Poor game seals Manning’s season but not debate on legacy

The New York TimesFebruary 2, 2014 

Super Bowl Football

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning walks off the field after the Broncos lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football game Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. The Seahawks won 43-8.

CHRIS O'MEARA — ASSOCIATED PRESS

— The Seattle Seahawks ripped out the feel-good ending to Peyton Manning’s storybook season. Tore the final pages to shreds. Burned them in the fire. Left Manning and his Denver Broncos looking like outdated print in a digital world.

In the football home of his brother Eli, Manning came to play with the house money he had earned as a 37-year-old who two years ago didn’t know if he would play again. He came in search of a second Super Bowl title and heightened validation of eternal greatness. He wound up on the wrong end of an embarrassing beatdown, making no statement for the ages, only looking rather aged.

But even though the Seahawks buried the Broncos, 43-8, on Sunday at MetLife Stadium in Super Bowl XLVIII, Manning’s failing to maximize his credentials for others to assess should have been beside the point. The very best athletes cannot afford to make legacy a game-day obsession. However difficult to do in a communications world of 140-character synopses, athletes like Manning must eventually get to a place where they can make their own case for career fulfillment.

Watching Manning have a snap sail past him on the game’s first play for a safety, throw passes that were hurried and tipped and picked off and jog off the field with his chin sinking to the turf, you wondered if he could leave such a lasting image on the biggest football stage.

“We needed to play really well to win,” Manning said after the game. “We didn’t come close.”

For two weeks, he sidestepped variations on the question of what winning — or failing to win — a second Super Bowl title would mean in the grand scheme of things. Would he retire with a victory? Would he consider his place secured as one of the unquestioned greats?

During one interview, he was even asked to name his three greatest quarterbacks, a question he handled with the agility he has never quite had when pressured in the pocket.

“I don’t have a list,” he said. “I think I could describe the perfect quarterback. Take a little piece of everybody. Take John Elway’s arm, Dan Marino’s release, maybe Troy Aikman’s drop-back, Brett Favre’s scrambling ability, Joe Montana’s two-minute poise and, naturally, my speed.”

He drew laughter with the punch line. But he cleverly managed to make himself part of the conversation. For whatever it’s worth, which is not much.

However unavoidable, it is a fool’s errand, an argument without end, to compare the best players from different eras, teams, styles and situations. But to be fair to the elusive and creative Russell Wilson, Manning wasn’t even close to being best quarterback on the field Sunday.

Big as it was, it was still one game. One game in what is no doubt the twilight — if not the actual end — of a 16-year career. One game in which Denver’s Trindon Holliday foolishly ran the opening kickoff out from deep in the end zone and was tackled at the 14, setting up the mistimed snap from the center, Manny Ramirez. One game in which the Broncos were out-coached, outhit and outperformed in every meaningful phase.

Did Manning do anything to slow the Seattle locomotive? Despite a Super Bowl-record 34 completions, he did not. But should this dismal night negate the record fifth Most Valuable Player award Manning picked up on Saturday night? The comeback from serious neck surgery that has produced two playoff seasons in Denver and the franchise’s first Super Bowl since John Elway bowed out with his repeat victory 16 years ago?

Elway, the Broncos’ executive vice president for football operations, brought Manning to Denver after 14 years in Indianapolis, where Manning won the Super Bowl in 2006. There, he will forever be an icon. In Denver, he will ultimately be remembered as Elway’s luxury rental.

If anyone’s legacy was in position to reach a new, exalted level on Sunday — certainly in the Mile High City — it was Elway’s, not Manning’s.

Elway took the shot with Manning when no one knew what, if anything, he had left after a full year off. Who even knew how much Manning was even willing to risk after so many years?

During Super Bowl week, he talked about how he and Eli’s necks were checked for genetic abnormality after their brother Cooper’s career ended with injuries. How the doctor said they weren’t “picture perfect” but were sturdy enough to play on.

How during his year off in Indianapolis, he thought: “Maybe I had been on borrowed time this entire time. If that was going to be the end of it because of a neck injury, I really, believe it or not, had a peace about it.”

It was about the time of the Super Bowl two years ago — Eli winning his second at Peyton’s house, Lucas Oil Stadium — when Peyton received clearance to play, to see what he had left.

There were times when he couldn’t answer the question, when progress was nonexistent or fretfully slow. He finally chose Denver, in part because it was Elway who believed he could still be a Super Bowl quarterback.

Coming to the stadium off Exit 16W in Career Year 16 and 16 years after Elway’s triumphant finish made it all seem like a storybook in search of an ending. In Eli’s home, Peyton had his chance to pull even with Eli in the family Super Bowl standings.

That, in truth, was the only quantifiable achievement available to Peyton Manning on Sunday night.

The weather was good for the older quarterback, who admittedly throws imperfect spirals — or ducks, as Richard Sherman derided them. But the kickoff happened, the bad snap, a poor throw for an interception, a hit on another throw that became a demoralizing pick-6.

If there was a fitting headline to write for this game, it was this: Seattle Slew. There would be no Sweet 16s for Manning and Elway to celebrate at Exit 16W. There would be little trace of the Manning that the legacy shapers were looking for, or demanding.

“It’s a difficult pill to swallow,” he said. “But you have to get over it, process it.”

He’ll have to live with the result and the reactions to his playoff record, which fell to 11-12. But there must be a long view here, too. Given where he was two years ago, bet on Manning coming to the conclusion that it was better to have been here than to have not come back at all.

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