By Jason Keidel
You laugh now, but there was a time, very recently, when it was a debate. There was a time, when we thought the kid had commandeered the throne. There was a time when, when we thought it was the dawn of one empire, and the dusk of another. Yes, believe it or not, just a year ago, the intelligentsia thought Eli Manning was better than his big brother – now the biggest, baddest brother on the planet.
Eli had been to two Super Bowls, won both, and was MVP of each. Meanwhile, Peyton limped from Indianapolis a broken man – both physically and metaphysically – fresh off surgery, rehab and into the bruised twilight of the quarterback in repose. We even felt sorry for him. He would be dubbed the best regular-season QB in history who stumbled in the postseason, football’s Greg Maddux. A compiler. A class act. A pizza pitchman. It was over.
A funny thing happened on the way to the gridiron morgue. Peyton Manning, in defiance of history and logic and precedent, somehow got better, added another gem on his bejeweled resume, another anecdote to his legend, and maybe another ring on his glaringly bare fingers.
And while Peyton slaps Playstation numbers up on the board, giving scoreboard keepers carpal tunnel syndrome, defensive coordinators indigestion, and geriatric athletes indecision, Eli is enduring an unexpected dip in production while his Giants have fallen historically in the standings.
Two years ago, if you’d said Peyton left the Colts and one brother was 0-4 and the other were 4-0, you would have nodded in solemn sympathy.
But here he is, his surreal statistics a testimony to his talent, temerity, and toughness. He is completing 75 percent of his passes, for 1,470 yards. 16 touchdowns. And, the most glaring number of his glowing career – 0 interceptions.
This isn’t supposed to happen to 27 year olds, much less 37, making reality most malleable for football’s first family. Turns out Archie didn’t just teach his boys about crossing routes and Tampa Two. He gave his kids character.
No matter your feeling about the Broncos, it’s hard not to watch the football geek under center and not smile. You get the feeling that Peyton was not only born to play football, he’s woefully unsuitable for anything else. Peyton is a football savant, and it’s altogether fitting and proper that he prosper under another NFL icon who turned Father Time into an ally at the same age: John Elway.
During his weekly spot with Mike Francesa, Troy Aikman lamented to the pillow-soft rulebook that puts a de facto red jersey on quarterbacks. While the game reigns supreme on Sundays – and now on Thursdays and Mondays and the occasional Saturday – Aikman worries that the game is dwindling on the grassroots, even prepubescent level, where concussions have trickled down to the preteen vernacular, as common as acne, braces, and suddenly deep voices. Aikman wasn’t trying to trivialize the elder Manning’s deeds, but he sounded sincerely concerned that the NFL has become a mutation of arena football.
Not to mention a new book, filled with biting reportage from the brothers who wrote Game of Shadows, and are now framing pro football’s crusade to hide concussions from the public. It just adds to the public, private and legal assault on the formerly teflon league that finds itself lost in the forest of its own hubris. In the parlance of the recent recession, the NFL finds itself too big to fail. Unless it collapses on itself.
But that’s to tackle later. Beyond history and precedent, there’s something to be said for the bionic, Manning gene, a physical allergy to weakness, and a Jurrasic predisposition for endurance.
Remember, this is a man whose career was not only in question, but also his post-NFL life. He had several neck fusion surgeries, which sounds daunting and haunting for anyone, much less someone whose job is to toss a football right before a behemoth slams him into the ground. Not only had no one returned to play after one operation, Peyton had three of them.
Then we had the deluge of read-option gazelles galloping down sidelines, which caught the league inert last year. On September 6 I wrote a column questioning the long-term prudence of having an exposed, wishbone quarterback, asserting that last year was more fad than final. Turns out I was right (he said oh so modestly). Peyton is making all evolutions and revolutions moot with his monster campaign.
ESPN ran a pastoral, documentary on the Mannings, a campy montage of memories and grainy, fractured footage of football’s Cosby Kids. It was hardly Woodward & Bernstein.
But what other kind of homage is there? Especially for America’s first family of football? Old man Archie suffered a brutal, bruising career in New Orleans, before a freckling of fans with paper bags stuffed over their heads. Now he’s getting payback through his offspring on offense.
Imagine two boys, two empires, and three rings and counting. Should the injury bug miss the Rocky Mountains, Peyton should moonwalk to MetLife in February. After that, it’s on him.
Eli will be watching, and waiting. Any other man would be done by now. But he’s not a man. He’s a Manning.
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