just Wilson. A win on Sunday can take one of the better first two seasons for a quarterback in NFL history and arguably make them the best.
"If you can find the guy that, once he makes his big score, is going to work harder than even before then, you'll be OK," longtime NFL analyst Gil Brandt recently told NFL.com's Judy Battista. "That's what Manning has done; it's what (Tom) Brady has done. That's what this guy has done."
Manning's narrative? Already crafted.
He's the NFL's all-time single-season touchdowns and yardage leader. He's second all time in career passing yards, touchdowns, completions, passer rating and about eleventy billion other things.
Keep in mind Manning is setting and extending records he set this season while two years removed from being unsure he'll ever play football again. Because he's Peyton Manning and indestructible, we often forget to marvel at both the improbability of his comeback and how much he's adjusted his game to deal with new physical limitations.
Perhaps we'll get that chance when he walks away. And that, of course, could be closer than any in Denver wants to believe.
Throughout Super Bowl week, Manning's "will he or won't he" question about retirement has been a prevailing storyline despite the future Hall of Famer's attempts to squash the rumors. He's been asked by numerous people in numerous situations whether he will be back in 2014, and each time Manning has responded by emphatically telling folks he still wants to play football.
"I feel a little bit better than I thought I would coming off that [neck] surgery a couple of years ago,'' said Manning, via Newsday's Kimberley A. Martin. "I feel better physically. I've been rejuvenated playing under a different offense, playing with new receivers, because it keeps me stimulated every day. So I certainly would like to keep playing.''
In his column this week, Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman said he doesn't believe Manning for a second. Neither do plenty of people around the league. I'm with them. Manning, with a victory, could retire with the greatest pre-retirement season in NFL history—and perhaps the history of all of sport.
"I've been asked about my legacy since I was 25 years old—which I'm not sure you can have a legacy when you are 25 years old, or even 37,'' Manning said. "I thought you had to be 70 to have a legacy."
Manning is being coy, but one has a hard time believing he hasn't thought about this stuff. He's 37. He's already been through a career-threatening process that could have left him paralyzed in a worst-case scenario. You may have to be 70 to have a legacy in real life, but in football terms, 37 is 70.
With a win on Sunday, Manning could choose to walk away without ever having to hear questions about arm strength. About his cold-weather record. About his so-called inability to win the big one. And he'll never even come close to entering the hanging-on-too-long period. His two-year jaunt with the Broncos will be the icing on the cake, not his Jets season.
On one side, it's the quest for the perfect ending. On the other, the quest for the perfect beginning. Expect a hell of a battle.
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