Peyton Manning Is Now an Enigma

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIFebruary 11, 2010

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 07: Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts walks on the field against the New Orleans Saints during Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

There is no doubt Peyton Manning was the biggest loser of Super Bowl XLIV. Until he wins the Super Bowl more often, his rank on the all-time list of quarterbacks is going to be devalued.

Having had mindless praise heaped on his head almost continually since he joined the Indianapolis Colts, many people are now going to have second thoughts about him after the favored Colts lost to the New Orleans Saints.

They are going to say that when he had the chance to make plays he didn't make them.  Instead of the winning drive, there was the interception.

After Super Bowl XLIV, where does Peyton Manning rank on the all-time quarterback list in the NFL

Clearly Manning ranks above the average quarterback, even above many of those who have hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy, but until he wins the Super Bowl more often, he can't be mentioned on the same level with Montana, Bradshaw, Starr, Brady, Aikman, etc.

Instead, Manning is on tier two with Favre, Stabler, Elway, McMahon, and Staubach.

He's a cut above the group that includes Fran Tarkenton, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, and Dan Fouts.  In that group, the label is "great, but couldn't win the big one." In Manning's group, the label is "great, but should have won more."

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Great quarterbacks are said to live for the moment in which Manning found himself during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl; the quarterback finding his team down, leads the offense down the field and scores the touchdown on that final drive that wins or ties the game.

In baseball, it is the equivalent of a starting pitcher appearing in the decisive game of the World Series, and saying, "Give me the ball."

Well the ball was placed in Manning's hands at the right moment, but he threw an interception that produced a two-score game. Instead of leading a Montana or Brady-like drive, he didn't even engineer a score that would have allowed the Colts to try an onside kick for a last-gasp desperation play.

Lots of credit has to go to the New Orleans defense and Sean Payton's strategy for defending Manning, but the Saints defense won't go down as one of the greatest in Super Bowl history. The front four doesn't even have a nickname.

So what went wrong? 

Perhaps a closer comparison with one of the other quarterbacks in Manning's peer group, John Elway might provide a clue.

Ever since he arrived in the NFL, the billing in Indianapolis has been "Peyton Manning and the Colts." But football is a team game. In team sports, it is the great team, not the great player that usually wins.

In hockey, Wayne Gretzky never won another Stanley Cup once he left Edmonton. Ernie Banks, Ted Williams, Harmon Killebrew, and countless other great players in baseball never won a World Series.

The Colts are built around Manning. They expect him to win the game. But so was John Elway in Denver.

Elway was on his way to becoming the biggest failure in Super Bowl history until Terrell Davis arrived. Then the Broncos found other ways to win games instead of relying exclusively on Elway. Once another weapon was added, Denver won two Super Bowls.

The Colts have had some great players to go along with Manning, and the defense was greatly improved this year under Jim Caldwell, but it's overdue to recognize that one player can't win a team game by himself.

Still, those last two drives hurt Manning's reputation. This was the time to be the difference, but he was the difference for the wrong team. It is now Drew Brees' chance to move into the territory that Manning has vacated.

So, where does he rank all time? 

It really is an enigma. 

People want to rank him higher because of the winning record that the Colts have amassed during regular season.

But he doesn't compare well to perhaps the greatest quarterback ever to play football, Cleveland Browns star quarterback Otto Graham, in the 1940s and 1950s.

Nobody will ever know how great Graham was because Cleveland played in two leagues and statistics were not kept.

But there is one statistic that does jump out: championship victories. In Graham's 10-year career with the Browns, Cleveland went to the championship every year, winning seven of them. Nobody else in the history of football is even close.

Graham's career record is 105-17-4. Compared to him, Manning is just a footnote.

It's not over for Peyton Manning. As long as he plays, there are still chances for him to start climbing up the quarterback ranks again.

He probably needs help, though. It doesn't have to be a running back—an outstanding defense made Terry Bradshaw a winner four times.

Now is the time for reevaluation, not condemnation. The Colts made great strides, particularly on defense this year. 

If they keep moving in the right direction, Manning will be a champion again. But for now he is a puzzling enigma.

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