The latest turn in the saga of Peyton Manning’s neck injury is a costly one for Indianapolis: According to team owner Jim Irsay, there is only an “outside chance” the star quarterback will take the field this year, and even if he does, it won’t be until December at the earliest.
As tough as that news may be for Colts fans to digest, however, considering their perennial Super Bowl contender is now sitting at 0-3 with Manning absent and any chance of obtaining a record 10th consecutive playoff appearance virtually gone already, it’s equally discouraging for football fans everywhere, especially for anyone who supports the NFL.
The NFL relies on Peyton Manning almost as much the Colts do, but for completely different reasons.
To the Colts, Manning is like an engine. Consistent, reliable, and deceptively powerful, he is the lone force driving this entire Colts team and although the parts surrounding him are functional, sufficient, and incredibly useful in their own right, without him there to churn the gears this sweet, slick ride Indianapolis has carefully built is forever stuck in park.
To the NFL, however, Manning is more like a high-quality paint job. He’s bright and shiny. Stylish. Classy. And perhaps more so than any other athlete in sports history, he helps to cover up the thousands of other dents, bumps and kinks hidden below the surface of this tricked-out, global vehicle.
Manning is the spokesperson of all spokespersons. If there was a worldwide spokesperson convention, Manning would be its keynote speaker every year. He’s clean cut. Articulate. Professional. Likable. And conveniently enough, he also happens to be really good at his job. Really good.
He’s been the face of the NFL for nearly a decade, and the longer he’s away, the more the NFL brand suffers by default.
It’s not that Manning is the only good guy in the NFL, nor that he is its only consistent superstar or even its most personable. Not by a long shot.
It’s simply that he is the rare combination of all of those things, the absolute personification of everything marketable, and the sad truth for the NFL is that he has few equals in any (American) sport, not just football.
Michael Jordan was a better athlete, but his strange retirements and well-publicized gambling habits made him less relatable. Mark McGuire captured our hearts the same way Manning does, but then we found out the whole thing was nothing but a sham. A-Rod seemed destined for legend status for several remarkable years, then he admitted he was a cheater too, and Tiger Woods—geez, do we even need to say anything?
Which superstar will become the new face of the NFL when Manning retires?
Even Tom Brady, the most Peyton-esque player in the league today, has serious mass-appeal image issues that all the Super Bowl titles in the world couldn’t compensate for (the UGG-wearing metrosexual narrowly avoided a $1 million lawsuit last year after his personal bodyguards allegedly shot at a pair of photographers just for eavesdropping on his lush, Costa Rican wedding in 2009).
While there are plenty of rising stars both young and old who do show the potential to claim Manning’s role at some point moving forward (Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Sam Bradford and Cam Newton seem to be leading those respective camps currently), they all have a long way to go before they reach the hallowed pedestal Peyton leaves behind, and if the past is any indication, they’ll all probably screw everything up long before they get there.
There’ll be an unmistakable void in the NFL when Peyton leaves for good, and this season, for the first time in 13 years, the world is getting a taste of what it’s like.
Let’s hope Manning’s potential heirs relish this opportunity to shine in his absence (Brees and Rodgers definitely appear up to the challenge, so far), and let’s hope by next season a clearer picture emerges as to who’s going to carry the torch onward and usher the NFL into a new era, whenever that day should come.
More than anything, however, let’s all hope the void we feel this season is indeed just that: a taste.