Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On Peyton Manning...the Best Quarterback of All-Time?

I don't know, maybe it's quarterback week around these parts, but I had a brief discussion this weekend about Peyton Manning, and I've spent the past few days contemplating his career, and today I read this post on Pro Football Reference that reinforces with hard numbers what I already suspected with my unreliable cerebellum--that the Peyton Manning of 2009, Peyton Manning at age 33, is perhaps as good as any incarnation of Peyton Manning we've ever seen before. Honestly, I can't think of an elite quarterback whose public persona has evolved more radically over the course of such a short period; look at this Slate piece written by Tommy Craggs just 30 months ago, which labored under the conceit that Manning was too inherently nerdy to ever become a beloved figure in the NFL.

It's an intriguing artifact, and it was utterly true at the time. In January 2007, all those goofy ads featuring Peyton cheering on blue-collar employees in the name of extending their credit debt seemed presumptuous and forced. They didn't seem like the real Peyton Manning; they seemed like a Madison Avenue construction. "His affability takes on an overtone of insincerity," Craggs quoted one critic, and there seemed no way to change that. Manning was who he was; he would always be an outsider, a doofus in an oversized helmet, and that dorkiness would prevent his genius from ever being truly recognized.

Except then Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl. And all those memories of his failures in big games past became secondary, and all those notions that Manning couldn't win because he was too uptight or too bookish or too omnipresent during commercial breaks seemed utterly ridiculous. Now Peyton Manning was a beloved goofball, an affable dude whose quirks facilitated his brilliance. Now Peyton Manning just seemed like what he probably was all along: A guy with ridiculous genetic gifts, who also happened to be legtimately smarter and more honestly self-deprecating than just about anyone else who had ever played his position. Winning a single game transformed Peyton Manning's entire career. He's not the first player to experience this, but in Manning's case, it seemed to set him free, to allow him to embrace his true self; perhaps equally as important, it also allowed us to embrace him. Which is just as well, because if he continues on his current trajectory, we may soon have to accept the fact the Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback in football history. And amazingly enough, most of us will do so willingly.

Back then, 30 months ago, when Peyton Manning was still an outsider, Rolling Stone resident curmudgeon Matt Taibbi wrote that it was "impossible" to root for him, and that, by comparison, it "easy to root for" a rugged individualist like Brett Favre. Something tells me if the Colts face the Vikings in Super Bowl XLIV, Peyton Manning won't be the one accused of insincerity.

(Illustration: Mark Alan Stamaty/Slate)

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