YOU CAN’T SPELL BUTT-KICKING WITHOUT ‘U-T’
I do not like “Rocky Top”, that unnerving song the University of Tennessee band plays every time their football team does anything from scoring TDs to their head coach blowing his nose. I was a student at USC in the mid-to-late 90s and twice during that time period I got to watch us play Tennessee at home. It would not be exaggeration to say I hated hearing Rocky Top. More than any other visiting SEC team, UT was the most difficult for me to handle. This was partly because their fans traveled well and made big chunks of our stadium turn orange. Another part was because of that blasted song. But the biggest part was because they had a quarterback who directed an offense with whom we simply could not keep up. And that contributed to the hatred of the song, which obviously played every time they scored. And they scored. A lot. 20 years ago, I really did not like Peyton Manning.
After he got drafted by Indianapolis, I moved on to Bible College and for a few years I didn’t think much about him. But I remember where I was in January 2004 when the Colts went up against the New England Patriots for the AFC Championship. New England won that day, intercepting Peyton Manning four times. This was after Manning had had nearly two perfect passing games vs. Denver and at Kansas City. It was clear he was becoming one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. But just watching the game, it was obvious to me that New England had a much better team and a better defensive game plan1, but that Indianapolis had the better quarterback. And for the next few years I found myself debating endlessly about how good Manning was, how he compared to Tom Brady2 and as a result the NFL became more and more a part of my life.
LOVING THE LEAGUE
This isn’t an article to argue greatest quarterback of all time, although I do believe that distinction belongs to Manning. But this is to put Manning’s career in its deserved perspective, both what he did on the field and how he impacted me personally. I am a college football fan by heart. I bleed USC garnet and black. And as a child and teen I watched and loved the NFL, but Saturday was the big day for my family. When I moved to Chicago post-college in 2002, I began to love the NFL more because I had a hometown team for whom to cheer. And while I credit the Bears for taking my love for the NFL to the next level, I have to credit Manning for taking it to the highest level. So much of the last 12 years I have watched him, studied him, read about him and argued for him.
So to watch him win the Super Bowl this year was as satisfying a moment for me as any NFL moment in my lifetime of watching the NFL3. It was a conflict of interest the first time he won it because my Bears were the losing m and I could not enjoy it as I sat there on my couch after the game with my two roommates–lifelong Chicagoans Chris and Matt–with their painted faces and broken hearts. And Manning’s next two trips ended in disaster. So this result made me happy for days. I don’t think he needed this win to prove anything about him personally. It’s satisfying for all of the times I have heard people rip him for not winning enough in the postseason.
SOMETHING THAT MONTANA DIDN’T DO
Well, this is the ultimate joy for me in response: Peyton Manning is now the only quarterback in NFL history to win the Super Bowl with two different teams. The historical significance of that feat should not be lost on anyone who understands the quarterback argument in the NFL, who knows how much we pretend quarterbacks tremendously effect winning Super Bowls.
I have defended him so much over the years that I know all of what his detractor’s arguments: “He may be the greatest regular season quarterback of all time, BUT…” “Look at that 11-13 postseason record…” 4 “Hi, I’m Regular Season Peyton Manning and I have DirectTV, Hi I’m Playoff Peyton Manning and I have cable…” Well, this is the ultimate joy for me in response: Peyton Manning is now the only quarterback in NFL history to win the Super Bowl with two different teams. The historical significance of that feat should not be lost on anyone who understands the quarterback argument in the NFL, who knows how much we pretend quarterbacks tremendously effect winning Super Bowls. For all of our misguided insistence that the QB is essential, no starting QB had ever won with two different franchises. Until now. And lest you think that the list of those who had the chance isn’t that great, let me relieve you of that notion right now. It includes: Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Mark Rypien, Doug Williams, Jim Plunkett, Brad Johnson, Jim McMahon, Trent Dilfer, Jeff Hostetler, Ken Stabler, and Joe Namath5. Including Manning, about half the Super Bowl winning quarterbacks have a chance to win with two teams.
In addition to breaking this new ground, it’s notable that Manning made it to the Super Bowl with four different head coaches. All of them were guys who were either retreads, fired or inept at previous head coaching jobs. All of them had a better winning percentage, playoff success rate, and general success by essentially any criteria with Manning than in their other coaching jobs. For a guy who wasn’t a good enough winner, he sure seemed to make coaches look better.
