By Jason Keidel
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Has anyone ever looked more like a quarterback? The lean frame. Knees bulging with braces. His eternal limp and bumpy, boxer’s nose.
Peyton Manning wasn’t a member of the new-world athletes who were equal parts passer and sprinter, who could dash from the pocket and gash secondaries. You could time his 40 with a sundial.
Yet Manning’s bio now reads like a roll call to Canton. There aren’t enough commas or characters in a computer to tally his titanic numbers. But he’s hardly a compiler. What this last run to the Super Bowl has done — more than put a cherry on his epic Sundays — is finally brand him what he truly is — a winner.
Though Manning just retired, his legacy will long outlive his career. And while there seems to be interchangeable parts among the five-best quarterbacks who ever lived, no one doubts that he is one of them.
Maybe millennials don’t remember this, but Manning wasn’t even assured a top spot in the NFL Draft. There was ample anxiety among pundits whether to take Manning or Ryan Leaf. Similarly talented but way more tormented, Leaf was laughed out of the league because of personal demons. But back in 1998, Leaf was graded just as high. Many quarterbacks and athletes of similar vintage watched Manning outwork and outlast them on their way to the Hall of Fame, Manning’s next stop in pro football.
Manning was long branded a loser because he didn’t enjoy Tom Brady’s glittering stack of Lombardi Trophies. Every autumn he was racking up TDs and MVPs, the world lamented yet another forlorn trip to the playoffs. We remembered his postseason record even better than his passing records.
We apply such rigid metrics to quarterbacks, it became routine to assert that Manning was this era’s Dan Marino, while Brady — the kid from Northern California and Manning’s friend and eternal, on-field tormentor — was Joe Montana. Every time Manning was thwarted in January, we regarded him as a circus act of precision passing who didn’t have either the guts or guile to become a playoff immortal.
If we wanted a winner, then just visit your friend in Foxborough, where the Patriot Way was lined with Lombardi Trophies. Brady was seen as the anti-Manning, allergic to attention and records. The Patriots adhered to Don Shula’s credo: the only stat that matters is the scoreboard.
So it’s the sweetest of ironies that Manning leaves the game as the only quarterback to win a Super Bowl as the starting QB with different teams. And, as if ordained, he beat Brady in his swan song.
Manning is also the only QB to win NFL MVP awards with multiple teams. He’s got more total yards and touchdowns than anyone. And more of each in a single season than anyone. Throw a dart at the archives, and you’ll find Peyton Manning.
Over the years, as he toppled records, Manning became the equal parts salesman and signal-caller, his visage splashed across every medium. He seemed to be on TV even more to sell you insurance than to find the end zone.
But now no commercial is needed for us to see that Manning is more than a pitchman. He’s an icon, an immortal, a member of NFL’s Mount Rushmore.
Locally, it became a running mantra that Eli Manning was ultimately better than his heralded elder. Eli had never lost a Super Bowl and beat Brady in both his trips there. It was a silly argument that had a modicum of merit because we only count “chips” and give no regard to the journey.
But now we can forever end the debate about the best Manning ever to play the position, including their hardscrabble old man, Archie, who endured a tortuous career for the bottom-feeding Saints during their nadir. It’s probably not a coincidence that the two most noble, self-effacing and enduring QBs came from the same seed. If you don’t already know, a nod to Archie is in order.
Maybe Peyton Manning isn’t the best QB ever, but he’s close. A lot closer than we ever allowed him. But no matter his place in the rungs of history, he’s finally and forever the one thing we never allowed him — a winner.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel