We fans have been blessed with watching a few all-time greats in their prime, but we may not be fully appreciating what we are seeing with one athlete. Roger Federer and Tiger Woods each in their primes were transcendent in their respective sports. But, these individual sports were and still are only on the periphery of mainstream.
Mainstream America loves the NFL and since the first pick in 1998 to the Indianapolis Colts, we have been treated to a spectacle of greatness. Peyton Manning took a middling (except for one darling season where the Colts were a Hail Mary from glory), Midwest team and firmly planted them onto the national spotlight. A team that wasn’t relevant since its days in Baltimore was now receiving headlines and Monday night football games because of Peyton Manning. With news coming out this week that Manning’s neck injury is worse than speculated and he will not be able to suit up Week 1, we may be watching the beginning of the end of a generational talent.
As a football fan, what makes Manning such a unique talent in my mind is the freedom he is given with the Colts. In year 2011 we are watching a quarterback virtually call all his plays at the line of scrimmage as he has done most of his career. Peyton Manning is a throwback to the days when football was in leather helmets and the triple option was a viable offensive scheme. He isn’t your father’s quarterback; he is your grandfather’s quarterback. He is the first one on the field and the last one to leave. He is the man who watches more film than Roger Ebert. And he is the man who has never been a distraction to the team.
In fact, off the field Manning has been the ultimate pitchman. He has done commercials with Justin Timberlake and has even chanted that people should “cut that meat.” He is eminently likeable. But, has this become what we remember Peyton Manning for more than his greatness? I am not trying to speculate that he becomes iconic for his pitches and not his play, but the fact he is such a fun, happy-go-lucky guy may cloud the fact that on the field he is the ultimate competitor.
This is not to say he hasn’t had competition. Strong arguments are made that he may not be the best quarterback of his own generation with that designation going to Tom Brady. But what Tom Brady is asked to do for his team is not on the same level as what Peyton Manning is asked to do. This is no knock against Brady. Brady is told to win football games and he does just that. Brady has multiple Super Bowl rings to show for it while Manning has but one.
However, in the consummate team sport, to place so much of an onus on one man to win so many games is a near impossible task; an impossible task that Manning has made look easy. Manning elevates all those around him, making no name players relevant. The talent level around Manning has been decent, but rarely great. Reggie Wayne excluded, would any team truly be clamoring for the wide receivers on the Colts roster? Yet, Manning has made them standouts. His quick release and pocket presence has made him year in and year out one of the least sacked quarterbacks. He has protected an always undersized defense with constant leads and reassurance that keeping the other team within striking range is enough for Manning to win the game. The Colts defense has never been asked to win a game like so many others have. And when that defense is tired, Manning has led long, clock consuming drives to revitalize the team. He conducts an entire game like John Williams conducts an orchestra, down to the finest minutiae. Few can truly appreciate the masterful complete game management that Peyton Manning has provided and I think the Colts organization can be included in that same breath.
Curtis Painter and the emergency signing of Kerry Collins have shown that the organization was not prepared for the loss of Peyton Manning for the short or long term. The Green Bay Packers read the writing on the wall with Brett Favre and groomed Aaron Rodgers into the elite quarterback he is today. There is no coincidence why the Packers are now reigning Super Bowl champions. The Colts have had a list of “just a guy” backups that would see irrelevant action in late season games when the Colts had locked up yet another playoff berth. The Colts have no true successor to Peyton Manning and maybe never will, because like I have said, what Peyton Manning has been asked to do for his team is maybe only possible for Peyton Manning. He is not just another great quarterback to throw in with the pantheon of great quarterbacks that have played this game. He is a truly unique talent that we may never see again. And with this injury breaking the ironman streak he had assembled, we must appreciate what fleeting time we may have left with this special athlete.