WASHINGTON, February 2, 2016 – Now that Super Bowl week is finally here, there is no shortage of stories attached to one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports. How will Cam Newton, a lock for NFL MVP, perform in his first Super Bowl? Will Denver or Carolina have the more dominating defense? But the biggest spotlight will be on NFL legend and five-time NFL MVP, Peyton Manning.
There is no question over what Manning has meant to the game of football. He is a 14 time Pro Bowler, a former Super Bowl MVP, and the all time leader in passing yards and touchdowns. To some, he is the very best to ever play the position and maybe even the best player ever. But to others, his legacy is hampered by the fact that his playoff record is a pedestrian 13-13, and despite the fact that he has a Super Bowl victory in 2007, he has not had enough success in the playoffs to be considered the best of all time. With all of this in mind, should Sunday’s game have a lasting impact on how we view Manning and his legacy?
If the Broncos win against the favored Panthers on Sunday, Manning will retire with two rings along with all of his other accolades mentioned above. There is no doubt that winning a second Super Bowl in what is likely his final NFL game would be the perfect way to end such a storied career. However, even if Denver manages to win, there’s an argument to be made that Manning should get almost no credit. It’s no secret that he had his worst statistical season this year, playing in only ten games with 9 TDs, 17 INTs, and a passer rating of 67.9. The Broncos have been winning this season despite Manning’s play this year, not because of it. Unless Manning has the best game he has had all season, not much credit should be thrown his way.
If, on the other hand Denver loses, could one really place much blame on the legendary quarterback? It’s no secret that Father Time has taken it’s toll on Manning, who played through injury all season. Although a loss would make his Super Bowl record a less than stellar 1-3, as well as give him a losing record over all in the playoffs, this should not take away from his absolutely dominant career.
There will always be a segment of old school football fans that put way too much stock in wins and championships. Of course these things are important; they are why players play the game. But to pretend that football isn’t a team game with at least 52 other players taking part over the course of a single season is to be detached from reality. One must also account for the fact that the regular season is a much larger sample size to draw from than the relatively few playoff games that a player will participate in over the course of his career.
One of the biggest omissions when discussing a quarterback’s legacy is always context and the people around him. To illustrate the point, we will discuss a few other play callers who are often compared with Peyton Manning when debating who is the best quarterback. The only two quarterbacks who are in the conversation with Manning are Tom Brady and Joe Montana.
Tom Brady is undoubtedly one of the greatest of all time. While not there yet, his numbers are only a few years away from rivaling Mannings career totals such as passing yards and touchdowns. But what sets Brady apart from Manning in the eyes of many fans are the four Super Bowl rings. Tied for the most of all time among quarterbacks, Brady has definitely had the edge over Manning in playoff success.
However, when one looks closer, Brady cannot claim all the credit for the run of achievement that the Patriots have had. Bill Belichick has undoubtedly been the best head coach in the NFL over the past 15 years. It can be argued that his scheme and coaching style are just as responsible for New England’s success as Tom Brady. The Patriots were somehow able to go 11-5 in 2008 with Matt Cassel as their starting quarterback. It’s probably safe to say that Belichick deserves a very large amount of the credit for turning New England into the juggernaut that it is today.
The only other quarterback that compares with Peyton Manning is Joe Montana. He is the standard to which all other quarterbacks are measured. Montana’s calm and collective approach to the game earned him the nickname of Joe Cool, and his performance in two minute drills at the end of games are nothing short of legend. But even Montana needed help to cement his legacy.
In a recent study published by USA Today, three of Montana’s four Super Bowl winning teams are ranked in the top 20; all much higher than Manning’s 36th ranked Colts. What this seems to reveal is that Montana was leading much better overall teams than Manning had at his disposal. It would be difficult to argue that fielding teams with Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig, Bill Walsh, Randy Craig, and not to mention the greatest receiver of all time, Jerry Rice, didn’t help Montana reach the top of the mountain.
Whether or not Manning and the Broncos can defeat Carolina, there will always be people who believe that his career will be blemished by the failures he has sustained in the postseason. No matter the final score, nothing can change the fact that Manning has been the most statistically productive player of his generation, and maybe ever.
All too often in sports, we try to frame legacies of teams or players in order to fit a certain narrative. Unfortunately many fans and analysts will be doing just that during Super Bowl 50. If Manning and the Broncos upset the Panthers on Sunday and Peyton Manning rides into the sunset with the parting gift of another Super Bowl ring, perhaps we should just appreciate it for what it is: A great football moment.