His final year was nothing more than a victory lap, but if anyone’s NFL career deserved a victory lap, it was Peyton Manning's.
It doesn’t matter that the bigger dudes who play on the opposite side of the ball had to carry Manning around the track. History won’t remember that Manning was 13-of-23 with a 56.6 passer rating in the Broncos’ Super Bowl victory over the Panthers -- only that he won it. And given everything else he accomplished in his 18-year NFL career, there’s nothing wrong with putting a cherry on top.
It seems to have become fashionable to focus on what Manning did or could not do. He didn’t win as much as Tom Brady. He lost almost as many postseason games (13) as he won (14). He turned the moments that followed his final game into a bizarre array of pizza and beer commercials.
But while all of those things are true, none is the point. Too many people focus on the things Manning did not do. But on the day he officially hangs up his well-worn cleats, the focus really should be on all of the great things Manning did do. At a time like this, it’s important for us as sports fans not to lose sight of what we all got to witness.
Since the moment he arrived in our national consciousness, Manning has occupied the highest stratum of quarterback greatness. He has played the position, in all of its intricacies, as well as anyone who’s ever taken a snap. He has elevated teammates and coaches on a play-by-play, check-by-check, week-by-week basis. He’s been the poster child for steady brilliance in an era of unprecedented passing-game dominance.
Yes, our final memories of Manning may make us wince. He clearly couldn’t throw the ball the way he used to, and he hobbled through this past season with a foot injury that cost him six games and briefly relegated him to being Brock Osweiler’s backup. Our hope for our sports heroes is that they avoid such fates, so we can always remember them at their best. This hope is almost always unrealistic.
But even at the end, much of what made Manning so great remained on display. His performance against the Steelers in the divisional round was a clinic in pre-snap wizardry -- sniffing out the blitz and checking into runs, luring Pittsburgh defenders offside with a well-timed, percussive "Omaha!" and winning the game with his head, even as his arm let him down. He was sharp enough in the first half of the AFC Championship Game against Brady and the Patriots to hand his outstanding defense a lead just big enough to hold after he was spent. He was little more than a hood ornament for the Broncos’ defense in the Super Bowl, but again, all that means is that he had some help on his well-earned victory lap.
Manning is on the Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks not because of his ability to throw or to run or even to win the big one (which he did do twice, it’s important to remember). Manning’s genius always has rested in his ability to play the game -- the whole game, from the head down -- better than his opponent. To figure it out.
That’s how he’s carried teams along with him to 15 playoff appearances. That’s why no one has ever put up more passing yards, thrown for more touchdowns or led more game-winning drives. In Manning’s 17 NFL seasons (he missed 2011 with a neck injury), he had four different leading receivers and nine different leading rushers. He went to the Super Bowl with four different coaches.
For some, the story of Manning’s career will always be that he didn’t win enough for us. He probably didn’t win enough for him, either. A player of his gifts shouldn’t have to hear forever about nine playoff one-and-dones, or about how Brady had his number. We have become too quick to tear down, too loath to enjoy, and the narrative of Manning as somehow insufficient in achievement is among the best current examples of this.
So this second Super Bowl title was a welcome addition to this spangled résumé. Without it, Manning already was an all-time winner -- tied with Brett Favre for the most wins of all time heading into the Super Bowl. He won five MVP awards; no one else has won more than three. Fourteen times, he was quarterback of a team that won at least 10 games -- another record.
Until Super Bowl 50, the fact that he’d only won one Lombardi trophy was a black mark against him, because titles have somehow become the only unit of measure that matters to people. The fact is, too much goes into the weekly effort to play and win enough football games to make the postseason 15 times in one career, to reach the big game four times. Too much factors into the outcome of individual playoff games to lay them exclusively at the feet of quarterbacks. Manning didn’t need the Broncos to win the Super Bowl in order to secure his legacy, but the fact that they did takes away one of the top arguments of those who seek to tear down.
Manning’s story now comes with the dream ending. It’s a story of sustained excellence in a sport that resists longevity with all its considerable might. The result of Super Bowl 50 means he doesn’t have to apologize for not winning enough. All he has left to do is take a well-deserved bow.