In the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, they’re probably already constructing a Peyton Manning Wing, its many shelves built to support the enormous weight of Manning’s collection of personal hardware. One day, the lights of the wing will turn on, and fans will gather to reflect on his career. But what will they say? Will fathers tell their sons about the greatest quarterback ever to play the game, a man engineered to be the best at his profession? Or will they share stories of great achievement followed by even greater disappointment?
Thus is the complex nature of Manning’s NFL portfolio — one part god, one part goat. He has shown time and time again the ability to lead lesser men to great heights, but has failed so often to lead those men up the final stretch of the mountain.
Few doubt that one day Manning will own all of the NFL’s career passing records, and that he will gain entrance into Pro Football’s Hall of Fame in his first attempt. Those who defend his legacy suggest his bust in Canton should sit on the same shelf as those of Joe Montana, Otto Graham and Johnny Unitas — the standards to which all other quarterbacks are compared.
Only problem is, Manning has yet to meet that standard; after last season’s opening-round playoff loss to the Jets, Manning now owns a sub-.500 career postseason record (9–10), and the 35-year-old has guided his club to only one NFL title — two short of Unitas and Graham, and three short of Montana.
Could it be that Peyton Manning is (gulp!) overrated? Such a suggestion is bound to bring a man physical harm in parts of this country where Manning can do no wrong — in Indiana or Tennessee.
Of course, overrated can mean many things, and in this case it simply suggests that Manning’s true greatness does not fill the enormous shadow his legend has cast. He’s special, to be sure, but does his body of work rate him among the best of the best? There is plenty to suggest that, at the very least, the topic is open to debate.
The age-old quarterback question
NFL writers — like all sportswriters — relish their right to judge. It’s part of what defines the profession. And no player is immune from comparison and criticism. Gale Sayers didn’t play long enough … Emmitt Smith played longer than he should have … Jack Youngblood was every bit as good as Jack Lambert; he just wasn’t surrounded by as much talent … Jerry Kramer doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame because he was surrounded by so much talent.
The barroom banter flies in all directions.
And when it comes to debating the position of quarterback, the conversation can become far more complex. How can one compare Unitas against the quarterbacks who benefit from today’s pass-friendly offenses? Or how do you say Troy Aikman was greater than Drew Bledsoe, knowing the two men were dealt vastly different hands to work with?
Ultimately, though, the subjective talking points are brushed aside. Most often, quarterbacks are defined by two factors — wins and numbers. Deciding which is more important is where the debate gets tricky.
When the NFL Network offered up “The Top 100: Greatest Players” list last fall, the answer would seem to be the former, except where Manning was concerned. Four-time Super Bowl champion Joe Montana led the position (No. 4), and of the top five quarterbacks ranked, Manning (No. 8) was the only one without multiple titles to his name. Voters placed him well ahead of Brett Favre (No. 20), Tom Brady (No. 21), John Elway (No. 23) and Dan Marino (No. 25) even though Manning owns fewer rings than Elway and Brady, and has not yet caught up to Favre or Marino in career passing numbers. It was as if a different set of rules had been applied when it came time to judge Manning. The obvious question: Why?
Says Hall of Fame voter Len Shapiro, who has covered the NFL for three decades: “He’s won with a good running game and without a good running game. He’s won with all kinds of teams and all kinds of coaches. He’s won passing titles, made a gazillion Pro Bowls. I don’t see any holes in his résumé, quite frankly.”
About that lack of Super Bowl titles?
“Look at Sonny Jurgensen, who never won anything,” says Shapiro. “He’s in the Hall of Fame.” A valid point, although few think to compare Jurgensen to Montana and Unitas.
Manning’s advocates are trained to counter the Super Bowl question with this fallback statistic: In 11 of his 13 seasons with the Colts, Manning has guided the club to 10 or more wins. It’s an incredible run that cannot be ignored — proof Manning has consistently won, and done so with different supporting casts. But consider this: Both Brady (.776) and Ben Roethlisberger (.704) own a higher career regular-season winning percentage than Manning (.678), and Donovan McNabb (.626) is not far behind. Is this really Manning’s calling card — that he ranked one spot behind Roethlisberger and one ahead of McNabb among the winningest quarterbacks of his era?
Excusing those January woes
Before Manning, only January football mattered when discussing quarterback wins and losses. Joe Namath’s career passing numbers were atrocious by today’s standards, and yet his win over Baltimore in 1969 still resonates today. This is because fans and football analysts celebrate winners — big-game winners, to be precise.
Marino understands this. Before him, no passer was as sharp or prolific in the pocket. Marino could size up and shred a defense as well as anyone, and he was once enveloped in the same kinds of discussions that include Manning today. But Marino’s career forever carries an asterisk because he failed to produce when it counted most (8–10 postseason record); the closest he came to a title was a rout at the hands of San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XIX. His 1984 AFC Championship ring? Probably collecting dust somewhere in a closet. “A loser’s ring,” he once called it.
Manning is by no stretch of the imagination a big-game winner, either. Seven times a Manning-led team has stumbled in its first playoff game — six times as the favorite, according to oddsmakers. In this sense, Manning has set a standard for playoff futility (Montana suffered defeat in his team’s first playoff game four times; it happened three times to Elway, Favre and Marino, and only twice to Brady).
Shouldn’t a man credited for his team’s 141 victories over the past 13 seasons be held accountable for that same franchise’s failures? Not necessarily. All of the Hall of Fame writers polled seem more comfortable blaming Indianapolis’ defense and lackluster running game than Manning for the team’s inability to win more than one championship. Never mind the fact that those same defenses and backfields were in place when the regular-season wins were piling up.
