‘The Curious Case Of Peyton Manning’ … by THE SPORTS PHILOSOPHER, Brad Eastland

January 14, 2013
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Peyton Manning.

Winston Churchill wudda loved the guy.

England’s World War Two prime minister once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Indeed.   But he just as easily could have been describing the enduring riddle that is Peyton Manning.  (well, if the portly PM hadn’t died about fifty years ago, that is….uh, PM as in Prime Minister, not Peyton Manning.

Always good for a witty quote, I wonder what ‘Old Winnie’ would have said about Manning’s enigmatic performance against the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Even THIS guy would struggle to understand Peyton Manning.

Even THIS guy would struggle to understand Peyton Manning.

Here’s the deal with Manning: During the regular season, he might be the greatest quarterback of all time.   The evidence is overwhelming.   Four league MVP trophies, the most ever.   Over 420 touchdown passes, the 2nd-most ever.  The most seasons leading a team to twelve or more victories.   And all of it orchestrated by the man with the biggest head containing the biggest brain of any QB who ever called a brilliant audible at the line of scrimmage….

Manning—famous for being calm, cool, clutch, and confident—has always been the one quarterback more likely to beat you with his head than his arm.   Manning’s brain.   Manning’s big fat computerized unfair brain.   The unfair advantage.

So then why does he suck so bad in the playoffs?

Make no mistake, he does.   Always has.   And THAT is the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma which will frustrate NFL historians (like me) forever.

Great quarterbacks are supposed to be at their best in the playoffs.   When the lights are the brightest and the pressure weighs on you like Rosie O’Donnell was sitting on your chest, that’s when the great quarterbacks rise to the challenge and yank victory from the hands of lesser men….or however the saying goes.   It’s always been that way.   It’s how you can tell if a great quarterback really is a great quarterback.   Joe Montana, the best quarterback of my lifetime, was 16 and 7 in the playoffs, and won all four of the Super Bowl games he started.   Tom Brady, perhaps the best of this current era, is 17 and 6 in games that count.   Kurt Warner was 9 and 4.   Ben Roethlisberger is 10 and 4.   Troy Aikman was 11 and 4.   Johnny Unitas himself—the greatest QB in the pre-Montana era—won 6 playoff games and only lost twice.   Elway was 14 and 7, Staubach 11 and 6, Bradshaw 14 and 5, the list goes on.   Bart Starr, the all-time playoff winning percentage leader, was 9 and 1.   That’s right.   He lost ONE playoff game in his entire career, en route to gobbling up five NFL titles for the Green Bay Packers.   Yes, when the lights are the brightest and the pressure weighs the heaviest, the best QBs rise to the top.   It’s what makes a good quarterback great.

And Peyton Manning?

He’s 9 and 11.

Uh-huh.   He has lost more playoff games than he has won.

And his “performance” in Saturday’s ghastly, team-wide, choke of chokes loss to the Baltimore Ravens, arguably, was his worst post-season performance yet.   He threw two interceptions.   One of them was returned for a touchdown, the other one gift-wrapped the game to Baltimore in overtime.    He also lost a fumble.   He was sacked several times when he literally froze with indecision and allowed the rush to close in.   He threw several poor passes.   He only averaged six yards per pass attempt, which never happens to him during the regular season.   And what was probably most surprising, he totally mismanaged the clock at the end of the 1st half, throwing two incomplete passes with 1:20 left on the clock rather than running the ball at least once to burn that clock, which led to John Fox making the first of several bad, choking decisions, namely to go for a nearly impossible 52-yard field goal in the frigid cold, which led to great Baltimore field position, which actually led to them scoring a touchdown at the end of the half!   What a reversal.   What a point swing.   What a momentum changer.   I was even texting friends of mine at this moment in the game, telling them “Manning will burn the clock now and run at least once so that even if they don’t score it won’t leave time for the Ravens to reply” etc etc.   Boy, was I wrong.   I had briefly forgotten what a perennial choker Manning is in the playoffs.   Even so, for a QB with a head that large to make such an amateur mistake was really shocking.

You’re probably familiar with Manning’s recent saga.   Four neck surgeries led to a whole year off and then his beloved Indy Colts not re-signing him, he went to Denver as a free agent for $19 million dollars a year, and promptly led the Broncos to a league-best 13-3 record.   Quite a story.   But not really surprising, for the greatest regular-season quarterback of them all.

So then why does he suck so bad in the playoffs?

I don’t know.

Perhaps the reason is the obvious one: That he gets too nervous!   And that Manning is a very good if not borderline great quarterback, but simply does not deserve to be included in the very first rank of the truly great, with the Montanas, the Unitases, the Elways, the Staubachs, or even the Warners.

Something happens to Manning’s mood in the playoffs.   His aura.   His confidence.   Remember his game-losing interception against the Saints in the Super Bowl three years ago?   Montana would NEVER have thrown that pass.   Not in a million years.   Neither would have Unitas.   Same with his interception on Saturday in overtime.   It was the kind of ill-advised, off balance, too-risky deep over the middle pass a rookie usually throws.   But that’s Manning.   It’s the playoffs.   Something just happens to the guy.

