The Peyton Manning debate: in excess

Nobody should feel sorry for Peyton Manning, but there's a small part of me that feels some sort of vague emotion -- disappointment? low-grade pity? -- for him after his Super Bowl performance. Considering that a lot of people believe one bad pass shattered not only his image but his legacy, it's probably OK to feel something for the guy.

In retrospect, the main argumentative exercise of the past two weeks -- the issue of whether Manning is the greatest quarterback of all time -- seems silly, doesn't it? Now that the Saints are being anointed as the greatest inspirational story since Gunga Din, it's hard to remember that we were supposed to be anointing Manning instead.

It seemed so important at the time. Hours of television and radio commentary. Column after column.

Well, so much for that. Four MVP awards and 10 4,000-yard seasons all vanish because of one bad pass. The guy's a choker, apparently.

That was quick.


From the beginning, the issue of Manning's potential spot at the top of the quarterback pantheon could have been distilled to this: a big debate intended to answer a question nobody should have even asked.

Think about it: Is Manning the greatest quarterback of all time? It seemed to come out of nowhere. Who asked for this? Was there anyone really wondering -- unless it was someone being paid to wonder -- whether Manning was the best quarterback of all time? I'm being serious because, for all the on-air talk on the subject, I don't know a single non-media person who was considering it.

I watched the game with about 50 people Sunday, and not one person brought up the subject. Not before the game. Not during. Not after.

I know there were two weeks between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, and I know there's only so much mileage you can get out of a defensive lineman's injured ankle, but a premise was established early: Is he or isn't he? It was Manning's responsibility to provide us with either verification or denunciation through his performance Sunday.

Maybe we can't help ourselves. Maybe the whole greatest-ever debate is so enticing we can't bear to leave it alone. But even if someone outside the echo chamber were asking the question, and people were actually interested in the answer, what does it mean? We have no objective formula for bestowing this make-believe honor on a quarterback. There's the quarterback rating, but it's insufficient for bridging generations and styles. (For instance, how can a quarterback's statistics from the '60s or '70s -- when intricate passing games were far less common -- compare with those of a quarterback playing after the advent of the West Coast offense? That's way too inside-the-helmet for this discussion. In fact, it comes perilously close to being the antithesis of this discussion.)

Despite now being punished for not producing when we needed it most, Manning didn't do anything to invite the talk of his possibly being the greatest quarterback ever. Well, except for doing his job very well for a long period of time. His bland boyishness, whether real or imagined, is a quality marketers and grandmothers love, and there's nothing wrong with that. He's an exceptionally good quarterback, one of the best five or six in my lifetime. If he had thrown for 440 yards and lost in the AFC Championship Game this season, would he be any less of a quarterback today?

Probably not.

But losing in the Super Bowl is something we simply can't abide. (Even though most of the people failing to abide probably were secretly or outwardly rooting for the Saints.) Judging by the game and its aftermath, Manning destroyed his reputation. He is no longer in the discussion for greatest quarterback ever because he threw a terrible interception at precisely the wrong time. Had he thrown that ball into the ground and then led his team to a tying touchdown, his name would be at the top of the list.

Really? All over a question that shouldn't have been asked?

Oh, you can find fault with him; for one thing, his manic attention to detail -- well chronicled here by Stefan Fatsis -- has created a tendency for him to look around the huddle when things go wrong. (And no, his you-fill-in-the-blanks obliqueness when issuing the blame doesn't make it any less annoying. In a way, it might be worse than if he just started coming out and calling out whoever it is who fails to live up to his expectations.)

Manning's blandness is worth noting. I contend it's precisely why most of us can't summon the energy to analyze his place in the game's grand scheme. It's easy to debate Brett Favre, because the material just keeps coming, and even Joe Montana can incite an argument based on the eternal question, "Was it the system or the player?"

Manning has lost some games everyone thought he should have won. And when it happens in a Super Bowl, it makes everyone forget that he has won a lot of games he probably should have lost.

Does it change who he is? No. And what follows might be a stale and overused trope, but it doesn't make it any less appropriate: It says more about us than it does him.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.