Peyton Manning is probably going to lose on Sunday. It is more likely than not, that Super Bowl 50 will signal the end of Peyton Manning’s nineteen year NFL career. In many ways the table is set for the hollywood ending that calls for the hero to ride off into the sunset, towards future pastures of embellished possibility. That’s how hollywood handles these kinds of things. Peyton Manning isn’t Hollywood, and he never has been. He is also not the guy next door selling us Nationwide Insurance. He’s something else. His career has been a study of contrasts. He is arguably the best performing regular season quarterback of all-time, yet his playoff performances en masse have been nothing if not pedestrian by comparison. Here’s the dirty little secret, and perhaps this is an oversimplification, and arguable assertion on my part, but I believe this is likely due to the fact that Peyton Manning doesn’t possess exceptional athleticism, and/or transcendent playmaking ability. Eli has it, Peyton? Not so much. His speed is not, his footwork is not, and Stevie Wonder can see that his arm is not, exceptional. His prodigious talent comes in the form of his transcendent football I.Q., and playing field stewardship.
He is now, and has been throughout his entire career, an offensive coordinator disguised as a quarterback. His ability to read, react and audible based on what opposing defenses are doing is legendary, and has been the primary factor in his success. The problem is that come the winter of playoff content, that simply isn’t enough for the big win. At least not on a consistent basis. During the playoffs the cowboy is often more effective than the scholar.
More often than not, there comes a certain point in high stakes games that demands physical playmaking intangibles that a beautiful mind alone, simply can’t satisfy. Escapability. Unleashing a laser that threads a needle, or slips through a tight window. Sprinting downfield and laying out for that drive extending play. The ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ portion of the program. Peyton Manning’s game is wanting for those intangibles. The kinds of things that can be masked, and/or shielded during the regular season, become glaring weaknesses during the money season. This reality is reflected in his 13-13 record in 26 post season starts. This reality speaks to his one Super Bowl victory in three, and more than likely four tries, after this Sunday. Perhaps this is the Super Bowl that Peyton will have his John Elway moment of brilliance, or channel a Joe Montana game winning type of magic. However, the smart money says that it won’t happen. Not at 39 years of age, not with that arm, not with those feet. It is expressly for these reasons that Peyton Manning’s career reflects a curious legacy.
Peyton Manning will be remembered as one of the very best NFL signal callers of all-time. However, there is the notable caveat of the inequity of his post season shortcomings. His career numbers and regular season successes, combined with post season appearances would suggest multiple Super Bowl titles. Yet, there is only the one. His career is also missing that legendary in-game feat by which most greats are remembered. In fact, I would argue that more people remember his Super Bowl XLIV interception via Tracy Porter than any one touchdown, in any Super Bowl he’s played in. It’s counterintuitive. A revelation that colors Peyton Manning’s career a unique shade.
In the odd event that the Broncos win Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, it will likely be due to their world stopping defense, and not because Peyton Manning hits Vernon Davis in the back of the end zone as time expires. If history has taught us anything, it’s that he simply doesn’t make those kind of big plays, in big moments. However, a Bronco’s victory will bear a gift. The gift of Peyton Manning’s almost certain retirement. Having fulfilled the hollywood ending portion of his program, there would be zero reason or excuse for his return next season. However, in the likely event that they lose, the very real possibility exists that we will be made to suffer through another season of Peyton Manning trying his resolute best to masquerade as an effective NFL quarterback. He strikes me as a one year too late type of personality. I hope I’m wrong. Peyton Manning was a great quarterback during his prime. Peyton Manning is a serviceable quarterback today. Let’s hope that we don’t get to witness Peyton Manning the awful quarterback tomorrow. At the end of the day, and even in the best of final outcomes, the legend of Peyton Manning will be long discussed. One of the all-time greats, with a very curious legacy.