Peyton's legacy is ours to judge

NEWARK, N.J. -- Peyton Manning hears a reporter say the word "legacy," the L-word, and the rest of the question sounds as garbled as something coming out of an adult's mouth in a Charlie Brown special. Manning doesn't want to hear it, doesn't want to address it and doesn't want to define it for public consumption.

"I'm not 100 percent sure what the word even means," he said Tuesday.

Chances are Manning knows exactly what it means. That's why the pocket passer shows a Russell Wilson-like ability to escape when the L-word closes in on him like an all-out blitz.

The first time Peyton reached the Super Bowl, people wanted to know if he was capable of winning the big one, since he hadn't won the big one in college (or the big trophy, the Heisman, for that matter) or in the pros. Now that he's 1-1 entering his third Super Bowl, people want to know if he can go down as the greatest quarterback of all time, and if he needs to get to 2-1 to make that happen.

Peyton wants to deal with the L-word about as much as he wanted to face kid brother Eli in MetLife Stadium on Sunday. "I've been asked about my legacy since I was 25 years old," big brother said, "which I'm not sure you can have a legacy when you are 25 years old, or even 37. I thought you had to be 70 to have a legacy."

You thought wrong, Peyton. Here's the way this works: You get the fame, the fortune, the records, the cute commercials and the cushy TV gig when you're done throwing for a zillion yards ... and we get to decide your legacy.

By we, I'm talking about the average guy and gal, the fans who would do just about anything to spend an hour in your cleats. They get to make or break your case in sports bars, at barbecues, at the water cooler. They get to decide if you need two championships to trump Joe Montana's four, or if your staggering regular-season advantage over Montana (nearly 25,000 more passing yards, 218 more touchdowns and soon-to-be three more MVP awards) elevates your one title enough to cover your venial postseason sins.

You determine almost everything on the field, Peyton, but the ball isn't in your hands on this one. The fans who call into talk shows, or who grow up to become credentialed chroniclers of the game, serve as judge and jury when it comes to measuring one all-time great against another.

Maybe that's why the L-word makes you uncomfortable, Peyton: because it's no fun being a control freak who has no control, and because you know even if you match Eli's two in Eli's building, some will immediately ask if you'll ever match the three won by your contemporary, Tom Brady.

"People say bad things about you," Don Shula said the other day, "when you don't win the big game."

John Elway, Manning's boss, knows that as well as anyone. Elway was hounded across his brilliant career for losing his first three Super Bowls before Terrell Davis walked into his life in the nick of time and helped him win two back-to-back.

But there was Elway in the Prudential Center on Tuesday, doing his own scramble away from the L-word when asked how much Manning needs a second ring. "I think when people say that, they're looking for something because he had such a tremendous year," Elway said. "I mean, what else are you going to talk about with Peyton Manning that's negative other than, 'OK, we've got to go to his legacy'?

"So I don't think this game one way or another affects his legacy, the way that he's played. He's going to be one of the all-time greats no matter what."

Only when he signed Manning in 2012, Elway was playing the legacy game himself. "My goal is to make Peyton Manning the best quarterback that's ever played the game," he said. The implication, of course, was that Manning hadn't already clinched that historic standing. Asked by the NFL Network months later how, exactly, Manning could go about becoming the greatest, Elway said his man had to win two more Super Bowls.

Not one. Two!

So Elway wants three titles from Peyton. Some fans want a pair. Some are happy with one, and others are never going to be happy no matter what Peyton does.

But that's the beauty of sports, these subjective debates that have no absolute right and wrong answers. Some football fans would actually take Eli's two rings and his growing procession of playoff-free seasons with the Giants over Peyton's one ring and the virtual guarantee of a high postseason seed every year. Some tennis fans prefer Rafael Nadal's 13 majors and complete domination of Roger Federer to Federer's 17 majors. Some golf fans believe if Tiger Woods someday reaches 90 or 100 PGA tour victories but doesn't break Jack Nicklaus' majors record of 18, he'll still go down as his sport's greatest player (Nicklaus won 73 times on tour).

For some fans it's Mantle, and for others it's Mays. That will never change.

"In my opinion," Elway said, "legacies don't get created until you're done."

Who's he kidding? In the next breath, Elway said he already had Manning in his personal top five.

The best of the best might act like they don't keep score like fans do, but deep down they're just like the rest of us. After he won his fifth NBA championship, Kobe Bryant admitted to reporters that he'd been lying to them all along -- that he really, really wanted to get to five before a certain former teammate did.

"I just got one more than Shaq," Bryant said then. "So you can take that to the bank. You know how I am, you guys know how I am. I don't forget anything."

I'm betting Peyton Manning hasn't forgotten anything, either, whether it was people saying he couldn't beat Brady or that he couldn't throw the ball in cold postseason weather. No athlete that competitive and successful isn't driven at times by real or imagined slights.

Elway said that during the time Denver chased after its blue-chip recruit, Manning was "still in shock" that the Indianapolis Colts had actually fired him. Peyton was surely motivated by the pain. He recovered from all those neck surgeries to lead the Broncos to two consecutive 13-3 seasons, to a record-shattering offensive performance in 2013 and to this Super Bowl matchup with a team, Seattle, that wanted to sign Peyton, too.

"He's built this unbelievable legacy," said Wilson, the one quarterback here unafraid of the L-word. "And he's one of the best -- if not the best -- quarterbacks to ever play the game."

Is he the best? Or is he simply one of the best? Your opinion is your opinion, and what happens Sunday may or may not make or break your case.

But this much is already clear about Peyton Manning's legacy, at least as it relates to Super Bowl XLVIII:

He gets to play. We get to decide.