Manning Up: Resilience Defines a Record Year

You do realize he made history with a weak arm. It isn’t a wet noodle, as it was described two years ago, but do not underplay the marvel that is Peyton Manning with about 80 percent of the shoulder strength and grip he had in his previous football life, not that he was blessed with a Dan Marino laser anyway. Since the four neck surgeries that almost pushed him into early retirement and a new career as (choose one) a standup comedian, an NFL executive or a full-time Papa John’s Pizza franchisee, Manning has had to rely mostly on guile, instinct and the quickest release known to quarterbacking.

That he has done more than survive at 37 — he has thrived, mesmerized and dominated, actually — qualifies him not only as the league’s Most Valuable Player for an unprecedented fifth time but as Sportsman of the Year for 2013. Sports Illustrated anointed him as such the other day, and I concur, having watched Manning eclipse Tom Brady’s single-season record with his 51st touchdown pass.

“Very special,” he said.

It was more than that, much more. It reminded us why Manning, in a time when athletes tend to sabotage their relationships with the masses by lying and cheating and scandalizing, probably qualifies as America’s most beloved athlete. In almost two decades in the scrutinous and unforgiving public eye, he has managed to avoid any hint of impropriety while compiling a body of work unlike few athletes of his time. All the while, he has projected an image of humility that once again accompanied his glory Sunday. There we were, heralding this as the greatest singular season by a passer. And there he was, suggesting his place in the record book shouldn’t be written in ink.

“I think it’s a unique thing and a neat thing to be a part of NFL history, even though it may be temporary,” Manning said. “So I’m going to enjoy it as long as it lasts, and hopefully the Hall of Fame will send the ball back once somebody throws for more.”

He’s probably right. The league’s emphasis on safety has softened defenses and limited aggressive tactics, enabling quarterbacks to more easily amass monster numbers. Still, don’t let that dilute the moment. Fifty-one touchdown passes is a testament to his resilience and perseverance, a middle finger to those who thought he was finished — including Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, who always will be remembered as the man who allowed Manning to leave for Denver. The decision has worked out for both the Colts and Broncos, but before Andrew Luck starts contending for Super Bowls, Manning has made it known that he wants one or two more rings.

That has been the bugaboo against him, of course: one championship ring. It allows critics to give him backhanded praise — he hates it when he’s called “the greatest regular-season quarterback ever” — and it’s driving him to prove them wrong in the Meadowlands on Feb. 2. The Broncos have issues on the defensive side, where Von Miller’s knee injury further muddles a unit that isn’t in championship form. But mediocre competition in the AFC makes Denver a near-prohibitive favorite to win two playoff home games and reach the Super Bowl. See anyone going into high altitude and winning? Isn’t New England too ravaged by injuries? Isn’t Cincinnati too inconsistent? Hasn’t Kansas City lost twice to the Broncos?

Yes, his latest masterpiece — 400 yards and four touchdown passes in Houston — didn’t happen in the cold weather that awaits him next month. They will trot out Manning’s dubious 4-7 record when the temperature is 32 degrees or below at kickoff, knowing the Broncos lost in New England earlier this month and to the Ravens in the playoffs last January in such conditions. Never mind that most of those losses were a long time ago, when the Colts had an inferior defense and couldn’t hang with the Patriots in Foxborough. It’s a story line that will follow him, particularly with the Super Bowl outdoors in Jersey.

“Whoever wrote that narrative can shove it where the sun don’t shine,” Manning said recently, in a rare public glimpse of anger.

Now that the Arizona Cardinals have provided a defensive blueprint of how to beat Seattle — punish Russell Wilson and give him little time to throw — there now is hope for Manning fans that a Super Bowl assignment against the Seahawks isn’t an impossible task. For now, he can enjoy his personal moment before the heavy lifting starts in three weeks. The Texans weren’t happy about the record-setting touchdown pass, a 25-yarder to Julius Thomas with 4:28 left, which seemed like piling on in a 37-13 blowout; interim Houston coach Wade Phillips said of the team that once employed him, “The guy is a great quarterback, obviously. The last one, I was surprised that they threw it deep late in the game, but that’s part of football.” The Broncos, meanwhile, got big laughs about it.

Seems Thomas, the former college basketball player who has become one of Manning’s prized targets, didn’t realize he was on the receiving end of history. He dropped the ball in the end zone, forcing teammate Eric Decker to pick it up and tuck it in his jersey while the Broncos congratulated Manning in the end zone and then on the sideline. The old man did show emotion, pumping his fist after the catch. Later, he couldn’t resist commenting on Thomas’ gaffe.

“It wouldn’t have surprised me if Julius would have went and handed it to some babe up in the stands, trying to get her phone number in exchange for the ball,” Manning cracked. “That would be right up Julius’ alley.”

He is America’s favorite wisecracking uncle. And with due respect to David Ortiz’s feel-good efforts in Boston, Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR records, Vin Scully’s ageless voice of summer, LeBron James’ second championship and the many other good deeds in sports, Peyton Manning made the most indelible impression of 2013.

Don’t be surprised if he makes another early in 2014, wet noodle and all, with the temperature below 32 degrees.