By Andrew “Drew The Picture” Hames
Heading into what may very well be the final game, and even more likely the final Super Bowl in which we ever see the legendary 5-time NFL MVP, multiple milestone-manager and perhaps first “Quarterback/ offensive coordinator”, Denver Broncos QB Peyton Manning heads into Super Bowl 50 carrying with him perhaps more of a legacy in an improbable Super Bowl birth than any field general the game of football has ever seen. In a season which showed the 39-year-old Manning experience far more struggles, turnovers, borderline blasphemous media criticism and even his first official benching of his career, the former pinnacle piece on the chessboard of Fantasy Football finds himself in what he reportedly was caught on audio telling New England Patriots head coach and long-time Manning rival Bill Belichick may be his “last rodeo”.
Regardless of how that ride ends against current NFL MVP frontrunner Cam Newton and the equally improbable, 17-1 Carolina Panthers next Sunday, January 7, Manning certainly deserves to sail off into the sunset on his Colt, Bronco and proverbial “high horse” with his sombrero swinging high in the wind, as a career like nothing we’ve ever witnessed blows out of the saloon with haystacks full of records, memories and greatness…
In the possible event that his storybook, John Elway-esque ending doesn’t end up ending entirely happily next week, I felt some aspects of his storied career should be put in their proper perspective, especially since a loss will no doubt result in the sports media sending him off with Janet Jackson singing “What have you done for me lately” at game’s end, as the bulk of the NFL Total Access panel and ESPN have done to him all season long, nearly seeming to celebrate his apparent demise. How quickly we can forget the superlatives that create a legend in the first place….
The widespread criticism on Peyton’s career has been that he “doesn’t win the big game”, a criticism that’s led to such complimentary insults as Peyton being labeled “the greatest regular season quarterback of all time”. In reality, for the fair majority of his career, Peyton wasn’t exactly on “Big-game teams” in the first place, with the Indianapolis Colts having a run defense weak enough to long employ the ever effective “Keep Peyton off the field” strategy, a lack of a consistent running game the entire time, a litany of injuries at the O-line positions, etc. Perhaps the most indicative proof of this was former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell’s rookie head coaching season, moving up from assistant head coach to replace the retiring Tony Dungy, and becoming the first coach in NFL history to begin a season with a 14-0 record. The following season, Peyton’s perfect attendance record was halted by season-ending neck surgeries, and immediately this same Colts team began the season 0-14, nearly running the table in the exact opposite direction. Do the math on that….
Speaking of doing the math, Peyton has a lot of #1 rankings and historic milestones that give him certain infamy in the history books. He’s broken Dan Marino’s single-season passing TD record of 48 touchdowns twice, netting both 48 and 55-touchdown seasons with different teams. He owns the single-season passing yards record with 5,477 yards in a single season, and averaged upwards of 4,000 yards a season for the fair majority of his career. He surpassed Joe Montana-Jerry Rice and Steve Young-Rice with two different receivers in Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne for the most touchdowns between a QB and receiver in history, owns the most overall passing TD’s and passing yards in history, led the first offense to ever have 3 different receivers net at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in a single season, broke his own record by then having a whopping 5 different receivers accomplish the same feat with an entirely different cast of receivers in Denver, led the deficient Colts team to tying with the 90’s Dallas Cowboys dynasty for the most consecutive playoff births with 11 ( a record that was only snapped by his season-ending neck surgery, mind you), owns the most comeback victories in league history, is tied for the most regular season victories in history, etc. And for those critics hellbent on dismissing these gaudy stats as mere regular season accomplishments, Peyton also owns the only performances in playoff history where the offense never even punted the football, doing so in consecutive playoff games. To compile that, he’s 3-2 against his Hall Of Fame rival Tom Brady in playoff games (or “head-to-head match-ups”), eliminating the Patriots in 3 AFC Championship games. And win or lose next week, upon taking the field Peyton will become the oldest QB in history to start a Super Bowl at age 39 (along with being part of the largest age disparity between two QB’s in a Super Bowl, having 13 years on Cam Newton). In addition, he’ll also become the first QB to ever start in multiple Super Bowls for two different teams, all after being labeled a “Dome baby” in Indianapolis, and landing those last two births in the big dance in a Mile High Stadium that could only be rivaled by Soldier Field and Lambeau in the wind chill department, after being released by a Colts team who assumed he was already finished at that point. I’d say those are enough #1’s on a resume to keep his “GOAT” contention alive, irrespective of what happens next week (although I don’t believe in the “GOAT” concept in and of itself)….
The amazing and perhaps cruel irony of Peyton’s career could very arguably be the fact that he never had a complete overall team until he was too far removed from his other-worldly offensive peak to ever reap the full benefits and realize the full potential of what his career could’ve been in the rings category. Imagine the Peyton Manning of even two seasons past, and the offensive prowess he displayed being accompanied by the current Denver Broncos defense, and the point becomes much clearer. And I personally found it to be very fitting and telling that, when faced with the same protection issues Peyton has faced throughout their epic rivalry, even the great Tom Brady was reduced to looking just as rattled as Peyton has in playoffs past, being forced into errant throws and throwing 2 interceptions, out of at least a possible 5 in the game. Because of Brady’s cemented legacy, it’s safe to assume no one will accuse him of “folding in the big game”, even in a third losing effort in an AFC Championship game against his longest career rival. Perhaps if both were operating under the same exact circumstances, their rivalry may look entirely different…
Over the years, I’ve heard sports media slander his name with often unfair criticism time and again, and Peyton’s responses have always personified pure class. Frankly, it almost made me hope he’d get out of character just long enough to give the media the finger while hoisting the Lombardi trophy in the air for a final time. Rings are ultimately team accomplishments, not individual ones an athlete’s legacy should realistically be determined by. No one would ever argue that Trent Dilfer was a better QB than Dan Marino, in spite of Dilfer having a Super Bowl ring to Dan’s naked fingers. Troy Aikman won 4 Super Bowls with arguably the most dominant dynasty in NFL history, and it didn’t raise his name very high in terms of the mythical “GOAT” argument. The same could be said for Terry Bradshaw. Let’s keep that in mind when we’re addressing Peyton’s legacy 50 years from now.
Signing off until next time…Contact the Feature Writers