Sunday could be the last ride of one of the greatest players in the history of sports- Peyton Manning. In a sport that rules America, Manning is the most accomplished and decorated player in NFL history. As his Broncos prepare to face the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, his candidacy for the Hall of Fame is unquestionable. The title of Greatest of All-Time (a.k.a. GOAT)? For many, Manning isn’t in the conversation. That isn’t fair, because not only does Manning deserve to be in the conversation, but he is the greatest player of the century and has earned the title of GOAT.
Peyton Manning was born as the middle son of three to former Saints quarterback Archie Manning, who played for 14 seasons in the NFL but never reached the playoffs. Peyton rose out of his father’s shadow and excelled at every level. At Isidore Newman High School, he was named the Gatorade High School Player of the Year. After opting to go to University of Tennessee instead of Ole Miss, his father’s old team, Peyton won the Maxwell Award, for the best collegiate football player, was a first-team All American, and finished with a career record of 39-6. With the 1st pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, Manning was selected by the Indianapolis Colts, starting a legendary professional career.
In his 18 seasons in the NFL, Peyton Manning hasn’t only reached the peak, but his longevity atop the NFL is unmatched. A 14-time Pro Bowl selection, his Colts teams reached 9 consecutive postseasons, including seven straight seasons with 12 or more wins. Manning threw for 4,000 or more yards in 14 seasons and had 13 consecutive seasons with 25 or more touchdown passes. In total, Manning won 10 or more games in 14 of his 18 seasons. The guy knew how to win.
In the eyes of players, coaches, and spectators, Peyton was the best. He was named to the first-team All-Pro seven times, five more times than Tom Brady, who also garners attention in the GOAT conversation. Manning won five MVP awards, two more than any other player, as well as a Super Bowl MVP award. He has racked up 27 AFC Offensive Player of the Week awards and 8 AFC Player of the Month awards.
Peyton’s numbers back him up. He is the all-time leader in touchdown passes (539 TD), passing yards (71,940), and is tied for most regular season wins with Brett Favre. In 2004, Manning threw 49 touchdowns, a new NFL record. After Brady broke the mark with 50 in 2007, Manning, in 2013 with Denver, fired 55 touchdowns and 5,477 passing yards, both single-season records. His seven-touchdown performance against the Ravens at the start of the season remains tied as the most in a single game. Manning also has the most touchdown passes, passing yards, and completions in the 2000s.
Playoff performance is seen as a shortcoming of Peyton’s. In truth, he isn’t bad in the postseason. Entering Super Bowl 50, Manning’s playoff passer rating stands at 87.9, just a sliver behind Brady’s 88.0. In 12 of the 15 postseason appearances, Manning’s passer rating exceeded 75.0. Manning won the AFC four times, with Super Bowl XLI as his only win. He has more first-round losses (9) than any other quarterback in history, but his 15 postseason appearances are a testament to his consistency.
Manning doesn’t have the signature playoff moment like legends Joe Montana, John Elway, and Brady and may be remembered for the game-sealing pick-6 in Super Bowl XLIV or the 43-8 blowout in Super Bowl XLVIII. But to say that Manning was a liability in January is false- he has eight career playoff games with 300 or more passing yards and completed an 18-point comeback in the 2006 AFC Championship Game.
To win in the regular season, all a team needs is a dominant quarterback. Peyton carried his teams through the regular season and regularly beat up on weaker teams. Winning in the playoffs requires a different formula. Complete teams win in the playoffs, and Peyton’s teams in Indianapolis and Denver weren’t complete. The running game was usually non-existent in Peyton’s offenses and weaknesses on defense meant a lot of shootouts. While Brady’s Patriots and Montana’s 49ers could win games with their defense, Peyton carried the load in the playoffs and the result was often disappointing.
Peyton Manning’s brilliance can’t be pinned on any person other than himself. He played for teams that often were in the bottom-half of the NFL in defense and rushing yards, which he made up for with fantastic passing displays. Manning also played under several coaches, unlike other legendary passers. Dan Marino had Don Shula as his coach. Brady had Bill Belicheck. Montana had Bill Walsh. Manning had Jim Mora, Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, John Fox, and now Gary Kubiak. Dungy is a borderline Hall of Fame coach and Fox has reached two Super Bowls, but no coach in that list is on the level of Shula, Belicheck, or Walsh. Peyton also the only quarterback to be the best in the NFL on two different teams, though Montana, Johnny Unitas, and Brett Favre tried (Steve Young and Drew Brees didn’t emerge until their second team). Manning didn’t have Jerry Rice, a popular pick for GOAT, as a target, either. Despite being a pocket passer, the offensive lines in Indianapolis and Denver were never great.
