One lousy night won't define Manning's career

It started with a bad snap, as the ball sailed over Peyton Manning's head and wound up as a safety, giving Seattle a 2-0 lead just 12 seconds into the game.
It started with a bad snap, as the ball sailed over Peyton Manning's head and wound up as a safety, giving Seattle a 2-0 lead just 12 seconds into the game. (KEVIN C. COX / Getty Images)
Posted: February 04, 2014

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The myopia of the moment suggests that Peyton Manning is a choker and nothing more, and in the hard glare of what happened here Sunday in Super Bowl XLVIII, it is indeed difficult to see anything beyond what's right in front of us: a 43-8 Seattle Seahawks victory and, after his finest season, the worst night of Manning's football life.

Here he was, with an opportunity to win a second Super Bowl, to solidify himself as the greatest quarterback of not just his generation but any before his. And as the Denver Broncos' offensive line collapsed against a defense faster and fiercer than any the AFC had presented this season, Manning crumbled, too.

He had compiled statistics so otherworldly during the regular season - 5,477 passing yards, 55 touchdowns, a 68.3 completion percentage - and had played so well in besting his nemeses, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, in the AFC championship game. Sunday was supposed to be a coronation. Sunday was a nightmare. Sunday will obscure everything about Peyton Manning. It shouldn't, but it will.

Again, that lack of perspective is understandable. This game was that bad, for Manning and his teammates. The Broncos' first snap zipped past Manning's right ear and into the end zone for a safety. He overthrew tight end Julius Thomas while moonwalking to avoid a blitz; Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor intercepted the pass. Later, Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril smacked Manning in the arm just as Manning was releasing the football. It fluttered into the waiting arms of linebacker Malcolm Smith, who returned it 69 yards for a touchdown.

In perhaps the most poignant scene of the night, Manning failed to see Wes Welker standing wide open late in the first half. He threw toward another receiver. The pass was incomplete. Welker stood there alone, his arms raised in a what-about-me semicircle, as if Manning were a callow rookie who'd made the wrong read on what should have been an easy touchdown.

So yes, Manning was jittery and jumpy, and he made enough sad faces to inspire social-media memes from now until the start of the 22d century, and any critics of his who want to chew on his bones can have at him. He and his "legacy" will be a debate topic on ESPN, on talk-radio stations, and in man caves around the country for months to come, because this is who we are now - in sports, in politics, in culture. The bad day has been replaced by the career-defining 24 hours. Every game, every speech, every Twitter post must have significance, has to represent something worth fighting over, for if it didn't, what would we have to talk about?

Sorry, but that can be a silly way to live, and it's a silly way to judge a quarterback who already had won a championship, who at his best remains a pure pleasure to watch, and who came back from four neck surgeries to lead his team back to the Super Bowl when he was 37 years old. Someone asked Manning after the game if the loss was embarrassing to him. "The word embarrassing is insulting, to be honest," Manning replied, and he was right to deliver his answer like a barb. That's not missing the forest for the trees. That's missing the forest for the sickly leaf on the bottom branch.

Consider: Manning was asked last week whether that succession of neck surgeries - which forced him to miss an entire season and threatened his livelihood - had scared him at all.

"I thought maybe I had been on borrowed time this entire time," he said. "I was fortunate to have 20 years of health to play football. 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. I've had this unbelievable string of health to play 20 years of football - high school, college, and pro ball - and I was fortunate for that.

"Once I had the surgery and went to the doctors for the checkups . . . the doctor said, 'Your neck is secure.' He said, 'I'd let you play Super Bowl Sunday, and if you were my own son, I'd let you play.' As soon as the doctor told me that, that was the end of it for me on the neck discussion. Now, it was simply a matter of performance. Could I get my strength back to play quarterback at the level I thought a team deserved?"

He did, and it was always going to be the greater achievement for him, no matter what the outcome Sunday at MetLife Stadium turned out to be. Yes, from start to finish, Super Bowl XLVIII was a horror show for Peyton Manning. No one would deny that. So call him a choker. Define him by this one bad night if you wish. I choose not to.


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