Maybe it’s because he seems like your nerdy uncle, or because he’s in his third decade of throwing passes and pitching products to all corners of the American consciousness, or because familiarity breeds contempt on the darker side of human life. But sometimes, we tend to take Peyton Manning for granted in this country. And that is a sin.
It wasn’t very long ago, remember, when he stood in the backyard of his parents’ house in New Orleans and barely could lift a football. This was after the original surgery to repair a damaged nerve in his neck, leaving Manning’s once-golden right arm weaker than a wet noodle. “I was pretty much convinced he was done,” said his brother, Eli, telling the NFL Network about a troubling summer day in 2011. “There was no way he could come back and play football. We’re throwing from 15 yards away, and it’s a lob. He couldn’t throw 15 yards on a line. It had no pop.”
There would be three more neck surgeries, including a spinal fusion in which the front of his neck was cut open, allowing for the removal of disk tissue between the vertebrae. If it sounds gnarly, imagine how Peyton Manning felt, realizing that a neck injury had forced his older brother/ receiver, Cooper, to stop playing football in high school.
“I certainly had my concerns that entire time,” he said, “because the doctors just couldn’t tell me anything definite. They wouldn’t say, `You’re going to be back at this time, at 100 percent strength level.’ They couldn’t tell me. So when the doctors can’t tell you that, how do you really know? It was a matter of a lot of faith and trust.”
Even after no less a quarterbacking authority than John Elway wooed him to the Broncos for $96 million — “My goal is to make Peyton Manning the best quarterback that’s ever played this game,” he said in March 2012 — there were deep, dire questions. As a reader, listener and viewer of the media, Manning heard them all, recalling, “There was a lot of `narrative’ out there on what I couldn’t do: `He can’t throw to the left.’ And, `He really struggles throwing to the right.’ I’m like, `How do they know? I’ve been throwing in private the entire time.’ At the time, throwing to the left was about the only thing I could do well. So there was a lot of misinformation out there.”
Since then, well, let’s just say he has been demanding retractions far and wide. Simply worded, never has a quarterback performed at a higher level. If Elway’s `best-ever’ statement sounded like wishful thinking at the time, Manning stands one victory in Super Bowl XLVIII from fulfilling it, as not even the Hatin’ Peyton crowd — dwindling quicker than Justin Bieber’s Beliebers — can deny what awaits him if he survives the Seahawks and the Legion of Boom. With a victory in the Meadowlands, on a night that should be meteorologically conducive to a vintage passing show, he’ll be a multiple Super Bowl champion, which would serve to validate his all-time preeminence when coupled with his unprecedented five league MVP awards and his staggering body of regular-season work. Elway, who also would be in the best-ever conversation, realizes there is no appointed judge to definitively confirm the distinction. “You’re going to always have your detractors, but he may have a very large percentage of `who’s the best,’ you know what I mean?” Elway said. “Yeah, all Peyton can do is continue to cement his legacy, especially if he continues to keep going like this year. And I’m going to try to make sure he has all the weapons to be able to do that.”
The idea that Manning would retire following this game is absurd. Why would anyone, other than the other 31 NFL teams, want him to leave after a season when he has thrown for 59 touchdowns and 6,104 yards? With four weapons who will be hanging around Denver for a while — Demaryius and Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker — and his body holding up well after some ankle- and knee-related limps in December, Manning should continue at the same historically productive pace for a couple of years. He has capitalized on new safety rules to exploit helpless defenses like never before. He continues to be exquisite, the most prolific passer in football history, the maestro of the scrimmage line, the savant who brought brainpower and preparation to the most glamorous of positions, able to release the ball on average in a no-way-in-hell 2.36 seconds.
Legacy? He laughs at the word.
“I’ve been asked about my legacy since I was about 25 years old. I’m not sure you can have a legacy when you’re 25 years old. Even 37,” Manning said. “I’d like to have to be, like, 70 to have a legacy. I’m not even 100 percent sure what the word even means.
“I’m still in the middle of my career.”
Whoa there. The middle?
“Let me rephrase that,” he said. “I’m down the homestretch of my career, but I’m still in it. It’s not over yet. And so it’s still playing out.”
First, he has an assignment Sunday night. The Seahawks know the blueprint: Pressure Manning, knock him down and beat him, control the running game and the clock with Marshawn Lynch, make big plays in the passing game with Russell Wilson. Good luck with the first part of that. “
“Really, nobody has pressured him at all — 18 sacks for the regular season is nothing for 659 throws,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “For us to win the football game, we’re going to have to get pressure.”
It also would help to have some “ducks,” as Richard Sherman said, perhaps regretfully. In a column he writes for the MMQB website, he made the mistake earlier this season of mentioning, while lauding Manning’s football intellect, that he throws wobbly passes at times — a byproduct of an arm and grip that Manning estimates are at about 80 percent of their pre-surgery strength. When asked this week if he stands by the statement, Sherman didn’t backtrack, saying, “Well, I still feel the same way I felt. He is a great quarterback, he does a great job. At the same time, when he catches the ball, he doesn’t necessarily catch the laces all the time. He throws an accurate ball in regards to how he catches it, he just gets it on time and delivers it accurately.”
With his trademark wry humor, which also can be called smart-assism, Manning shot back. “They say he’s a smart player, and I don’t think that’s a real reach what he’s saying there,” he said of Sherman. “I do throw ducks. I’ve thrown a lot of yards and touchdown ducks, so I’m actually quite proud of it.”
It takes a real quack to tick off Manning before facing him. Other than Sherman’s slip, published weeks ago, the Seahawks have worshipped him all week. Known for trash-talking and verbal intimidation, the defensive players were asked if they’d try to play mind games with him.
“It’s just a huge waste of time,” linebackers K.J. Wright said. “We aren’t going to spend too much trying to get into his head.”
“He’s been special since the first day he walked in the NFL,” lineman Chris Clemons said. “It’s phenomenal. It just shows you that he’s on top of everything he does.”
“You can’t get in Peyton’s head,” Sherman conceded. “If you get in his head, you’ll get lost. Peyton Manning’s numbers speak for themselves. I think he’s one of the best in the history of the game, and I think he’s broken multiple records to prove that. He’s a living legend right now. He’s been a living legend for years.”
Ducks and all.
“It is funny to me, I think it’s just people look at his numbers, what he’s done, and there is nothing to talk about, nothing, no questions there,” Demaryius Thomas said. “He’s the best player in the game right now. We don’t pay attention to all of that, we do our jobs, get ourselves to the right spot, and he always gets the ball there.”
Said brother Eli, poised to watch Peyton make history in his home stadium as Eli once did in Indianapolis: “Sure enough, he has been able to do it, and even this year, he has been stronger, his arm strength has been stronger, and he has been better than ever. So it’s been an amazing journey for him and what he has overcome. And for me to watch him to go through it, and the dedication to work, has been inspiring.”
As we moved through the week’s various phases — Lynch’s grumpy interview sessions, the medical marijuana debate, amateur weather forecasters and false Snowsteria, Carroll’s friendship with the rapper Macklemore — the focus gradually crystalized into what this Super Bowl represents. That would be the coronation of Peyton Manning. He finds it odd that a higher number of teammates have asked him to autograph jerseys and other items this week.
“A lot of them had a note: `Sign this for me.’ So I must have signed 10 jerseys for my teammates,” he said. “Which makes me think they think I probably should be out of here after this game.”
In truth, they recognize the magnitude of the moment, a milestone in sports history. And they’d like to tell their grandkids about it, as would I.