SAN JOSE, Calif. — Nearing the end of what might be the unlikeliest postseason run of his remarkable 18-year career, Denver Broncos quarterback Payton Manning knows the questions and speculation won’t stop this week in the buildup to Super Bowl 50.
Will it be his “last rodeo,” which he said it “might be” in postgame comments to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick following the Broncos’ 20-18 victory in the AFC Championship Game?
Will losing for the third time in a Super Bowl affect his legacy? That is one that should never be asked; it is a tired topic. The reality is that whenever Manning walks away from the game, he will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame five years later, just as Brett Favre will this year after he gets voted in Saturday with his one Super Bowl ring.
Super Bowls are a team achievement, and in the lexicon of the sport, it should never be said that “he,” meaning the quarterback, won or lost any game, much less one for the championship of the sport.
Deciding the best of all time is an exercise in futility. It is merely a debate with no right or wrong. Or as former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips once said in his distinctive Texas drawl, when asked if Earl Campbell was the best running back ever, “I don’t know, but he’s among ’em.”
As Peyton’s brother, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, said recently, “Honestly, I think there’s maybe too much placed on rings and Super Bowl championships, because it’s not one player. The quarterback is not the sole reason that you win a championship. It’s the team and everybody coming around.
“Peyton, his impact on the game of football, will not be determined based off this one game. He’s kind of changed the game, (with) the no-huddle offense they had in Indianapolis for so long and doing things at the line of scrimmage and changing plays and getting out of bad plays and getting into good plays. He was the start of doing that.
“I know guys who have done it before, Jim Kelly in his different offenses. (Peyton) has five MVPs and Super Bowl appearances and won a lot of football games, thrown a lot of touchdowns, and he’s played at a high level for a long, long time. I hope he can win, but his impact has already been made. His legacy, I don’t think it should be affected by this one game.”
Not that this is a referendum between Favre and Manning, but the former Packers great was the ultimate gunslinger, while Manning is the ultimate in-game leader in an age where many quarterbacks need cards on their wrist to know the play-call.
Still, it is shocking to see the similarity in their numbers. Manning has passed for 71,940 regular-season yards, Favre 71,838. Manning has 539 touchdowns in 265 regular-season starts and another 40 and 26 playoff games. Favre has 508 regular-season TDs in 298 games, 40 in 24 playoff games. Manning has a better interception percentage.
Being a part of winning games is where it is currently shockingly identical. A win for Manning on Sunday would be the 200th of his career: 186 in the regular season and 14 in the postseason. Favre retired with, you guessed it, 186 wins in the regular season and 13 in the playoffs. Manning’s teams lost 79 in the regular season, 13 in the postseason when he started; Favre 112 and 11.
As Manning said Monday, “Being tied with Brett Favre for a record is an honor.”
This Sunday, though, we all will see a diminished Manning just 46 days shy of his 40th birthday, but one who will leave no stone unturned in his preparation to find a way to score enough points to stop the Carolina Panthers.
Reflecting on this season while speaking Monday in a packed SAP Center, Manning said, “I played a different game this season. I can’t make some of the throws I used to, but I can move the chains. I’ve been flexible; I haven’t been stubborn. I’ve been able to adjust to a new physical state. That’s helped me.”
And he will cast aside all those questions with a singular focus as he usually does. As during the off week, when the words he said to Belichick became the story.
Said Manning, “I think this team has — we’ve talked about it the past few weeks — focused on the staying in the moment, staying in the now, one week at a time. There are lots of different cliches that you could throw out there, but that’s been great for this team, and that’s certainly a great approach.”
He even channeled some Belichick when he said, “We’re on to Carolina.”
Regarding his future, he said Monday, “I’m taking it one week at a time. I’m not looking too far ahead or too far back. I’ll deal with all that after the season.”
Manning experienced a frustrating season in which he started just nine games because of a foot injury, yet he was intercepted 17 times, second most in the league. It appeared the Broncos would ride the Brock Osweiler train into the postseason until Manning replaced him in the season finale against the San Diego Chargers.
Manning’s final playing time before that was a horrifying 5-for-20 performance for 35 yards and four interceptions in a 29-13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 15 in which he was replaced by Osweiler.
In the two-plus games since returning, he hardly was the Manning of old, completing just 43 of 78 passes (55.1 percent) for 466 yards and two touchdowns. Most important, there were no interceptions.
When he replaced Osweiler in the third quarter with the Chargers winning 13-7 after Osweiler threw two interceptions, the Broncos seemed to settle down, and they won 27-20, which secured home-field advantage in the playoffs. That was a major factor in the conference title game win over New England.
While only a select few might truly know what Manning will do after this game, the persistent narrative this week will be the perfect ending of winning a Super Bowl and walking away, just as his general manager, John Elway, did after Denver’s Super Bowl XXXIII win over Atlanta in January 1999. Certainly, Manning has contemplated it, even if he won’t address it directly.
He did say, “It’s certainly helped me this year as well on focusing on this week and not assuming this is going to happen or that’s going to happen. Let’s focus on this week and the current circumstances and let’s just stay there. I think injuries, sometimes they have to occur in order to kind of reinforce that kind of philosophy and type of thinking.”
If Manning and his teammates can pull it off, it would in some way complete the perfect circle. That 1998 season was Elway’s last and Manning’s first.
That would mean the 2016 season would be the first one in the NFL since 1983 played without one of the two on an NFL roster.