What made Peyton Manning special wasn’t the number of Super Bowls he won or a stat. Manning was great because he overcame challenges that few players have overcome.
From a physical standpoint, Manning isn’t an otherworldly talent. His athleticism isn’t top-notch and he was never dangerous as a rusher (667 rushing yards and 1.5 yards per attempt). Late in his career, his arm strength failed him. Manning made up with his football IQ and leadership. His pre-snap audibles and changes are famous and he could pick apart the defense with his mind, not just his body. Peyton is the best leader in NFL history, evidenced by his incredible preparation habits and the chemistry he created with teammates. Practice was another tool that Manning expertly utilized and his accuracy (65.3%, 4th all-time) came with being on page with his teammates. Manning used his mind to make up for his athleticism and launch himself into the record books.
When Manning missed the 2011 season due to a neck injury that required multiple surgeries, the state of his career was doubtful at best. Months later, his career took another turn for the worse. During the lost 2011 season, the Colts dropped a league-high 14 games (a testament to Manning’s value). That gave them the worst record in the league and the first overall pick of the draft. The 2012 draft was one of the best for quarterbacks and the consensus overall pick was Andrew Luck, the two-time Heisman finalist from Stanford. Luck entered as the best quarterback prospect since Elway in 1983 and the Colts announced days before the draft their intentions to draft Luck as their next franchise quarterback. With Peyton’s salary a major cap hit, Indianapolis chose to cut Manning and release him into free agency.
Up to that point, Peyton Manning’s career was one of the best ever for a quarterback. But with more questions than answers, mostly about his return from injury and adaptation to a new team, Manning’s stay atop the NFL looked over. Still, almost every team in the NFL was in the Manning sweepstakes, but eventually Elway and the Broncos lured Manning to the Mile High City with the goal of an elusive Super Bowl title.
Four years in Denver have been fruitful, tumultuous, and career-defining. In his first three years in Denver, the Broncos won 13 games with one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Manning silenced any doubts in his first season back, earning Comeback Player of the Year and finishing behind Adrian Peterson for MVP. In his second season, he broke record after record and reached the Super Bowl. But at the end of his third season, Manning’s arm wore down and the Broncos exited the playoffs after being upset by Manning’s old team, the upstart Colts.
Manning returned in 2015 with plenty of question marks. Would his arm hold up? How would he adjust to new coach Gary Kubiak’s system? Would Father Time catch up? For most of the year, it looked like Manning’s career would end unceremoniously. In only 10 games, he threw 17 interceptions, including four against Kansas City. For the first time in his career, Manning was benched, this time for the young Brock Osweiler. Injuries, and Osweiler’s performance, kept Manning on the sideline. Number 18 accepted the role of backup but kept working, though he might have seen his last action.
I’ve seen Manning play since 2007 and knew that he was one of the best ever. After the events of the 2015 season, I thought that I’d seen Peyton’s last. On Week 17, I turned on the TV and saw a shocking sight. It is Denver against San Diego in the second half of a game that the Broncos needed to win to capture the top seed. The close score isn’t what surprised me, though the 4-12 Chargers were an underdog. Instead of the sight of the tall, lanky Osweiler heading to the field, none other than Peyton himself was jogging to the huddle. The Sheriff was back.
Peyton made the most of the opportunity, playing game manager while the rushing attack powered the Broncos past the Chargers and into the playoffs. The formula worked in the playoffs, too. While Peyton was the man for most of his career, he was now the supporting cast to a formidable running game and a historic defense. This incredible late-career adjustment allowed the Broncos to win the AFC crown and gave Peyton one last shot at a title, a chance to leave like Elway did. For a superstar quarterback like Peyton, moving to a game manager is an almost insurmountable challenge, but Manning adjusted and excelled.
What would Super Bowl 50 mean to Peyton’s legacy? Another ring would look nice on Peyton’s lengthy résumé and would tie him with his younger brother, Eli. Two Super Bowl wins would still rank behind Montana, Brady, and Terry Bradshaw, who each had four, so the playoff drawback would remain.
Physically, Peyton Manning is a new player. He shifted from the center of the football universe to a supporting actor. Mentally, Peyton is the same as he’s always been, climbing mountains and sticking his flag at the top. I’ll be rooting for Carolina, even if it means that Manning’s career won’t have a storybook ending. His performance in Super Bowl 50 won’t change his legacy. In my book, regardless of the result on Sunday, Peyton Manning is the most valuable player the game has ever seen.