Dan Graziano | ESPN.com
The greatest quarterback of all time was just beginning to celebrate one of his greatest victories and the drumbeat was already starting. After a week’s worth of discussion about the importance of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game to Peyton Manning‘s legacy, the storyline for the next two weeks begins to take shape: Manning must win the Super Bowl to cement that legacy and be considered the greatest ever.
We find ourselves, sadly, in the nothing’s-ever-good-enough era of sports. We talk more about who didn’t get into the Hall of Fame than about who did. We obsess over every officiating mistake. We wring our hands about a word like “legacy” when it comes to deciding which brilliant player is better than which other brilliant player and by how much. It’s paralysis by analysis, where the victim is our ability to enjoy.
So I’m here to say it right now, at the start of two weeks’ worth of Super Bowl hype: Manning doesn’t need to win this next game to be the greatest quarterback of all time. He already is. The results of one football game on Feb. 2, 2014, won’t change that. And we all need to do a better job of appreciating what we’re watching.
Honestly, what has happened to our sense of wonder? Creeping cynicism, over-analysis and a single-minded obsession with championships are robbing us of the ability to enjoy the beauty of our games played at their highest levels. The final score of this year’s Super Bowl won’t change the fact that my 10-year-old son, with whom I watched Sunday’s Manning-Brady game, someday can dazzle his own children and grandchildren by telling them he watched those guys play.
Watching Manning play quarterback is a joy and a privilege. At a time when passing-game concepts are soaring to complex new levels, Manning maintains an unprecedented, unparalleled mastery of his offense. There’s no other quarterback who carries the same level of pre-snap responsibility and handles it so deftly.
Combine that with his work ethic, his physical gifts, his intelligence and (most critically) his ability to apply that intelligence in the most chaotic moments, and you check all of the boxes for quarterback greatness. Coaches would teach their young quarterbacks to play the game the way Manning does except for one small problem — they can’t. He is unique in his combination of abilities. And quite honestly, his accomplishments reflect that.
Those do include a Super Bowl title, which used to be enough to certify all-time greatness, but these days, apparently one isn’t enough. Manning’s punishment for leading his teams to 13 postseasons is having to answer for why he hasn’t won more titles — as though he could will himself three more Lombardi trophies the way he checks to a run play or draws a defense offside.
We’ve reached the point at which we’ve somehow put way too much importance on this one game while also underestimating how much goes into trying to win it. It’s lunacy, and it’s time to step back from the edge.
Colin Kaepernick‘s fourth-quarter turnovers Sunday were regrettable, but they don’t change the fact he was utterly jaw-dropping for the first three quarters. They don’t remove our ability to wonder at what he can become with Jim Harbaugh coaching him and all of that talent around him in San Francisco.
Tom Brady was outmanned and outplayed by Manning on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun to watch him work that Patriots offense down the field late and make everybody wonder if one of the all-time greats was about to add to his own “legacy” of brilliance.
Watching sports is supposed to be fun, and the greatest fun of it is watching tremendous athletes stretch our definition of what’s possible. Manning delivers that for us — all of the time and on myriad levels. He’s the third quarterback to go to the Super Bowl with two different teams, and if he wins, he’ll be the first to win it with two different teams. If that’s not a Super Bowl-specific example of individual greatness in a team sport, it’s hard to imagine what is.
But the point is that the Super Bowl isn’t the be-all, end-all of legacy definition. If he loses this game, that won’t lessen anything about Manning. It won’t change the fact he elevated the Indianapolis Colts into one of the league’s elite franchises, set countless records, came back from four neck surgeries to break a lot of those same records, is in the playoffs every season and gives whatever team he’s on the chance to call itself the best in the league, every week and every season.
It won’t change the fact he’s taken the quarterback position to a clinical place no one else ever has. It won’t change what an absolute pleasure it is to watch him play, or the extent to which we should remind ourselves to enjoy something special while we still have it.
Peyton Manning is a true master at work in our time — the best to ever do what he’s done. The result of one football game can’t possibly change that. And if you think it can, you’re missing the point. Not to mention the fun.
- Joined ESPN in 2011
- New Jersey native and author of two published novels