Whenever you pump the brakes on the adoration showered upon a great player, the torch-wielding mob comes a-runnin'. Instead of axes and pitchforks, they're armed with t-shirts featuring said player's smiling mug and zealous advocacy for his or her prestige.
Who can really blame them?
I've been known to dust off the metaphoric shovel and grab a Tim Lincecum jersey when anyone tries to diminish the Freak's ironic stature in Major League Baseball—as has been said before, "fan" is short for "fanatic."
However, I'm really not trying to imply Peyton Manning isn't excellent.
The Indianapolis Colts' quarterback is quite possibly the best regular season signal-caller the National Football League has ever seen. His ability at the position rates, without question, amongst the finest to ever take a snap. Given a more ideal set of circumstances, the dude might have been the best QB the League has ever seen, period.
At 33-years-old, Peyton Manning still has plenty of time to yank that title away from Joe Montana, or whoever you think has it.
You make your career out of what is and was, not what could have been or might eventually be.
The fact of the matter is, absent a professional sports' culture that's becoming increasingly infatuated with statistics and individual achievement, the elder Manning wouldn't be placed on the mantle alongside a three-time Super Bowl winner like the New England Patriots' Tom Brady or a four-timer like Joe Cool based on his body of work to date.
Understand—I'm not arguing this is right/wrong, better/worse, or attaching any other judgment to it (although it's quite obvious where my personal feelings on the matter lie).
For the sake of this discussion, I'm simply saying it's the truth.
Football has always been considered the ultimate team game where the W is unequivocally paramount. Quarterbacks have always received the lion's share of the spotlight so their grades have always reflected this premium more so than other positions.
While a championship helps any player's reputation, the studs behind center haven't been able to enter the pantheon of all-time greatness without a Super Bowl ring. Additionally, it's been tough to improve your position once inside without adding to your jewelry case.
I'm not an expert, but I'd argue it's because football features no individual achievements now that Barry Sanders is a distant memory.
Successful series require a harmony of moving parts more numerous and intricate than an outsider like me can possibly identify, much less appreciate. The reality of even the outstanding "individual" effort is inevitably a concerted effort involving no less than five or six men.
Someone with a deeper knowledge of the game could probably formulate a very persuasive case for an offense-defense-special-teams synergy as well. You know, field position, time of possession, scoring, and how it affects defensive play-calling, and so forth.
Since quarterbacks serve as rough proxies for the team, most pigskin observers consider their individual statistics like touchdowns, passing yards, and quarterback rating only slightly more dispositive about the individual than the win or loss (within reason).
Or at least they did.
Although the fundamental, coordinated nature of football hasn't changed, the perception is slowly slipping.
With the onset of fantasy sports, the infatuation with the individual is elbowing its way into the conversation. Think about it—how many times have you been watching a game and rooting for Player X on one team, Player Y on another, and with total disregard to the ultimate outcome?
I'm not even a huge fantasy guy and I know that happens to me on a weekly basis. In fact, I've even rooted for one of my fantasy squad while he's playing against the Niners. Admittedly, it's with the caveat that it doesn't actually hurt the fellas.
Suddenly, a good day from a quarterback turns into 350 yards, three touchdowns, and one pick. Who cares whether the team wins or loses—you don't get points for that. Usually a good fantasy day coincides with a winning effort, but not always and you quickly learn to stop seeing a difference.
Not only that—the fantasy season ends along with the regular season. Obviously, the entire football world perks up when the playoffs start so it'd be foolish to claim the fantasy games have eroded the significance of the second season.
Of course, it'd be equally foolish to claim the interest in the regular season hasn't been ratcheted up by the popularity of the fantasy games. Interest in one can gain without taking a bite out of its counterpart.
Which brings me back to Peyton Manning—both phenomena seem tailored to his resume.
Everyone knows he's setting NFL regular season records on a weekly basis, and he'll continue to do so until his career ends. We know about the Most Valuable Player awards and the rest of the glittering individual accolades. We know if someone asks you who's leading the NFL in a quarterbacking statistic; the Colt is a pretty safe bet.
We know all this for good reason—Peyton Manning deserves every single ounce of respect and attention he gets for those very substantial feats.
Yet Manning, himself, will probably tell you that's not what the real game is about.
I'm confident he'd tell you that because he must've already learned the lesson well—do you think he'd trade some of his college laurels for one win against the blood-rival Florida Gators? Maybe a National Championship?
And that brings into play a couple other truths about Peyton Manning.
We also know he's 7-8 in the playoffs and we've all watched him become a shadow of his regular season self in those contests. I could tally off some shockingly condemning numbers, but that'd be strange having devoted so many previous inches to attacking the true significance of such numbers.
Luckily, I don't need them—the eye test is conclusive.
Instead of precise and decisive lasers, Playoff Peyton is far more prone to some grade-A Gumby shoulders and unbelievable bouts of gloom on the sidelines—unbelievable in that no leader of any group should EVER look the way Peyton Manning does when things get bumpy.
There just isn't the same resolve.
It's like one of the game's greatest minds over thinks the situation. The higher stakes seem to create a moment of doubt—maybe an extra split-second to clear the target of any exotic turnover monsters that might've been saved for the postseason. It's not that he's horrible—for whatever reason, something is just off and the results reflect the snag.
Yet Peyton Manning's legend grows with every regular season yard he piles onto his obscene career total, with every extra touchdown he puts in his trophy case. Somehow, a guy with one ring—courtesy of arguably the most underwhelming performance by a QB on his way to football's biggest prize ever—and a sub-.500 playoff record gets mentioned in the same breath with the NFL's biggest winners.
The undeniable evidence shows this is quarterback who dominates the regular season on an annual basis, then becomes either a poor, average, or better-than-average snap-taker when the heat is on.
Whichever adjective you choose, the fact is Peyton Manning regresses when his team needs him most—asked to do what he has been doing all season, he has routinely failed. You can make any number of excuses—ranging from legitimate to absurd—but they're all irrelevant because you can make similar excuses for any of the all-time greats.
Maybe even for any quarterback at all.
If you want to start making allowances for every imperfection in a quarterback's supporting cast, you must do that for every quarterback in the discussion and the entire thing deteriorates into a meaningless morass of hypothetical.
Nobody has the perfect situation—gotta play 'em as they lay.
Heretofore, these blatant truths would keep anyone out of the most rarefied air. Even a statistical monster like Peyton Manning. For better or worse, that seems to be changing.
What a brave new world...
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