Michael Carlson assesses the career and legacy of Peyton Manning as 'The Sheriff' calls it a day
Today, after 18 years and 17 seasons in the National Football League, Peyton Manning will officially announce his retirement.
He came into the league the first pick overall in the 1998 Draft: after fierce debate taken ahead of Ryan Leaf, remembered today only as maybe the biggest draft bust in NFL history. His father was Archie Manning, who with the early New Orleans Saints was perhaps the greatest quarterback on one of the worst teams in NFL history.
He'll leave with most of the league's passing records: 71,940 yards and 539 touchdowns in his career; 5,477 yards and 55 TDs in a season; 7 touchdown passes in game; 93 games with 300 yards or more passing; 200 'wins' , including playoff games, five Most Valuable Player awards. He's among that handful of quarterbacks who are serious candidates to be called the Greatest of All Time (or GOAT, as the Americans now abbreviate it).
Image: Peyton Manning holds up an Indianapolis Colts jersey as he is flanked by Colts owner Jim Irsay, left, and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue after being chosen as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. ADAM NADEL / AP/Press Association Images
The greatest, or smartest, sportsmen go out on top. Did anyone seriously doubt Manning would hang them up after Denver's Super Bowl win over Carolina last month? He's always been canny. Virtually the last on-field act of his career was to get in two plugs for a beer he endorses into interviews immediately after he'd hoisted the Super Bowl trophy.
He's one of America's most active pitchmen, a surprisingly amiable actor who can play against his straight-laced serious image for fun, especially if his super-goober brother Eli, quarterback of the New York Giants, is involved.
But a second Super Bowl 'win' was also the final exhibit in Manning's case to be called GOAT. It pulled him level in Super Bowl 'wins' with brother Eli. It raised his overall record in the playoffs to 14-13. It levelled his Super Bowl mark at 2-2. For years, Peyton had carried a 'monkey on his back': he couldn't win the BIG ONE.
In college, his University of Tennessee team won the national title the year after he left, with the immortal Tee Martin at quarterback. Even after he took the Indianapolis Colts to victory in Super Bowl against an overmatched Chicago Bears, the doubting stopped only until the Colts were upset three years later by New Orleans, and intensified two years ago in New York when the Broncos were routed by the Seattle Seahawks.
Image: Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning (18) watches the ball go over his head after a bad snap for a safety during the first half of NFL Super Bowl XLVIII. Mel Evans / AP/Press Association Images
Manning's Super Bowl 'win' has been hailed by the pundits as cementing his legacy, but you'll notice I've written win in inverted commas. Because really that one game should not change anything about the way Manning's career is remembered, or rated. In fact, what it should teach us is that quarterbacks rarely win games on their own.
The Broncos could barely manage a touchdown until they were handed the ball late in the game on the edge of the end zone by a defense that had dominated the game throughout. Quarterback 'wins' are one of the more meaningless stats, but they carry weight because in America winning is everything: there's no ring for winning the regular season, or winning an international match for club or country. There's just the Super Bowl, which produces one winner and 31 losers.
Oddly enough, the man who brought Manning to Denver after he missed the entire 2011 season with neck and back injuries was John Elway, whose own legacy as a quarterback was boosted immensely by Super Bowl wins in his last two seasons.
Image: David Zalubowski / AP/Press Association Images
Elway put together an offense for Manning, and then, when the Seahawks destroyed that offense, fashioned a Seattle-like defense that brought the Super Bowl victory. Even with his two Super Bowl wins, Elway remains behind Manning in the GOAT debate.
Joe Montana (4-0 in Super Bowls) leads the chase, alongside John Unitas (two NFL titles in pre-Super Bowl days), Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham if you're old enough to remember them, Dan Marino (a loss in his only Super Bowl), Elway (two wins but three losses), maybe Bart Starr (2-0 in Super Bowls, 3-1 in NFL title games) and of course Manning's contemporary, Tom Brady (4 Super Bowl wins, 2 losses).
The Brady v Manning argument remains crucial, because neither can be GOAT if the other is the better quarterback of their era. As a pundit I've gone back and forth on the issue over the past decade: Manning has the statistical edge and the regular season MVP awards; Brady has the rings.
I'm fascinated by their similarity: Manning and Brady were unquestionably the two best quarterbacks in the league before the ball was snapped—the best at looking at the defense and knowing whether to change a play, knowing where the best matchup for a pass would be. But the debate went deeper. Brady, under coach Bill Belichick, played in different systems, sometimes changing completely week by week.
Manning's Colt teams were constructed around him: they played his type of game exclusively season after season. So too did the Broncos when he first arrived. Think of how well you have to execute when the opposition basically knows what is coming.
This year, under a new coach, Denver's offense changed, and Manning, beset by injuries as much as not adjusting, was benched. He came back to be what is called, disparagingly, a 'game manager' - avoiding mistakes that would lose games, rather than winning them.
Image: Denver Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler (17), left, stands with Peyton Manning on the sidelines. Don Wright / AP/Press Association Images
The off-field comparison is instructive too. Despite, or perhaps because of his super-model wife, or maybe just because he's a New England Patriot, Brady's off-field profile is much less pervasive than Manning's. Brady's lawyers are in court right now, contesting his four game suspension for allegedly knowing about balls being deflated before a game in 2014; 'Ballghazi' will not go away.
Last November, however, Al Jazeera broke the story that Manning had received Human Growth Hormone from an anti-aging clinic during his 2011 rehab year. Just before the Super Bowl, the Mannings conceded they had, but the packages had not been for Peyton. Then came the resurrection of a story involving his inappropriate behaviour around a female trainer in college, and that he and his father Archie, also an NFL quarterback, broke their confidentiality agreement with her to skewer her years later in a book. Both times, Manning questioned the messengers, and neither story received traction in the press.
He's an All-American hero. He grew up with a football pedigree, yet he worked as hard as anyone to keep himself playing. Having played 208 consecutive games, second only to Brett Favre, he came back from injuries that would have stopped most careers. And throughout his career, he presented America with a level head, an articulate interview, a low off-season profile (apart from the ads), a role model for kids.
There is a compelling argument that longevity in the highly competitive world of sport is, in and of itself, a sign of greatness. Longevity at Peyton Manning's level of play is almost unheard of. What must irk him is that Brady, one year younger, has just inked a new four-year contract. The battle for legacy is not yet over.