Saturday, January 18, 2014

My Peyton Problem

It was January 2, 1998, and in one of those odd calendar quirks that happen every so often, the Peach Bowl and Orange Bowl were being played on the same day.

Erika had to work that night, so I was alone when I parked myself at a table at Market on 7th to watch Auburn finish off Clemson in the Peach. (For those who don't know, Market on 7th is a pizza joint in Ybor City, which is a colorful segment of Tampa whose history is marked by waves of Cuban and Italian immigrants mixed with dollops of Mob influence.)

Anyway, my waiter was wearing a Nebraska Cornhuskers hat, and knowing that his team was soon to face Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, I nodded towards his scalp and said "good luck tonight."

He replied with a simple "thanks," but his face seemed to light up and his body language showed he was happy to hear someone speak about the Huskers.

I took a swig from my beer and uttered, "I'm just #$%* sick of hearing about Peyton Manning."

"Me too," he said, practically spitting out the words as he wrinkled his brow with irritation.

Even then, way back when Peyton Manning was a college kid who had yet to play a single down in the NFL, I  had a problem where he was concerned.

And even then, I was thankful for every encounter I had that showed I wasn't alone.


To be clear, I do not have a problem with Peyton Manning. He has never done anything to me, and by all accounts he is a good man who works diligently at his craft and manages to never lose his temper despite constantly being in the throes of competition. It took great ardor and even greater courage for him to return to football at age 36 after undergoing three spinal surgeries.

What I have a problem with -- and have always had a problem with -- is the media coverage of Peyton Manning. The first time I heard his name was reading a glowing Sports Illustrated article about him when he was in high school!

And so it has gone, seemingly ad infinitum, for 20 years. Manning has always been the media's golden boy and is continuously hyped as a flawless Superman in cleats. If his team loses it is never his fault. If other quarterbacks routinely outperform him in the most important situations, well, the bulk of the media just glosses over that incongruity and heaps criticism on anyone who doesn't gloss over it.


It is odd that Manning has sustained this level of media fawning for so long when you consider how glaring the weaknesses are in his body of work. They have been written about enough that I won't go over all of them, but a Reader's Digest version goes like this:

His career playoff record is below .500, which is the kind of thing that might be explainable if not for the fact he has always played on teams loaded with championship-caliber talent...Coming into this year, eight of his twelve playoff appearances ended with first round eliminations and four of those eliminations happened at home...Manning entered this season with the same number of playoff wins and same number of Super Bowl rings as Joe Flacco, despite having played nine more seasons and having done so with a stronger supporting cast.

Yes, football is the ultimate team sport. If the offensive line can't block, it usually doesn't matter what anyone else on the offense can do; and if the defense can't stop the other team, your offensive players can't migrate to the other side of the ball and do their jobs for them.

But Manning has always played behind top offensive lines, and contrary to what his media apologists try to claim, most of his career has been spent on teams with strong defenses. The Colts squads of his first few seasons were suspect on that side of the ball, but after Tony Dungy arrived in 2003, the Colts' defense became stout and stayed that way. "Strong" is also a very fitting adjective for the Bronco defense of the last two years.

Plus, Manning has always had elite receivers to throw to (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker) and always shared the backfield with top flight running backs to keep opposing defenses honest (Edgerrin James, Joseph Addai, Knowshon Moreno).

In short, every team he has played on over the past decade has been designed to win a championship, yet only once has a championship been won. The best quarterback to ever play the position (or even one of the seven or eight best) would by definition deliver multiple titles in such a situation over such a long period of time. But instead, reality shows that Peyton Manning is an individual version of the 1990's Atlanta Braves: laden with talent, flaunting lots of regular season wins and eye-popping statistics, but at the end of the day an underachiever because he has routinely failed to deliver the goal he was put in position to accomplish.


None of which is to say that Peyton Manning is not an extremely good quarterback. He deserves to go into the Hall of Fame, but is he really that much better than Dan Fouts and Ron Jaworski?

How many Super Bowls would Joe Montana have won if he played on the same teams Manning has played on? I think he would have won at least four, just like he did with San Francisco over a similar period of time. I believe the same is true for Johnny Unitas, Roger Staubach, and Terry Bradshaw. Suffice it to say that none of those guys would have thrown four interceptions in the conference championship game, and a loss-clinching overtime interception in another conference championship game, and a loss-clinching pick-six in a Super Bowl -- like Manning did in 2004, 2013 and 2010, respectively.

And what about retired greats Sonny Jorgensen, Bart Starr, Len Dawson, Ken Stabler, Joe Theisman, Doug Williams, Dan Marino, and Troy Aikman? What about Manning's boss John Elway? What about Manning contemporaries Tom Brady and Drew Brees, and the aforementioned Joe Flacco? I can't hazard a realistic guess as to exactly how many rings each of them would have won playing on the teams Manning has led, but I have no doubt they all would've won more than Manning has won.

All I am saying is: Why do so many media people consider it a given that Manning is better than most of the people I just mentioned? Why do they consider it a given that he belongs on the short list for the "greatest of all time" label?

Which puts me in a pickle. I have nothing against Peyton Manning and a big part of me would like to see him earn another Super Bowl ring to legitimize the "greatness" label and silence his naysayers (including myself, I suppose). However, I know the sure-to-follow media hype would be so overblown and larded with saccharin as to make me vomit.

So a big part of me wants the Bronocs to lose simply to keep the media in check. But I know damn well that that's a bad, bad reason to cheer for an outcome.

No comments: