It sounds like a plot from some ancient western: The sheriff tells the villain he had just conquered that this could be his last rodeo.
The rodeo, of course, is Sunday’s Super Bowl 50. And if the sheriff, Peyton Manning, can win it, he’ll ride off into the sunset like Roy Rogers, leaving black-hoodied Bill Belichick to twist his moustache with villainous disdain after Manning’s Denver Broncos beat his New England Patriots in the AFC title game.
If Manning doesn’t win Super Bowl 50, doesn’t lead his Broncos to victory against the Carolina Panthers, well, in some quarters he won’t get to be the hero of the story. Somehow, Manning will be the anti-hero if he doesn’t even his personal Super Bowl tote board at 2-2. The sheriff’s star is in danger of being tarnished, his sunset obscured by clouds.
One game does not a legacy make, even when that game is the size of the Super Bowl. Manning has come too far, thrown for too many yards, won too many games for one fateful Sunday afternoon to be a referendum on whether he is one of the game’s all-time greats. One of its handful of all-time best quarterbacks.
He is. The numbers say so:
- First in career passing yards: 71,940
- First in career passing touchdowns: 539
- First in total career yards: 70,654
- Third in career passing yards per game: 270.5
- Tied for fourth in career passing percentage: 65.3
- Fifth in career passer rating: 96.5
- First in game-winning drives: 56
- First in comeback wins: 45
Certainly in the Super Bowl era, it’s definitely a mark against you if you haven’t won a Super Bowl.
Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, Fran Tarkenton — none of them hoisted the Tiffany-made Lombardi Trophy. For that they have to take a back seat to the likes of Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw and Drew Brees.
But the point is, Manning won a Super Bowl. He led the Indianapolis Colts past the Chicago Bears 29-17 in Super Bowl XLI. He was the MVP.
But Manning only won one, Peyton’s critics say. Heck, he doesn’t even own the most Super Bowl titles in the family. Younger brother Eli — who by the way ranks a surprising 11th with 44,191 career passing yards — owns two titles. And two Super Bowl MVP awards.
That’s a great achievement for Eli. But to assume it makes him a better quarterback on balance than big brother Peyton is a spurious argument.
Despite their megawatt importance, winning your sport’s ultimate prize isn’t necessarily the best way to judge an athlete’s all-time greatness.
Nolan Ryan won only one World Series. Mario Andretti won only one Indianapolis 500. Julius Erving won only one NBA title. Yet all three of these men are among the best who ever stepped onto a pitcher’s mound, strapped into a race car or flew over the hardwood.
Peyton Manning is judged more harshly perhaps because he has achieved so much, thrown for so many yards and touchdowns, been there and gotten Super dumped twice since his one win.
OK, you can say the loss in Super Bowl XLIV to the Saints is on him. He’s leading the Colts downfield, perhaps about to chalk up another comeback win or at the least force overtime, when he saw all of Reggie Wayne and none of Tracy Porter in the left flat. Hummed it right to the Saints cornerback, hitting him right in the old No. 22.
The loss two years ago to Seattle, that 43-8 wrecking ball-like defeat, you can’t pin on Manning alone. Yes, he threw a couple of interceptions, and who knows what was going on with that crazy early snap that resulted in a Seattle safety. But Manning’s Broncos lost by five touchdowns. Montana and Brady could have looked at that situation and said, “Nothing I can do with that.”
Brady of course is a quarterback whose legacy is colored both by triumph and controversy. He has won a record-tying four Super Bowls but was also embroiled in the Deflategate controversy much of the offseason.
Manning is arguably in a similar spot. A documentary by the soon-to-be-defunct Al Jazeera America (of all outlets) alleges Manning had human growth hormone sent to his house under his wife’s name. Manning vehemently denied the allegations, but word surfaced this week that two men hired by Manning’s lawyers visited the parents of a key witness in the documentary. One initially claimed to be a law enforcement official before admitting they were private investigators.
As bizarre as the whole saga may turn out to be, for now at least the focus needs to be on what Manning does on the field. Whether two wins in his case is indeed twice as good as one.
“I don’t think it’s important about getting a number,” Eli Manning said this week. “You’re always competing and preparing to win a championship, and he’s worked very hard to get to that opportunity and get to that situation. I think he wants to kind of finish the job that he started.”
But even if he doesn’t finish with a flourish, it doesn’t mean the job he did isn’t a great one.
One more win Sunday or not, Peyton Manning rides into the sunset as one of the NFL’s all-time greats.
The Advocate’s Joel A. Erickson contributed to this report.