Is Manning not to be held responsible at all?
Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star admits that Manning’s postseason numbers do not compare to his regular-season averages. In fact, Manning’s postseason completion percentage, QB rating and yards per attempt are all lower than his regular season numbers, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is completely out of whack. But Chappell makes a good point: “The same could be said of just about any quarterback. Quarterback numbers are going to be down in the playoffs because you’re playing better teams and better defenses.”
As Chappell points out, Brady’s postseason career QB rating is an alarming nine points lower than his regular-season rating. “Brady’s numbers haven’t been as good, and he’s been surrounded by better players.”
But why don’t Marino and Dan Fouts receive the same benefit of the doubt as Manning? As good as Mark Duper and Mark Clayton were, Marino never had a receiving corps as deep or talented as what Manning has had to work with, and in Marino’s 17 seasons, 10 different Dolphins running backs led the team in rushing.
Was San Diego’s defense special at the peak of the ‘Air Coryell’ years? No. In fact, in 11 of the 15 seasons Fouts was under center, the Chargers ranked 15th or lower in total defense (out of 28 teams). But those excuses are rarely part of the discussion when Marino and Fouts are compared to the all-time greats at the position. Instead, both men are left to suffer for their teams’ January woes.
When you’re Peyton Manning, however, blame gets re-routed. Look no further than Tracy Porter’s 74-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIV that proved to be the deciding play for New Orleans. Immediately following the game, a number of analysts and fans rushed to Manning’s defense, suggesting Reggie Wayne ran a sloppy route and failed to place himself between the ball and Porter. Probably a fair assessment, only it’s somewhat uncharted territory; quarterbacks are forced to eat all of their mistakes, without exception. But for Manning, his gift to Porter — arguably the most costly interception ever thrown in a professional football game — was forever credited to his receiver.
And if Wayne was not to blame, there were others to suggest luck was at work. Said Colts general manager Bill Polian months later, “(Porter) jumped the route. Good for him. It happens in football. ... It’s not different than a pitcher throwing his best curveball, and the hitter is guessing curveball and hits it out. That’s exactly what happened.”
It’s the other things that matter
Why should Manning be excused for his shortcomings and judged by a different set of rules than all other quarterbacks? Perhaps it’s because he possesses a mind like no other the game has recognized. Even though his résumé lacks titles, it is forgiven because Manning’s genius is simply too awe-inspiring to ignore.
Says Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan, “You might be blitzing, and he’ll know it. It’s almost like he’s a mind-reader.”
Everyone is familiar with the Manning pedigree, but it’s those extra hours of preparation where Manning separates himself from his peers. That’s where his keen mind has been shaped. “There’s not a stone unturned when it comes to reading defenses,” adds Finnegan. “He knows each defensive player’s weaknesses. You’re talking about a real student of the game.”
And like Favre, who earned style points for “saving” a once-doomed Packers franchise, Manning should be credited for making football relevant in Indianapolis. “It was an afterthought before he got here in 1998,” says Chappell, who then wonders aloud, “If Peyton Manning is not here, are the Colts even in Indianapolis? There certainly isn’t a Lucas Oil Stadium.”
But the thing all players and writers point to — that which distinguishes Manning from any other quarterback of his generation — is all that extra “stuff” he does before the start of each play. He reads the defense, identifies its weak spots, adjusts the Colts alignment accordingly, and spews a series of calls — some to serve a purpose, some for effect — before signaling center Jeff Saturday to snap the ball.
“The fact that he is responsible for so many decisions at the line of scrimmage makes him unique in this era,” says Dan Pompei, another Hall of Fame voter who covers the NFL for the Chicago Tribune and the National Football Post. “He’s in a little different category because of that.”
It’s one of pro football’s great side attractions, really — the mental games, the carnival barking — and most agree the only man equipped to pull it off is No. 18, especially when he is in control of the clock before the half or at the end of the game.
“He can work the hell out of that two-minute offense,” says San Diego’s Antoine Cason. “It seems like he has a play in his head for each situation. You know that comes from preparation, the trust he has in his teammates, and doing it so much that he’s comfortable with it.”
Could it be that this brilliant mind is why analysts are willing to ignore traditional measuring sticks when it comes to sizing up Manning? Or maybe Manning’s rare gifts have forced football talking heads to re-think how they’ve been evaluating quarterbacks all along.
“We don’t judge any other player, at any other position, by wins and losses,” says Pompei. “I think we put a little too much emphasis on whether quarterbacks win championships.
“If you look at Peyton’s body of work — in terms of what he’s done as a passer, as a leader, as an impact player — his body of work stacks up with just about anybody who’s ever played the game.”
Shapiro agrees. Chappell believes Manning needs one more title to put the discussion to bed for good.
The common practice for when a new player is being considered for Canton is to have the beat reporter who covered that player present a case for enshrinement on his behalf. This past year, Chappell and Bernie Miklasz, who covers the Rams, offered separate endorsements for Marshall Faulk.
Still, when it comes time to present Manning’s case for enshrinement to Canton, Chappell has joked that, assuming he is still on the 44-person committee, he won’t ask for much time. “These things can get very long-winded — 15 or 20 minutes — but to me, Peyton Manning is the type of guy where you stand up and say ‘I’m endorsing Peyton Manning for the Hall of Fame’ and then you sit down.”
Even after his career is over, Peyton Manning will live by a different set of rules.