Peyton Manning Agonistes
Rightfully so, the New Orleans Saints were the story.
It seemed, from the outside at least, that those Bourbon Street bacchanals were finally given a raison d'etre other than libertinism.
Somehow Saints fans who had been wearing bags on their heads for most of the past four decades and an owner who always had one foot out the door (even after Katrina) became the most loyal football fans in America and an owner dedicated to New Orleans' civic revival.
Regardless, even the most cynical amongst us had to admit that to the Gulf Coast the Super Bowl was more than a football game and swallow hard at the bandwagon jumpers and mawkish Johnny-come-latelys.
The Saints won. And to the victors go the spoils and the winners write the history and all that jazz.
Hoisting the Lombardi trophy, New Orleans, the team and the region it represents, completed a quintessentially American tale.
From great tragedy, Katrina, came a great triumph. It was Horatio Algier-cum-football, a metaphor for all times but especially during these economic times.
But there was an equally compelling, though less optimistic, story to emerge in the aftermath of Super Bowl XLIV. Each storyline in which the focus was the Colts went something like this: Peyton Manning couldn't get it done. With a chance to cement his legacy, to move to the proverbial big boy table of all time great quarterbacks, he fell short. Again.
Peyton Manning is a great quarterback.
He is a quarterback savant.
His herky-jerky pocket presence is ocular proof that he is a football machine.
He is also a number one overall draft pick, four-time Most Valuable Player, and a Super Bowl champion.
He is also a disappointment.
If the Saints represented the triumph of the human spirit over any obstacle, the ability of people to shape the world to their will, Manning represented the total opposite, that try as you may and as deserving as you may be, you may still fail.
In politics there's a rule of thumb that politicians should always "manage expectations." Not only should you not over-promise but you shouldn't promise anything that isn't baked in the cake. "Broken promises" is probably the charge that every politician fears the most. It's better to set the bar low and trip over it than to set the bar too high and come up a little short.
In sports, there's a parallel to the "broken promises" epithet: being a "bust" or underachiever, which is only shorthand for saying that someone didn't live up to his potential.
Oddly, considering his accomplishments, this is the load that Manning has to bear. His past mocks him each time he steps onto the field as he chases his expectations over a horizon that he most likely will never catch.
Moreover, this specter grows over time; each time a purported end point is reached, that end point morphs into simply another milestone and a new end point emerges somewhere off in the distance. And every failure he has trying to reach that next, new end point increases the likelihood that even more, harder to attain objectives will emerge thereafter.
Just a few years ago, Manning couldn't win the "big game." With that goal accomplished, now he seemingly can't win another one, let alone a Joe Montana-esque four.
Never mind that if one were to go through the list of all the quarterbacks with mulitple Super Bowl championships, you would take Manning over all of them except Montana, John Elway and Tom Brady.
Through one part lineage, one part his performance and one part 21st century marketing, walls have been erected around Manning that few have ever scaled and, regardless of how well he plays the ultimate team sport, he probably won't climb either.
Leaving the field with his helmet on and his head bowed slightly, some part of Manning had to feel that the game unfolded exactly how it was supposed to, that Life—Life with a capital "L," Life that seemingly appears out of nowhere like a clap of thunder that sets off car alarms and makes you say "that damn near gave me a heart attack!"—would interject itself and that his sin would absolve all others of their sins.
Peyton Manning meet Tracy Porter.
Pierre Garcon's drive-killing drop early in the game is absolved.
The Colts defense allowing the Saints to score a confidence building field goal at the end of the first half and never getting a big stop thereafter is absolved.
Kendra Wilkinson's husband Bill Buckner moment is absolved.
Jim Caldwell trying a 50-yard field goal by a 42-year-old kicker is absolved.
Reggie Wayne's poor route running and dropped touchdown pass is absolved.
Mike Vanderjagt's wide, wide right against the Pittsburgh Steelers is absolved.
...and so on and so on.
If, and it's a big if, Peyton Manning is done winning Super Bowls, it took place at the worst time in his career to win what would be his only one. It happened late enough in his career that he had already earned the reputation as a playoff dog and early enough in his career that if he didn't win another he would regain that reputation.
It's odd that Brett Favre, another all time great quarterback with a similarly mediocre playoff record, isn't seen as a choker but as a man who gets his teams into trouble by trying to do too much and taking too many chances. All things considered one would rather have Favre's reputation.
But maybe Manning will eventually rip the scarlet letter "C" from his chest and reach those overwhelming expectations.
Hell, if John Elway had retired two years earlier, his career would've ended with an ignominious one and done loss to the 9-7 Jacksonville Jaguars and a Super Bowl record of 0-3 in which his teams were outscored 136-40.
Storylines change quickly.
And, as evidenced by the "Aints" transformation into the Super Bowl champion Saints, we love a story of redemption.
But until then, "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."
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