Super Bowl Doesn't Mar Peyton Manning's Legacy; The Game Fits Right into It
Listen to almost every single ex-National Football League player and coach: They'll tell you the same thing.
Right or wrong, you must win Super Bowls and perform in the postseason to be considered the greatest quarterback of all time.
Not one of the greats, the greatest.
Stat geeks and faithful fans will argue for this and that qualifier because they have good reason: Football is a team game, and no single player or coach wins/loses the contest.
But perception can—and should—become reality if it endures for enough time.
In the NFL, for as long as I can remember, the perception has been that the team rides or dies with its signal-caller. There are most certainly exceptions, but they are rare.
That's why QBs are taken No. 1 overall in the draft so frequently. That's why most teams at the bottom of the pack are desperately looking for the elusive "franchise quarterback."
It's also why Peyton Manning will never go down as the greatest quarterback in NFL history until he rights his postseason wrongs.
A list that's now 74 yards and six points longer, thanks to Tracy Porter.
As always is true of a professional football game, there is plenty of credit to spread around the New Orleans Saints' locker room—as there is blame to spread on the Indianapolis Colts' side of the ball.
However, the history books tell us that's the lesser part of the story.
You know that, had Indy won, it would be No. 18 surrounded by microphones, cameras, and the unabashed adulation of the country. Just look at what's now happening to Drew Brees—and rightly so.
Still, there were other invaluable contributions from Saints on the gridiron Sunday.
Brees got excellent protection, timely contributions from a savage defense (when they made the play, which wasn't always the case), a great game from his place kicker, and typically unappreciated work from the wrecking ball otherwise known as Pierre Thomas.
Yet the Most Valuable Player of the game was a foregone conclusion because of the record-tying blinder authored by the Saints quarterback.
Going forward, the details will fall away for the majority of fans, and Brees will stand alone. Quick—tell me something remarkable about Super Bowl XXIX other than Steve Young's liberating day.
Sadly, the same will be true of Manning on the other end of the spectrum.
Yes, Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne had brutal drops (so did Marques Colston). Yes, Head Coach Jim Caldwell got thumped by his New Orleans Saints counterpart, Sean Payton. Yes, Matt Stover pulled the 51-yard kick to the left. Yes, Hank Baskett triggered the onsides debacle.
Yes, you can point to a thousand other details that help explain one of the larger upsets in recent memory—and none of them features the word "Peyton" or "Manning."
But that's partially the point—assessing the greatest of all time doesn't take a fine-toothed comb, insider info, or a degree in sabermetrics (or whatever you'd call the football equivalent).
When you're the best to ever play a game, you resonate with casual fans and experts alike.
And you do it on all levels—not just statistically and during the regular season.
If you take a numerical magnifying glass to the National Basketball Association, you can find more names eligible for the greatest of all time than just Michael Jordan and Bill Russell. Take the same to Major League Baseball, and you can also open the discussion beyond the usual suspects (Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, etc.).
These are the top fraction of a percent of the athletes to compete on their chosen fields: The gaps between the top and the bottom pro just aren't that big in an absolute sense. Consequently, you look closely enough at any elite player in any sport, and you can probably make an argument that he is the best to ever play based on contextual deficiencies.
That's not to dismiss intricate, complex analysis in all, or even the majority of, situations—just this one.
Because the greatest of all time is a title earned from the experts and the bumbling, drunken masses—not one or the other.
Manning's latest postseason failure—and his most excruciating (even for some of us who don't fancy ourselves fans of his)—will be yet another brick in the wall preventing most observers from seeing him as the greatest of all time.
The pick-six can never really be washed away; it's gotta be a QB's worst nightmare.
Porter deserves credit for the interception because it was a cerebral move and an athletic feat. Perhaps more impressively, he turned Manning's most dangerous weapons—that slant/stick route, Reggie Wayne, and excessive film study—against the future Hall of Famer.
But Manning still threw the pigskin.
More importantly, it's another indelible image on the wrong side of the scale against which the New Orleans native has little postseason substance to counter.
Think about Manning's most memorable games in the playoffs. You've got the comeback he engineered against the New England Patriots in the American Football Conference Championship in 2006-07, a bunch of early round burners, and the Super Bowl MVP that he won for the comeback against the Pats.
Not much depth or weight to go against even the Porter pick-six.
Forget about the one-and-dones, the precipitous drops in performance (both actual and statistical), and the 9-9 record.
Worse, would the greatest of all time get outplayed on the biggest stage by another quarterback? No matter how excellent?
Joe Montana didn't.
Those are the two names I've got clearly ahead of Manning. Though the distance between Peyton and Brady closed considerably this year—in fact, absent the INT, I'd have vaulted the Manning Face over Tom Terrific.
Furthermore, would the greatest leader of all-time in the most team-oriented game share the blame?
Says here "no" because, even though he did have a culpable defense, special teams, and receiving corps, it was Manning's gaffe that put the game out of reach.
Yet during his press conference, Manning did just that.
He wasn't wrong and he wasn't overly critical, but it sounded eerily similar to when he dumped his offensive line under the bus following the 2005-06 AFC Divisional Playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A quarterback who revels in the attention when things go well can't suddenly start deflecting the spotlight when it goes wrong. If you're gonna take all those interviews, all those endorsements, all those television spots, all those cameos, all that money, and all the other perks that accompany "The Man" honors, you must also take the flip to its coin.
That means swallowing your pride and taking your lumps for the team, even if they're unwarranted.
Because all the positive individual attention is unwarranted, too.
Even in the wake of Super Bowl XLIV, his apologists are flopping down Manning's statistical dominance and regular season exploits as proof of his claim to the throne.
Conveniently, they make the opposite side's argument almost perfectly—that the middle Manning is the greatest regular season QB of all time is beyond doubt.
You can point to his four Most Valuable Player awards and take the argument in one swoop. Or you can mix in his per-game statistical brilliance, consistency, winning percentage, and fourth-quarter comebacks—and severely beat the dead horse.
Nevertheless, the brighter the shine on the quarterback's regular season, the darker his postseason numbers look by comparison.
This was true before the big game, and it's truer in the aftermath.
Which means Super Bowl XLIV doesn't cast a pall over his legacy, it just deepens the shadow already there.
Happily, there's still plenty of time for Peyton Manning to bring out the sun.
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