“Nothing like watching the greatest of all time play. Congrats Peyton.”
— Tiger Woods’ tweet Jan. 19.
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NEW YORK — There is a level of sports, a crazy-high level of sports, that Tiger Woods and only a handful of people on earth understand. With Tiger, he probably reached that level in the mid-2000s. That was when it seemed like he defeated the game of golf.
That’s a different thing from what we often talk about. There’s always a “best in the world” in sports, and there is usually someone competing for “best ever in sports.” But Woods achieved something even higher than that.
He made the game of golf look too easy.
Maybe it can be explained this way: Every sport has its limits. We don’t think of it like that — sports are sports, right? But there’s a reason rims are 10 feet high and football fields are 120 yards long and the bases are 90 feet apart: These are big enough and high enough and long enough to contain our talents. But if suddenly someone was SO FAST that he could hit a routine ground ball to short and beat it out every time, he will have broken the game.
Here’s a weird and extreme example that might make the point better: What would happen if Superman played pro football? He would break the game. It would not be possible for people to tackle the Man of Steel, and even if they somehow could, he would just fly over them. He would score a touchdown every time and injure whoever had the ball every time, and the game would be broken.
Such supermen have come along every now and again and forced rule changes or extreme strategic maneuvers. Wilt Chamberlain was such an unprecedented force that the NBA was forced to widen the lane and invent something called offensive goaltending, and even change the free throw rules, because he could essentially jump from the free throw line and drop the ball in the basket. Barry Bonds at his bulked-up peak was so good that managers simply intentionally walked him one out of every five times he came to the plate. Lawrence Taylor was such an unblockable pass rusher that NFL teams started paying gargantuan sums to giant left tackles who could move like sports utility vehicles.
And sometimes, even these things are not enough to prevent a great athlete from overwhelming the sport itself. It wasn’t just, for instance, that Tiger Woods won or finished second in 19 of 36 events in 2005-06 and won half the major championships. No, more, he seemed to have conquered a game that defies consistency. There seemed no danger spot he could not make par from, no important putt he could not sink, no pressure he could not overcome. All of the trappings of golf that haunt and torment golfers did not seem to apply to him. Golf courses — even revered Augusta National — were lengthened and tricked up, at least in part to keep Woods from making a mockery of them.
You watched Tiger Woods play golf and you could not help but think: “Man, that game is too easy.”
And that’s where Peyton Manning is now as a quarterback The game now seems too easy when he plays.
Millions of accolades have already been thrown at Peyton Manning and this week leading up to the Super Bowl there will be at least a million more. Well, he did set the NFL record for passing yards (5,477) and he shattered the record for touchdown passes (55). The career numbers are beyond staggering. If he plays next year — and there seems every indication he will (how can he step down, playing the way he is now?) — he will pass Brett Favre for most touchdown passes, and he will do it in 50-plus fewer games. Every meaningful record is well within his reach if he wants them — most completions, most passing yards, highest passer rating, whatever he wants. There has never been a quarterback who put up numbers quite the way Peyton Manning has in his career.
With Manning, like with Woods, there seems something bigger here in the extraordinary twilight of his career. Take his impossibly brilliant AFC Championship Game performance against New England — the game that inspired Tiger Woods to again call him the greatest of all time. Manning completed 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns. Those are absurd numbers, almost unparalleled in the championship game history.
But what made it all the more remarkable is that after the game, many people who were watching weren’t even sure Manning had played all that well. He didn’t make many spectacular throws. He didn’t elude a buzzing pass rush, and he didn’t hit a pass of 40 yards or longer. “Receivers were open all over the field,” you heard again and again in the moments after the game, and it was true, and it is the whole point.
Let’s face it: Receivers are USUALLY open somewhere on the field, especially with the way penalties are generally called (that is, lots of holding and pass-interference penalties against the defense but few against the offense for setting picks). How many times have you watched an NFL game and heard an announcer during a series of replays say, “See there’s nobody open,” only the replays actually show receivers open?
Open receivers are not usually the problem. The problem is that it is supposed to be hard — under the pressure and time constraints and the fog of complicated defenses — to find those open receivers and then throw passes that they can catch.
Peyton Manning at this point in his career has broken the code. He has reached some kind of mountaintop. He was a great quarterback before he got hurt, of course, but now he’s more Svengali than quarterback. He can unscramble any defense, can run though his options impossibly fast, can yell “Omaha! Omaha!” twelve times and then drop back and pinpoint the open receiver and get him the ball in stride every time. He’s like a Jedi. He should be playing in robes.
This level of sport is so rare, I think, because it’s rare that the body and mind reach their peak together. How many times have you heard an athlete say: “I know so much more about the game now; I wish I knew this when I was younger”? Muhammad Ali was a physical force of nature when he was young, and he was a genius of boxing when he was old. But he was never both at the same time (or he might have been, but it was while serving his ban for refusing to go to Vietnam). Steve Carlton felt sure that he understood the art of pitching better at the end, when he could no longer pitch — that is probably why he kept signing on with team after team.
Tom Watson will say that he won golf tournaments as a young man on guts and athleticism and moxie and a striking ability to make putts, but he knows way more about how to swing a golf club now. “If I knew then what I know now,” he will begin, like so many others at the end of their careers.
Manning’s athleticism is diminished, no question. He could never run especially well, and now he’s all but helpless back there — his minus-31 yards rushing this year were the fewest rushing yards by any player in 40 years. His arm, as has been much discussed all year, is not what it used to be either. He will unleash astonishing flutter balls from time to time.
But he still has enough left in his arm and flawless form to make the throws. He still knows how to make room for himself to throw the passes. And though teams will put entire committees of coaches in a room and ask them to design defenses to can confuse him, this no long seems viable. He’s like Deep Blue, the chess-playing IBM computer, who is not only two steps ahead of you NOW but is also two steps ahead of wherever you were planning on going.
Greg Maddux, for a time, reached this level where he made the game look too easy. He would throw fastballs that bored radar guns, and after games frustrated batters would complain to each other that they SHOULD HAVE HIT HIM and they were SO CLOSE.
Wayne Gretzky, for a time, reached that level where he made the game look too easy. He would stand behind the goal — just stand there — and he would calculate the geometry only he understood and flip a pass to a charging sniper, who would find himself face-to-face with an open net.
LeBron James, sometimes, reaches this level where he is too big for some to defend, too fast for the others, too ingenious to double-team, too dominant not to, and you just watch and think, “There is literally no way to stop that guy.”
Lionel Messi — it just boggles the mind to watch him play soccer. He makes the hardest thing in sports — scoring a goal against a well-organized and talented defense — look as simple as using an iPad.
But Manning, right now, might be better at what he does than anyone else in sports is at what they do. Of course, he and the Broncos are about to face a great Seattle defense with a brilliant secondary and two weeks to prepare. The weather in New York figures to play a part in the story. And the single knock on Manning’s career has been his habit of failing in the biggest games.
If the Seahawks do bully and harass Manning into mistakes — or if nerves get the better of him — then many will write off or downplay the extraordinary genius he displayed this season. Such is the way of sports and big games.
But only a handful of athletes ever reach the heights Peytion Manning reached this year. People often ask Tiger Woods if he can ever be the same player he was in the mid-2000s. He always answers, “Yes” but I think that’s almost certain untrue and, anyway, there’s a more realistic way for him to answer. And that is: “Can anyone?”