There's a reason the Pro Football Hall of Fame has a five-year waiting period between retirement and induction: You can't objectively talk about a player's legacy while there's fresh dirt stuck in his cleats.
The Denver Broncos were dominated in Super Bowl XLVIII. Peyton Manning—a nearly unanimous choice for Associated Press NFL MVP, driving force behind a historically prolific offense—led his team to a single measly touchdown.
This result brings Manning's career playoff record to 11-12 in 23 games; he's now 1-2 in Super Bowls. To many, this is an indelible stain on Manning's career, a scarlet "L" that brands him unworthy of being mentioned among the best quarterbacks of all time.
"Instead of the best quarterback in history," wrote Detroit News columnist Jerry Green, speaking as many have in the postgame aftermath, "I would call Peyton Manning the most overrated athlete in the annals of American professional sports."
Over the course of 15 seasons, Manning played 262 career regular and postseason games (the first 227 of which he played without missing a start). In those games, he had a .679 winning percentage and threw for 71,273 yards, 527 touchdowns and 241 interceptions.
Yet, the 263rd game carries enough weight to swing him from G.O.A.T to goat?
Human beings love to curate, preserve and share our experiences.
When we make a new relationship "Facebook official," spend four minutes trying to fit a pithy thought into our Twitter client or post a picture of our lunch to Instagram, we're acting on the same impulses that used to lead people to invite friends over for dinner and a vacation slide show, or keep scrapbooks and photo albums.
We do the same thing when we debate over water coolers and on sports-talk radio about who's better than who—or, as the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters did last weekend, spend nearly nine hours debating the merits before deciding who'll be immortalized in bronze.
That's what this is all about: immortality. Being remembered long after one's time. The impact one's life made on the world. One's legacy.
We try to preserve everything meaningful in our lives, and some of our most meaningful experiences are those involving our favorite teams and players. Of course, many players care deeply about how meaningful other people judge their life's work as well.
Peyton Manning woke up on Feb. 2 with the chance to do something no quarterback had ever done: Lead two different teams to a Super Bowl championship. Had he accomplished that, it would be a fine feather in his cap—and make him impossible to exclude from any "best" or "greatest" quarterback conversations.
The football world went to bed on Feb. 2 having witnessed an awful, three-phase deconstruction of Manning's Broncos, and Manning himself rendered helpless. So close to such an enormous accomplishment, a feat barely approached in nearly a half-century of Super Bowl-era NFL football, Manning spent most of the game throwing screens in a panic.
This is why we wait five years to judge a player's legacy.
Resumes vs. Real Life
Over the course of my lifetime, it seems as though debates about athletes' careers and legacies have regressed from arguing which player was better (factoring in awards and championships) to merely tallying awards and championships.
At this time last season, writers and fans everywhere were embroiled in heated debate over whether Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was "elite."
He must be, went the argument, because he quarterbacked the team that won the Super Bowl, which makes him the best quarterback. Now that he has a capital-R Ring, the logic went, he is immediately superior to all non-Ring-toting quarterbacks.
This clearly wasn't true at the time, and it sounds even more ridiculous now.
Per Pro Football Reference, Flacco was the 12th-highest-rated passer out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks during his "elite" 2012 campaign. Flacco signed a record-breaking contract in the spring of 2013, then threw more interceptions than touchdowns during the 2013 season. Now, Flacco is the NFL's 22nd-rated passer over the course of his six-year career, out of 34 quarterbacks with at least two seasons' worth of starts.
NFL passer efficiency rating isn't the be-all and end-all of stats—but in most statistical categories, Flacco has hovered between "mediocre" and "average" for most of his career. Those who pooh-pooh statistical analysis just needed to watch the games to see the few things Flacco does well, and the many he doesn't.
It seems, sometimes, as though this is the root of the problem: Modern football fans have become so well-informed, with such an abundance of statistics, information, analysis, opinion and debate being piped into their brain, that they forget to factor in the actual football.
The ring-counting crowd will even claim Eli Manning (two rings) is better than Peyton Manning (one ring), which is stunningly, laughably, jaw-droppingly ridiculous.
In seven of Peyton's 15 seasons, he was named first-team All-Pro. That means the NFL writers of the Associated Press agreed he was the best quarterback in football in almost half of the seasons he played. In three of Eli's 10 seasons, he led the NFL in interceptions.
Except for "number of Super Bowl championship rings," there isn't a stat, category or accomplishment where Eli's career even approaches that of his big brother's—and with Peyton playing the best football of his life at age 37, Eli has no hope of coming anywhere close.
It's almost as if quarterbacks aren't solely responsible for whether their teams win or lose.
Forty-six Men on the Sideline
The MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII was Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith. If anyone bothered making MVP odds for both teams' entire rosters, Smith wouldn't have been given better odds than many other starters.
With good-to-great performances from quarterback Russell Wilson, tailback Marshawn Lynch, receiver Doug Baldwin, receiver/returner Percy Harvin, defensive ends Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons, and strong safety Kam Chancellor, it was Smith's crucial pick-six that won the game for the Seahawks, more so than any of the other players or plays.
So how come this loss is all Peyton Manning's fault?
Of course, Manning's stat line doesn't look good: 34-of-49 for 280 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a fumble lost. Yet, is there another quarterback on Earth that could have played any better?
Manning had no time to throw, and no receivers to throw to. Together with offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Manning's offensive game plan was reduced to wide-receiver screens and panicked dump-offs. Manning dropped back to throw 50 times against the Seahawks pass rush, and was only sacked once (even that was Clemons' forced fumble, a sack by NFL rules but not a pre-throw takedown).
Put Flacco, Eli or even Tom Brady in Peyton's shoes last night, and they'd have been lucky to do as well, let alone better. It's no wonder that when Peyton was asked, per NFL Media's Gregg Rosenthal, if he thought the loss was embarrassing, the question was "insulting."
Five years after Peyton retires, the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters will gather together, let his presenter make the case and unanimously vote him in on the first ballot—just as they did for Manning's boss, Broncos vice president of football operations John Elway, whose record in Super Bowls was no better (2-3), and who suffered an even more dramatic defeat (55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV).
Manning, like Elway, will rightly be remembered as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, even if he couldn't beat the Seahawks single-handedly in Super Bowl XLVIII.