In this cyberspace, I've probably scrawled several thousand words explaining the who-what-when-where-why-how keeping Peyton Manning from making that last leap to unparalleled greatness. To the everlasting glee of many, I'm sure...
Nevertheless, it'd be foolish to suggest the Indianapolis Colts' franchise quarterback doesn't belong in the upper echelons at his position.
He is certainly on Olympus with some of the other man-gods to play under center in the National Football League. When the calendar reads September through the first couple weeks of January, he's the one holding the lightning bolts.
Only a genuine brand of lunacy can cast that fact in doubt.
Manning's various achievements are already tedious to list in their entirety and the stalwart behind Jeff Saturday has several premium years left in him (at a minimum). As always, a catastrophic injury could change things drastically, but no real sports fan wants to see that so we'll ignore the possibility.
Instead, let's hit the highlights of the middle Manning's canvas to date (ranked in order of significance):
- Super Bowl XLI Champion, regardless of how he played on the road to the Promised Land
- Four Associated Press MVPs, twice winning the award in consecutive years (2003, 2004, 2008, 2009)
- Five First-team All-Pro selections
- Three Second-team All-Pro selections
- 10 Pro Bowl selections, but only because he's gone the last eight years running (i.e. the 10-spot represents a consistent level of excellent play; otherwise, the Pro Bowl has become a joke)
- 117-59 as a starter for a 66.5 career winning percentage in the regular season
- Regular season averages— 64.8 completion percentage, 261.1 yards per game, 11.8 yards per completion, 1.99 touchdowns per game (passing and rushing), and a 95.2 quarterback rating
Again, those are quite metaphorically the tip of the iceberg.
Unfortunately, a professional quarterback's legacy is written in two parts—the regular season and the postseason. Peyton's struggles in the latter arc have been well-covered as has their newest entry.
ESPN's John Clayton recently tagged the interception returned for a touchdown by Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII as the greatest play the game has ever seen. If that's true, then Tracy Porter's 74-yard INT for a Saintly six must be the new title-holder, right?
Harrison went 100 yards and the return was more eventful, but that was in the waning moments of the first half and the Steelers had won the championship three years earlier.
Surely a decisive score off turnover with 3:12 remaining in the fourth quarter that clinches the first title for the beleaguered city of/franchise in New Orleans must trump a bumbling, stumbling 26 yards.
With room to spare.
But what if that's a good thing for Peyton Manning? What if it's a great thing? What if it's the very thing that eventually pushes him passed Joe Montana or whoever your favorite is?
Sounds odd at first blush, but indulge me.
That pass to Dallas Clark in the third quarter proves No. 18 has the ability to establish himself as THE Greatest of All Time when the chips are down—it might be the most beautiful pass I've ever seen anyone fling and it came at a pivotal juncture of the contest.
If it hadn't been spiraled by a QB the caliber of Manning, you'd have to dismiss it as luck.
To boot, Manning's unrivaled brilliance in the regular season proves he's always had that capacity.
Yet he hasn't as of 2010—a full 12 years into his superlative career.
If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say it's because Eli's older brother is too much of a perfectionist. He wants to win so badly that he takes every bad break and hiccup in execution as a mini-to-moderate crisis.
How else can you explain his awful body language and tendency to demonstrate frustration with teammates? Even after minor set-backs.
Or the stomach-fluttering drop in individual performance from regular to postseason?
Given Manning's character and relative humility, I'd wager good money that he takes his mistakes/failures too hard, holds them too long, and worries too much about avoiding a repeat.
Which brings me back to the Porter Pick Six.
If Manning's postseason struggles can be linked to some overwhelming angst about falling just short one more time, then couldn't something as traumatic as that play serve as the ultimate liberation?
Rock-bottom can have that effect and the dagger to the wrong jersey—though not entirely on Manning—must be close to the lowest low possible for an NFL rifleman.
Consider Super Bowl XLIV broke the M*A*S*H series finale's record for largest television audience in the American history of the medium (though not on a percentage basis). An estimated 106.5 million people watched the game via television, which means a whole lotta eyeballs bore witness to the colossal bugaboo.
Furthermore, really take some time to digest the magnitude of what hung in the balance.
It wasn't just the Super Bowl—think about that for a second.
Manning was all set up for his signature moment, the first truly crowning achievement of an illustrious career—the big drive to tie the big game and send it into the first overtime the Super Bowl had ever seen.
It would be exactly that flourish that most acknowledge his curriculum vitae lacks. It would be his version of "The Drive," "The Catch," The John Candy Drive," etc.
Except it wasn't.
Rather it was Peyton Manning's most excruciating limelighted miscue so far. Seen by the largest audience for such an event. Ouch.
Of course, the man will be back; on that we can all agree.
And surviving the worst-case scenario might be just the thing that allows Peyton Manning to finally let go.
As the regular season has demonstrated, that'd be terrible news for anyone in his way.