NEW YORK – Peyton Manning’s been in the NFL for 16 seasons. The idea that his “legacy” is at stake on Groundhog Day in New Jersey is absurd.
Did Shakespeare have the London media finger-wagging at him when Hamlet opened in 1606? Will was 23 plays deep and had written Macbeth and King Lear by that point. If you didn’t know he was the embodiment of a franchise bard by then, you were beyond help.
My reality is this: If the Broncos lose and Manning plays poorly, it shouldn’t dent his body of work any more than the AFC Championship dented Tom Brady’s.
That Brady got the duct-taped Patriots to the AFC Championship told you all you needed to know about his greatness.
That Manning has brought the Broncos to a Super Bowl two years after doctors sawed into his neck four times is good enough for me. The Indianapolis Colts were completely Manning. He won a Super Bowl with them in 2006 and got them to another in 2010. Now, in two seasons with the Broncos he’s installed his offense, Denver has gone 28-7 and Manning has thrown 99 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. He’s back in the Super Bowl.
The way Manning conquered the trials he went through are more important to his legacy than what will happen at MetLife Stadium.
“It has been a long, hard road,” Bill Polian told me this week.
Polian, the former Colts’ president who drafted Manning with the first overall pick in 1998 and was with him until Indy released Manning in March 2012, reflected on what Manning looked like in October of 2011 after neck fusion surgery.
“If you had seen him in the weight room six or eight weeks post-surgery, you would never have believed he could ever come back,” Polian testified. “He was so atrophied on the right hand side that it looked like two different people. It was a person who had a fully-developed, professional athlete’s body on the left-hand side and a person who’d never worked out on the right hand side. There was no muscle tone, there was no pec, there was no biceps. There was a long road ahead but he did it.”
The physical aspect was the most significant. The difficulty of leaving the safe womb of Indianapolis was a challenge as well.
“He did not want to leave Indianapolis,” said Polian. “He did not want to leave. He wanted to be Derek Jeter. He wanted to finish his career in blue and white. Because he’s such a student of NFL history and sports history, he wanted to finish with one team. It wasn’t to be. He got through it but it was hard.
“I teared up (at the final press conference with the Colts),” Polian acknowledged. “It was the end of a tremendous era. And more than anything else, it represented this guy who’d done everything right over the course of his career and Lady Luck had thrown him a curve and now he’s out on his own, out on the street. Not for long, but he was. But with that indomitable will, he put it aside and said, ‘OK, I’m starting over again.’"
Peyton Manning isn’t as physically talented as he was in Indianapolis. Peyton Manning is better than he’s ever been. While Manning’s brilliant mind would sometimes short-circuit in Indy when the stakes got high and the looks got confusing, the game has now slowed to a crawl for him. He toys with defenses and junkballs his way past some of the planet’s most imposing athletes.
“You can’t show him anything he hasn’t seen,” said Polian. "I think he’s better (than 2006 when Manning won his only Super Bowl) and I don’t think the supporting cast (in Denver) is as good. There’s no Marvin (Harrison). And I don’t think the tight end (Julius Thomas) has quite become Dallas (Clark), though he may. Wes (Welker) and Brandon (Stokley) are about even and I don’t think there’s a Reggie (Wayne) quite honestly, although (Eric) Decker is a helluva player. There is no Edgerrin James and there is no Dominic Rhodes. The two guys (Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball) are try-hard guys but there not nearly as talented as those two. (Peyton’s) making up for that with savvy, which maybe he didn’t have in 2006.”
It’s good Polian brought that up. Since we’re on the subject of legacy, ignoring the flaws in Manning’s body of work pre-Denver is dishonest.
In his first three playoff games – all losses – Manning was individually awful (50 for 105, 1 TD, 2 picks). In 2003, he shook the playoff malaise for two games and then – after having thrown eight touchdowns and no picks in two games – melted down in New England. Getting to the Super Bowl was a Herculean task for Manning. But winning it with the Colts to cap the 2006 season, Polian said, allowed Manning to enter a different stage.
“He has the benefit of having this,” Polian said, holding up his hand to display the Colts’ 2006 Super Bowl ring. “That takes a big load off your shoulders. Whatever happens on Sunday, he’s got it. He won it. I think that probably helps to some degree and he knows he’s in the home stretch.”
The holes in Manning’s resume when he left Indianapolis have been spackled over in Denver. Misgivings about Peyton as a mere compiler of stats who was iffy when the chips were down have been shouted down by the fact that he’s done something the guys on my personal quarterbacking Mt. Rushmore did not. Montana, Brady and Elway didn’t go through what Manning did to get where he is today. They didn’t have to leave the team that birthed them. Manning did. And he’s been even better here and now.
“He’s a friend,” said Polian. “He’s a valued friend and you root for your friends and it’s a friendship that goes back 17 years. I’m thrilled for him. I’m just overjoyed for the kind of year that he’s had and I’m hoping that there’s a happy ending. As you well know, there are very few happy endings in the NFL. I hope this is one of them.”
Tom E. Curran is the Patriots Insider for CSN New England. Follow him on Twitter @tomecurran.