Why Peyton Manning is undeniably one of the greatest quarterbacks ever
If a mad scientist was building a perfect quarterback, Peyton Manning's brain would be the only place to start. Here's what set one of the greatest to every play apart from his peers.
It was 13 years ago, but the image is still fresh in my mind.
On a hot, torrid Louisiana summer day, with humidity so thick you could cut through it with a butter knife, I remember rolling up to the field at Southeastern Louisiana University in my air-conditioned rental car and seeing three men going through quarterback drills under the hot sun.
As I got closer to the field, with artificial turf so hot it made you feel like one of those crawfish in a boiling pot they love so much in that area, I made out who these three men were running drill after drill with almost no rest.
One was Philip Rivers, a hotshot from North Carolina State headed to the NFL. The other two were the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli. They went through an hour of intense drills directed, of course, by Peyton, leading the younger passers with his usual style.
It was the early years of what has become a summer phenomenon in Louisiana, the Manning Passing Academy, and I was there to do a story on Peyton Manning. I didn't know him, and never really talked much with him before that day.
But after 30 minutes speaking with him in a small, outdated dorm room, where he and his family slept in those days of the camp, I left thinking this was a special football player, one who loved the details of the game, the nuances of playing the position, with a desire to be great. We were two guys talking ball, something Manning loves to do.
As Manning leaves the game now, announcing his retirement this week, I can't help but think back to that day when we were two guys talking football like any two of you in your local pub. He picked my brain that day as much as I picked his, which he always did when we talked. He had an insatiable appetite for football information.
That's part of what made him great. That's why he's one of the five best quarterbacks to play the game. He's right there with Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino and John Elway at the top. Picking them one thru five or six is tough to do. But a case for Manning in that five is easy to make.
Look at the numbers, and now look at his two rings.
Over the years, some have called me a Manning apologist, but it was just an appreciation for greatness, an appreciation for a player who always seemed to be in the crosshairs of a media storm.
That's on the field, not this latest off-field controversy that involves a 20-year-old incident from his college days at Tennessee. Nobody truly knows what happened that day back then, and until we do it's not right to judge either him or the alleged victim. That will play out, and we might eventually know the truth. The court of Twitter has already lit Manning up, even without all he facts. But that's for another day.
This is about him as a football player, where even on the field he's always taken a ton of heat for a player of his stature. For some strange reason, the appreciation of his greatness has always been met with resistance. We expect that from New England, but from other spots?
I can remember the early years of his success when opposing players would tell me they hated Peyton Manning.
"Why is that?" I would ask.
"I don't know, I just do," was often the response.
Was it the way he orchestrated the offense at the line of scrimmage? Was it the Manning name? Was it the in-game theatrics?
Nobody really gave me a good reason. But one thing I know is that when Manning went to the Pro Bowl, I was told players flocked to him. He was treated as royalty. That's the ultimate compliment.
There has always been the love-hate relationship with Manning. He was like the New York Yankees, the Boston Celtics, Notre Dame football. There was no in-between.
When he had his share of playoff failures, and there were many, you could feel the delight being felt by the haters. When it took him until the 2006 season to win his first Super Bowl, the talk was what took him so long? Then it was he didn't do much to win that game.
They hated because they knew they were watching greatness. Jealousy was a close cousin of hate in this case.
Peyton Manning might not be the best quarterback of all-time, but there is no doubt he's in the conversation. He's certainly the greatest regular-season quarterback we've ever seen; his numbers speaking for themselves.
There has been no better weapon in the NFL in the past 17 years than Peyton Manning's brain. You can have the legs of the great runners, or the big arms of the power passers, or the ballerina moves of the great receivers, or the brute power of a tight end like Gronk. Give me Manning's brain and I will play you every single Sunday.
The detail that went into his preparation showed up on the field is like none other. As defensive coordinators have said to me: He knew what we were doing before we did.
Manning also knew every bit of minutiae involving his opponent. I remember a Colts game against Denver where the Broncos had a ton of injuries in the secondary. They activated a player from the practice squad late in the week, a player few knew much about. After the game, Manning knew all about him. He talked about why he attacked that player. Those are the little things that made him different.
When he suffered the neck injury in 2011, and it looked like his career was over, it appeared he would leave the game with one Super Bowl ring and questions about whether he was one of the NFL's great big-game chokers.
In typical Manning fashion, he fought through a litany of problems, including being unable to even throw the ball 10 yards at one point, to return to the field with the Denver Broncos and put up more unreal numbers. But when he lost in the playoffs in 2012 as the top seed to Baltimore, and then was blown out in the Super Bowl the next year by Seattle and lost at home to Indianapolis in 2014, they called him the big-game loser again.
That's what made 2015 so special. Fighting through a foot injury that forced him to miss six games, Manning came back to the Broncos late in the season as a game manager, a supporting actor to the dominant defense now playing the lead role.
And he won his second ring. The irony is that it wasn't because of him. Yet that second ring validates his greatness to some. What it does for me is tell us once again that rings can be overrated when evaluating quarterbacks.
Manning was so great for so many years when he didn't win, yet he was a shell of himself when he did win his second one. Even when he played that supporting role, there were moments of Manning greatness.
Like in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots when he identified the coverage, knew he would have Owen Daniels on a linebacker with no safety help, and hit Daniels for a touchdown. Like many of his throws, the pass wobbled a bit, but that didn't matter. The play was made pre-snap, like so many of his other touchdown throws and yards-producing passes.
Nobody -- and I mean nobody -- could compete with Manning when it came to the pre-snap side of game. It's why this gangly, slow-moving, decent-armed quarterback became one of the NFL's best.
He might not have the rings of Brady or Montana, but there is no denying what he's accomplished. Even the diehard rippers have to know deep down he was special. I bet even if you put those Patriots fans to a lie detector test, they would agree as well.
The NFL is going to miss Peyton Manning. I think he'll ably move into a prominent role somewhere in the front office. As good as John Elway has been making the football decisions for the Denver Broncos, Manning will be right there with him. He knows the league and the players like no other player I've ever encountered.
Just like that day talking ball 13 years ago in that Spartan dorm room, I will miss talking ball with Peyton Manning, a quarterback who, for some reason, became the piñata for a legion of misguided football fans who will one day realize just how good he was taking those snaps under center.
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