Perhaps the most telling clue on Saturday to this Manningesque Mystery is what happened at the end of regulation.   The Ravens had just tied the score at 35-all on a 70-yard Hail Mary bomb (which, parenthetically, was just about the biggest choke-job in NFL history of keeping a team from letting a fast wide receiver get behind prevent-defense double coverage, with less than a minute to play, and no time-outs left to use), whereupon they kicked off to Denver, who started on the 20 yard line with two time-outs left, needing to go about 45 yards to be able to attempt the game-winning field goal.   I settled in, rubbing my hands deliciously together with excitement, getting ready to watch a big-time NFL future Hall Of Fame quarterback lead his team to a game-winning field goal in a playoff game.

Manning took a knee.

I was stunned.   Stunned!

Giving up?   Backing down?   Playing for overtime?   Taking the soft, conservative road?    Peyton Manning?   This is what Denver gets for $19-million bucks? I couldn’t believe it.   I talked to my brother on the phone about it.   He couldn’t believe it.

I mean, it was hardly an impossible task.   Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons just did it, just yesterday, leading his team to a game-winning field goal over Seattle by going 45 yards in 30 seconds with two time-outs.   Same exact mathematics.   So it’s not like it can’t be done.   And Manning’s task was actually much easier than Ryan’s, much less pressurized.   Ryan was behind, he had to go for it.   And it was do or die.   Manning was tied, at worst he would have gone to overtime anyway!

Was Manning really that nervous about throwing an interception in his own territory?   Was John Fox really that un-confident in Manning’s ability to take care of the ball?   Can you even imagine Tom Brady not trying to get that late field goal, or his great coach, Bill Belichick, asking him not to?   All good questions.   The point is that Manning should never have stood for it, and the Manning of old would never have let Coach Fox make him do it.

I’ll prove it.   Several years ago, in a playoff game against Pittsburg, Manning’s Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, his team behind 21-3 late in the 3rd quarter, on 4th-and-two in his own territory, ordered his punting team onto the field.   Dungy’s decision was both stupid and gutless.   They were down three scores with barely a quarter to go.   And Manning was furious.   He knew that punting was the same thing as giving up, as admitting that the game was over.   So he ordered the punting team off the field.   I repeat, he ordered the punting team his head coach had just sent onto the field to turn right around and head back to the bench! It was beautiful.   They made the first down, scored a touchdown, and almost pulled the game out.   Yes, they still lost, as Manning playoff teams usually do.   But at least he tried.

Could Manning have done the same thing when Fox ordered him to take a knee with two unused time-outs at his disposal and with 30 seconds still left to be played in regulation?   Of course!   He’s Peyton Manning!   If a 22-year-old kid (Robert Griffin III) can force his former Super Bowl winning head coach (Mike Shanahan) to let him play an entire playoff game on one leg last week and stink up the place, which was the WRONG thing to do, surely Peyton Manning can tell the less heralded John Fox he’s going to try to get into field goal range at the end of a game with two time-outs in his knapsack, which was the RIGHT thing to do.   But it didn’t happen.   He shrunk from the moment. It was sad.

All in all, taking everything into consideration, it was the worst game of Manning’s career.

He may never get another chance to win a playoff game or the Super Bowl.  He’s 37.   Still recovering from several neck surgeries.   Making the playoffs is hard enough, much less winning playoff games.   And as good as he still is, he’s definitely past his prime.   Pushing forty, his best years are behind him.

In other words, his legacy is set.

I don’t take joy in laying down any of this.   I like Peyton Manning.   My son hates him, but I’ve always liked him.   He’s funny and genuine and humble and gracious, and supremely classy, and his TV commercials over the years are among the funniest and best commercials that any athlete has ever strung together.   I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy.

But a good writer tells the truth.   If nothing else, he tells the truth.

Here’s the truth: Peyton Manning is great in his own way, but he is not one of the very, very, very greatest quarterbacks of all time.   Certainly not a top-10 guy, or anything like that.   In fact, a lot of the time, when it counts, he’s kind of a choker.   There.  I said it.

There’s an old saying.   Sometimes if it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, and sounds like a duck….it’s a duck.   Maybe Manning is just that.   A duck.

Think about it.


*note: I like the 49ers and Patriots to win this weekend’s title games.    Atlanta and Baltimore were both ridiculously lucky to win last week, their journey stops now.   There.   Just felt like mentioning it.   A writer should also try to stir up the pot.  If he can.

meet….The Sports Philosopher!image0021

Brad Eastland is an author, an historian, a film buff, an undiscovered literary savant, and a big fan of Peyton Manning….even though he thinks he’s overrated. Brad’s other recent columns for La Verne Online can be found in the Sports Section under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’. His columns on very old and very underappreciated movies can be found by clicking Arts & Entertainment, then clicking ’Upon Further Review’. Brad has also written 4 fine novels* and over 20 short-stories. 

*To pick up a copy of his recently published novel of life at the racetrack (and of triumph and utter despair) entitled WHERE GODS GAMBLE, a tale of American mythology, simply search for that title in both hardback and paperback on amazon.com, iUniverse.com, or bn.com. And then order it. And then READ it. And then tell everyone about it. And then read it again. And then post your praise on Facebook. Okay? Okay??? For all this and all your support he thanks you…..

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