MAYBE THE MEMES HAVE BEEN WRONG…
Despite his mediocre playoff record, Manning also had some epic performances in huge playoff games in his career. He helped win a game on the road at Kansas City when the other team didn’t punt in ’04. He helped Indy come back from down 21-3 vs. New England to win in ’07 with 32 points in the 2nd half. He put up 377 yards and three TDs vs. the NFL’s #1 defense in the 2010 AFC Championship game. And he threw for 400 yards and two TDs vs. a very good New England defense two years ago in the AFC Championship game. He also played well in his first Super Bowl win vs. a #3 Bears defense, going 25-38 for 247 yards in a game where they schemed to pass it shorter due to the rain and what the Bears were giving them. The comeback vs. New England should have erased in anyone’s mind whether or not Manning could perform in the clutch. They got the ball back while down 34-31 with 2:17 left and needed 80 yards for a TD. All the weight of was on Manning who had lost to New England in the playoffs, who had never having made the Super Bowl, who everyone doubted had ability to win in the clutch…and they did it. And Manning led them.
People will always point to his failures in the postseason. What about those 13 playoff losses? Well, I could write a novel on why it is asinine to put a W-L record on one player out of 22 starters and 35-40 that play in a game. I realize the quarterback (normally) has more effect on any game than the other players, but he still may only affect 20-25% of the game at most. That leaves a lot out of his control. Of Manning’s 13 losses in the postseason, one came when his kicker missed the winning kick in regulation (Dolphins 2001). One came because his kicker missed the tying kick in regulation (Pittsburgh 06). One came after Denver allowed a 70 yard bomb in the last 40 seconds to tie it up (Baltimore 13). Several of his postseason losses happened after he led a drive in the fourth quarter to take the lead (San Diego 07, Jets 09, Baltimore 12). If his defense and special teams make basic plays, Manning’s legacy is much different. Based on what he cannot control or can control so minimally it’s unfair to consider.
They got the ball back while down 34-31 with 2:17 left and needed 80 yards for a TD. All the weight of was on Manning who had lost to New England in the playoffs, who had never having made the Super Bowl, who everyone doubted had ability to win in the clutch…and they did it. And Manning led them.
GETTING SLAMMED BY BELLICHICK ISN’T UNHEARD OF
This is not to say he hasn’t had bad or awful playoff games. He was not good in two of their playoff wins the year he won it with Indianapolis. He was not good for Denver last year vs. Indianapolis. He was not good the first two times he faced New England in the playoffs in his career. I have no problem admitting that it seems like Belichick out-schemed Manning in those games and made him and his all-world offenses look pathetic. But here’s the thing: Belichick was the defensive coordinator for the Giants in the 80s and faced San Francisco and another of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Joe Montana, in the playoffs 3 times. And they held those amazing offenses to 3, 3 and 13 points. Montana had one TD and four interceptions in those games. And Montana was 0-3 vs. Belichick. So Manning getting shut down a few times in the playoffs doesn’t affect my opinion of his legacy.
THE INT IS ALWAYS ON THE QB, RIGHT?
Then there are those ugly Super Bowl interceptions, notably the pick sixes. The anatomy of an interception is not as simplistic as we want it to be and we often form opinions based on how things look. But there is a prevailing wisdom that the Tracy Porter pick 6 in 2010 vs. New Orleans was at least in part on Reggie Wayne for running a flat route, with Manning throwing to a spot. Wayne’s own words about the play were that he slipped on the route, could have run it better, but that it also was a play they’d called several times in the game and Porter was waiting on it. That is basically what I have felt since the end of that game: the interception was partly on Manning for his play call6, but it was also Wayne’s job to not let that ball get intercepted so easily. I believe if Wayne had been there, at worst it would have been an incompletion. And no doubt, Manning’s legacy would be different if that pass had been an incomplete. Similarly the pick 6 vs. Seattle in 2014. I saw an NFL Films breakdown of this play. Manning had pressure coming from his front and from his left and moved his feet to the right while looking downfield. He had Demaryius Thomas one on one with Richard Sherman in the end zone. But as Manning used perfect footwork to move to his right to avoid the pressure, pressure immediately came from the right as well. Seattle’s d-line got a hand on the pass and in an unlucky break it landed in Seattle’s hands for an easy pick 6. If pressure had not come from both sides, Manning could have gotten the pass off cleanly. In fairness, it was a risk to throw it under that much duress and Sherman is a shutdown corner who easily could have made a play to stop the TD, or even intercept it. But down 15-0, it was a reasonable risk. And again, without the pick 6 (which looked very ugly in real time), Manning is perceived differently7.
