I've been watching Peyton Manning my whole life. Even before I really got into football around the age of 15 (I was a comic books child) I knew who he was. As I grew into the game and began to really understand it, I started to truly appreciate what I was seeing. I know there's the debate about who's the better QB of this era, Manning or Tom Brady, and for my money it's number 18. Now, I can't stand Brady, with his perfect hair and all-American looks and supermodel wife and endorsement deals and entire rule made just for him, so I might be a little biased. Plus, as a Texans fan, I've been able to see Manning play much more than Brady.
Of course, as a Texans fan, trying to appreciate Manning was not always easy. The juxtaposition of being a Houston fan and Manning enthusiast culminated the first time I attended a game at Reliant Stadium. It was Oct. 5, 2008 and the Texans lost 31-27. Well, saying they lost is the nicest way to put it. Actually, just by glancing at the score, one might think the Texans held their own against an opponent that usually wipes the floor with them. In reality, it was so much worse.
The home team had a 27-17 lead with less than four minutes remaining. My dad and I were high-fiving our surrounding supporters, and the stadium was going nuts. The Texans were driving and had just entered enemy territory. Victory looked all but guaranteed. Then this happened. The most infamous play in Texans history gave the Colts another chance at life and sucked the air out of Reliant. The momentum completely shifted. The rest, as they say, is history. Manning lead two scoring drives for the win, capping the worst collapse I've ever seen in the NFL outside of any Cowboys game. I'll never forget the long walk down the ramps to exit the stadium. It was as if we were witnessing the rise out of mediocrity first-hand, and our hopes came tumbling down the mountain to once again remind us we would forever be the Sisyphus of the National Football League. It sucked.
But you still couldn't hate Manning. I mean, he's an all-around great guy (yes, I'm aware that our perception of athletes is not always spot on, but work with me here), and that was one hell of a performance. He's a fierce competitor and great tactician. His no-huddle offense and play-calling at the line of scrimmage changed the way defenses approach playing him, sending a ripple effect throughout the game. As every analyst loves to say, the NFL is a predominantly passing league now, and you would be a fool to think Manning didn't play a role in that evolution.
Then he got hurt. And had four neck surgeries. And the team he spent his entire career with, the city that he transformed from a basketball hub to a football mainstay, cut him loose. (Manning's potential $28 million salary played a part, obviously, as did the general lack of talent on the Colts roster; they needed to rebuild.) After missing the entire 2011 season and signing with the Denver Broncos, people naturally questioned how much he had left in the tank. Can he rip it down field? Can he throw darts into tight zone coverage? Will he still have the same touch for back-shoulder throws that he and Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison made so famous during their reign? I think most of those questions have been answered.
While Manning clearly doesn't have the arm strength he once possessed, he's still the smartest QB in the game. Personally, I never understood the arm strength question. With so many offenses now using screens and crossing patterns and check downs, why does Manning have to be able to beat deep coverage every down? Look at the Patriots offense and how Brady plays. Everything is over the middle or an underneath route, and he puts up MVP-caliber numbers like clockwork. Low and behold, Manning has been great this year. Beside one awful quarter against the Falcons and a few ugly deep balls, he's been what he’s always been. The Monday night game against San Diego was a perfect example of this.
Awful special teams play, including one turnover courtesy of ex-Texan Trindon Holliday (irony's a bitch), helped put Denver in a 24-0 hole to start the second half. But Manning still won. Sure, he used a little help from Chargers QB Philip Rivers, who is the idea of the Rosencopter collapse encompassed into one man. But Manning still won.
There's one play that really stuck out to me during this game. Second quarter, 8:41 on the clock, Broncos have the ball on their own 5-yard line. Three receivers, one tight end, one running back. Manning goes into a three-step drop, pump-fakes to the right, looks left, and checks the ball down out in the flat for a nine-yard gain. Seems simple enough, but it really isn't. Manning never flinched as the pocket closed. He kept his eyes down field and kept his body fluid. He made his first read, second read, and then, without really even looking, threw to his last option for a (generous) first down. The guy's a machine. As Jon Gruden called after it happened, Manning knows where all 22 players are and where his guys are going. He’s the best.
I’ll miss Manning when he’s retired. I missed him in 2011. Any sport is always better when its top players are going strong. They enhance the game. I’m thrilled to be an NFL fan while so many legends are still playing out their careers. But this one guy in particular will always have a special place in the part of my sports fan heart. He’s the guy I’ll talk to my grand-kids about one day, to tell them I was there when he sent an entire stadium of people home in stunned silence. For me, there’s nothing better than football and Peyton Manning (and tapenade).
Originally written for my recently started blog http://footnoteswithendnotes.blogspot.com/ but I figured you guys and gals might enjoy it too.