Tag, Cam Newton. You're it!
Peyton Manning just retired. The Internet needs a football player to provoke endless, irrational debates. It's the coal that drives our engine. You drew the short straw, Cam. In fact, you sprained our wrists wrenching the short straw from our clenched palms last month.
You drew a giant golden target on your customized cleats, lost a Super Bowl, grimaced and pouted through a postgame presser. It was practically a job interview for being the next Peyton Manning, the guy we hate for the sake of hating.
Here's the job description:
• Be an almost unfathomably great quarterback, the kind that received nothing but gushing praise a generation or two ago.
• Cope with roughly half the sports world trivializing your accomplishments, questioning your leadership, marginalizing your success, giving everything you do the "yeah, BUT" treatment for a decade or just going out of its way to dislike you.
The job is yours if you want it, Cam. Heck, you are practically overqualified. But before you sign on, here's a little more background about the position that just became vacant.
A Discussion of the Legacy of Legacy Discussions
Back before Peyton Manning invented the sports Internet, it was easy to be a sports hero.
Superstars of the 1980s like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana started out as great players, then became champions, then became legends. There was no reason to craft a dramatic narrative around them. They won games and scored points/goals/touchdowns. Sportswriters fawned. We bought jerseys. It was a simpler time.
Sure, it took Jordan seven years to win a championship, but "When will he win the big one?" impatience wasn't a cottage industry then the way it is now. The controversial sports superstars—Pete Rose, Mike Tyson, Charles Barkley, Lawrence Taylor—were controversial for discernible reasons.
There were no blogs back then, no daytime-television debate shows. There was just a newspaper or two per region, some local radio shows and SportsCenter highlight montages that looped all day. The Internet was just a bunch of dorky teenagers clomping a telephone receiver onto a clunky modem so we could argue about Star Trek captains and Rush lyrics on BBS systems. Great players were great, period. The voice of dissent came from the occasional cranky late-night radio caller.
But the technology of the new millennium changed everything. The Internet as we now know it is built upon contrarian logic. Widespread, everyday use of the Internet gave us 15 years of The Simpsons fans complaining that The Simpsons isn't funny anymore. The Internet became the place where new bands, trends, restaurants or neighborhoods were declared "over" the moment they were mentioned in a print newspaper or played on commercial radio.
The fiercely anti-establishment voices of the first independent sports websites and blogs needed a sports superstar to criticize, not idolize. Peyton Manning fit the bill. He was famous since high school, supremely talented, but with an easy-to-target fatal flaw: a lack of championships, even in college.
Something about Manning made the sports world reflexively seek an underdog to root for. He became a Heisman favorite, and suddenly a defensive player (Charles Woodson) won the Heisman. He became the prohibitive favorite to be drafted first in 1998, and a nation of armchair draftniks spawned, armed with expert opinions on why they preferred Ryan Leaf, even though no one on the East Coast had ever seen Leaf do anything except lose a Rose Bowl.
Then Manning achieved NFL superstardom, only to stumble over Tom Brady, the ultimate underdog and alternative choice. Manning versus Leaf redefined how the NFL draft is perceived and covered—the three-month speculation season, with casual sports fans choosing sides and gobbling up mock drafts, barely existed before 1998—but Brady-versus-Manning defined the way we now talk and think about sports.
When two dudes on a talk show take two different sides in an argument that has no business being a two-sided argument (like: Is LeBron James good?), it's a template built on our fascination with the Brady-Manning debate.
When the phrase "elite quarterback" is thrown in front of a quarterback like a bear trap or used to formulate a listicle or slideshow, it's a legacy of the inner-circle reasoning inspired by a decade-plus of Manning-Brady duels.
Manning taught the early Internet pioneers how much attention you could get by throwing haymakers at an icon and how the page views go up when rival fanbases spar to the death on the comment thread. Whole corners of the Internet sprouted as a result of Manning bashing and Brady boosting, or vice-versa. Trust me. I was there.
Manning's contrarian power never had anything to do with Manning himself. It was never about anything, not even the incident at University of Tennessee in 1996 that has been in the public record for well over a decade. Manning had a unique power to rile up haters and doubters for no good reason.
Perhaps Manning skepticism touched something deep-seated. It ties into our distrust of authority, our need to question the party line and our need to feel like we have made an active choice instead of accepting what we are told.
Manning arrived as football royalty, preordained for stardom. Americans don't trust royalty. We were told before his freshman collegiate season that he was going to be the next big thing. But we like to discover our own next big things. And that's what the Internet was for: empowering everyone to become journalist/pundit/tastemaker.
The Internet shaped Manning, but Manning also shaped the Internet. Now we need a Peyton Manning. We can try to build one—"The Decision" was simply a calculated exercise in making a Peyton Manning for basketball out of LeBron James—but the raw material has to be there.
That's where you come in, Cam.
The Next Frontier
This is sad. It's just hours since Manning's retirement, and we are already lost. We are straining to generate controversy about Steph Curry. Steph Curry! Might as well criticize the sunset.
On the football front, we still debate the GOAT thing, clutching at it because we know we are about to lose it. Without Manning, the debate won't be current enough to stoke anyone's fires anymore.
That Greatest of All Time acronym is telling. The Internet doesn't need a GOAT. It needs a goat. It needs a criticism magnet, a target so big that everyone can hit it.
You are so perfect for the role, Cam. You are a first-overall pick, an advertiser's dream, a superstar who transcends the sports world. You're also a sponge for all of society's hangups, even the generational and racial itches that Manning couldn't quite scratch. You have a handful of personal shortcomings and a warehouse full of perceived ones. Manning handed you the baton in Super Bowl 50, and you stormed off the podium with it. A better storyline could not be crafted.
Be the goat. Go forth, set records, win championships, endorse products, get fabulously wealthy and reap derision and scorn from a sports world that thinks that "Nyah, nyah, you aren't really the greatest player of all time" is not only a worthy taunt, but a sane editorial position.
Unless times have changed. The cool kids used to pick on Manning. But now, it seems like the coolest kids are the ones defending Newton.
Maybe we learned something from 18 years of Peyton Manning. We've learned the difference between midday sports-talk debate and real, substantive debate. We have learned that a handful of angry reactionaries on a message board or Twitter do not necessarily represent a movement. Maybe now that we have found our voice, we have more to say than the "Peyton Manning is a choke artist" sideswipes that made us feel empowered in 2004.
There is room on the sports Internet for more than one or two great quarterbacks. There may be room for diversity, nuance and exchanges of ideas that go beyond a roiling decade-long unwinnable argument. Media is changing. Values are changing. Maybe in this post-Manning world, we'll all be smarter, more insightful, more tolerant and compassionate—and even a little better at maintaining perspective and seeing the big picture.
Admittedly, it's a longshot. So be ready, Cam. It's about to be your turn down the well.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.