Again, the balance is that Manning has thrown picks in the playoffs that were on him entirely. 2007 vs. New England, another game I saw on replay on NFL Flims, he confessed that the pick 6 in that game was because Asante Samuel deceived him. 2013 vs. Baltimore in OT he threw an awful pass that gave Baltimore a chance to win. But my broader point is that football is too intricate most of the time to base legacies just on what you see on a 2D television screen. I’m sure other QBs have had similar breaks and bad breaks, but that’s the point–The QB doesn’t control enough of the game to base his legacy primarily on wins and losses and especially on Super Bowl count.
Manning averaged 170 passing yards in the playoffs this year, scored 0 TDs in the Super Bowl, led an offense that was 1-14 on third down, completed a whopping 13 passes, had a bajillion three and outs, threw an awful interception and basically did absolutely nothing the last 25 minutes of the game. And then I watch a video on SI.com about what this ring means to Manning’s legacy: “It’s huge” the journalist says. The kool-aide is comical.
WHY DO WE CREDIT QBs FOR WINNING?
And Peyton’s final championship run is proof of that as much as anything. The Denver offense was putrid in the Super Bowl. The defense was dominant and was clearly the primary reason they won. Manning was not much of a factor at all. Yet, somehow the fact he won his second ring is a difference maker to people’s opinion of his legacy. It’s nonsense to me and Peyton’s last game so perfectly reveals the foolishness behind legacies and rings. Manning averaged 170 passing yards in the playoffs this year, scored 0 TDs in the Super Bowl, led an offense that was 1-14 on third down, completed a whopping 13 passes, had a bajillion three and outs, threw an awful interception and basically did absolutely nothing the last 25 minutes of the game. And then I watch a video on SI.com about what this ring means to Manning’s legacy: “It’s huge” the journalist says. The kool-aide is comical. The vast majority of QBs in the NFL right now could have won that Super Bowl. Yet, almost embarrassingly (yet still somewhat appropriately based on his career and retirement), a lot of camera focus after the game was on the QB, who barely impacted it.
I get that I’m not going to change anyone’s mind and the debate for GOAT at QB is always going to come down to the guys whose teams have won the most SBs – Montana, Brady, etc. But for me, I’ll take the guy who made everyone else in two franchises significantly better. The man whose absence left a perennial division champion in shambles. The one who, according to people actually inside the NFL, didn’t rely nearly as much on coaches for his success as other elite QBs. The one who set the TD record with two different teams, offensive coordinators and sets of weapons. The guy whose team once won a game with less than 15 minutes of clock possession and another game where his team was down 21 with less than 5 minutes left. The guy who studied, who knew, who beat you before the snap, who inspired countless others to play QB like doctoral students.
I love Peyton Manning as a football player and I cannot imagine Sundays without him. I’ll desperately miss his pre-snap gyrations and audibles and Omaha calls and picture perfect TD throws. More than what he actually accomplished on the field, though, Peyton’s legacy to me will be that he made me love the NFL as much as I love college football. And that is not easy to do. Especially for a guy who all those years ago forced this Gamecock fan to listen to 56 points worth of Rocky Top.
- It was so good, the NFL changed defensive touching rules the following season ↩
- I hate Tom Brady in a sports sense, but it is not my intention to use Manning’s retirement as grounds to bash him. However, it will be hard to explain why Peyton was so good without Brady coming up every now and then. ↩
- Tied with the two Patriot losses of the last decade ↩
- That was his record before this postseason. He finishes with a 14-13 record. ↩
- As interesting to me is the list of coaches who never won with two teams, despite coaching two teams. There are many. Among them: Don Shula, Bill Bilichek, Bill Parcells, Tom Coughlin, Tony Dungy, Mike Ditka, Jimmy Johnson, George Seifert, Gary Kubiak, Tom Flores, Jon Gruden, Dick Vermiel, Hank Stram, and Mike Holmgren. ↩
- Manning’s biggest flaw as a quarterback has always been his determination to be his own offensive coordinator. I often think he was matched in wits in the playoffs because the game slows down. This negated any advantage that he had in the regular season. ↩
- As much as people like to associate Manning with play-off interceptions, his playoff interception rate is lower than his regular season interception rate ↩