Peyton Manning's legacy is actually quite clear at this point.
He is the greatest regular-season quarterback the NFL has ever seen by a wide margin, but he struggles in the postseason. He is easily one of the five or 10 greatest QBs of all time, but there is significant ground to make up if he wants to equal guys like Joe Montana, John Elway or even Tom Brady, who's lost a bit of luster in these post-Spygate days.
No shame there.
Had he played well while leading the Denver Broncos to a victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, we might be giving the playoff half of his legacy a facelift. Instead, we saw the opposite.
While the game was still in doubt, the elder Manning and his vaunted offense were a hot mess. The unit generated almost nothing, while its field general threw two interceptions, the second of which killed the Broncos' first decent drive, after it had already consumed more than eight minutes of game time.
Worse, Seattle linebacker and eventual Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith returned it for a touchdown that made the score 22-0 and essentially ended the game with 3:21 left in the first half.
So...yeah, that one hurt.
By the time the dust settled, Peyton had dinked and dunked his way to 280 yards on a Super Bowl-record 34 completions. He also zipped a beautiful TD to Demaryius Thomas and lost a fumble when the game was already out of hand.
In other words, he performed exactly how an objective observer might've expected him to perform on the sport's grandest stage against the league's best defense. He was rattled when it mattered most, then settled down enough to make his final numbers look okay.
It was a train wreck by Peyton's regular-season standards, and just a little below average by his postseason ones, which makes sense since he was facing a Seahawks defense that was outstanding even in a field of playoff-caliber defenses.
Ultimately, Super Bowl XLVIII is yet another data point that demonstrates what should be a well-settled matter. Namely, Peyton Manning is not the same quarterback when the stakes are highest and the competition is stiffest, which isn't such a horrible sin when you consider how good he normally is.
If only it were that simple.
Where everything gets muddled is when you add subjective context to the objective assessment. See, Manning is polite. Manning is nice. Between his regular-season exploits and his affinity for the spotlight, Manning is a sports writer's dream and a marketing godsend: a media-friendly megastar, a fan favorite and an allegedly salt-of-the-earth fella, to boot.
Consequently, some people insist on exaggerating his legacy even though it's legitimately superlative. They want to pretend that he is on par with the likes of Montana, Elway and Brady, which requires some mitigating explanation for his postseason duds, including the latest.
So you'll hear about how Manning was harassed on both INTs—mildly on the first, DEFCON 1 on the second. About how the Denver special teams surrendered a crushing return for six to open the second half. About how Demaryius Thomas fumbled right outside the red zone.
About how the Denver defense crumbled as the game progressed. About injuries and uncalled penalties and bad snaps and anything else his defenders can use to arrive at the predetermined conclusion that it wasn't Peyton's fault.
And, to a degree, they're correct.
Football is a team game, and no individual player is ever singularly responsible for the outcome, especially a 43-8 wood-shedding. Of course Peyton Manning was not the only Denver Bronco who played poorly.
However, the Broncos, like the Indianapolis Colts before them, are built around their Canton-bound quarterback, and this is not an accident. Manning is paid almost $20 million a year to be the centerpiece, under the assumption that he will play well—if not like his usual, other-worldly self—and set the tone for his teammates because he has created that reasonable assumption. He is an all-time great, which means he is supposed to create margin for error, not require it.
The apologist logic is also conveniently inconsistent.
Nobody is sharing the glory when things go well for Manning except for, ironically, Peyton himself. When he exploded for seven touchdowns against the Baltimore Ravens in the first game of the 2013 regular season, I don't remember a lot of headlines touting Denver's offensive line or defense or receiving corps.
When he took home his fifth MVP trophy, I don't remember too many media members raving about his supporting cast. When people tout his All-Pro selections and passing records, I don't see too many words of praise for those around him.
On the contrary, all the emphasis is on the individual until things go sideways.
That's a pretty sweet deal—bask alone in the spotlight when things work, share the blame when they don't.
Nor can I think of another athlete under center who's enjoyed this treatment from so many in the media, except for possibly Tony Romo. Maybe Brett Favre. You could dissect virtually any flaw on an otherwise exceptional quarterback's resume and reveal the team as the true culprit.
Nobody ever mentions Dan Marino as the best QB who ever lived despite his postseason deficiencies, even though said deficiencies are the only blemish on his resume, and they were team-determined outcomes. Nobody ever argues that Steve Young is the G.O.A.T. even though it was impossible for him to beat the Triplets Era Dallas Cowboys by himself.
That has always been the agony and the ecstasy of being an NFL quarterback, and it always will be, thanks to modern marketing dynamics. The QB gets too much adulation when the team wins and too much scrutiny when the team loses.
When you're competing to be the best ever to play your position, that scrutiny is justified.
Peyton Manning knows this and seems to accepts it. His apologists refuse to follow suit and continue to muddy the waters around his legacy. In the process, they implicitly diminish a tremendous career.
Unfortunately, Super Bowl XLVIII gives them another chance.