Re-Post: On his 39th Birthday, let's look back on what I wrote about Peyton... five years (and 1 MVP, 1 MVP Runner-Up, 1 AFC Championship ago)
What is there to say that hasn't already been said. What is there to discuss that hasn't already been discussed. Transcendence needs no description. It is fully evident in front of our eyes. Pictures are worth 1000 words, and pictures of Manning, stills or videos, all say the same thing: we are all witness to greatness in its purest form, witnesses to perfection. The position of quarterback will never be played as perfectly as Peyton Manning has played it the last ten years, and as the headline star of the headline sport in the country, Manning earns his spot at number three of the decade for being football's number one.
There are very few totally transcendent athletes in the past ten years. There are no athlete's that can literally bring people to tears with their virtuosity, their sheer brilliance. These words are usually reserved for artists, for painters like Michelangelo, sculptors like Botticelli, musicians like Mozart, or even more recently guitarists like Eddie Van Halen. They are people that elicit the same reaction from observers lucky enough to witness their greatness. It is a simple reaction of, "How in God's name did he do that?". Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks, obviously, but there were better quarterbacks in the playoffs (Montana, not Brady), and better, more rugged personifications of the leader of men that quarterbacks are so often portrayed as (Grandpa Favre, for one). However, there has never been a better passer, and in a football world where the pass has beaten the run with a club and put it down forever, there is no greater compliment. Watching Manning throw the ball into tiny windows, hitting receivers thought to be covered square in their chest, has been the football equivalent of watching Eddie Van Halen play eruption, or staring agape at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is beautiful, it is perfect. It is Peyton.
The numbers have to be mentioned at some point. They just have to because they are insane. Of course, excuses from Manning detractors will be made that he plays in a passing league (true, but so does everyone else, and no one else comes close), and that he has weapons (true from the years 2004-2006, before and after he has at most three good players around him). Even considering every point, his numbers for the 2000s are baffling: 160 games played (1st all time for any decade ever), 115 wins (1st), 65.9 Completion Percentage (2nd to Young, 90s), 42,254 yards (by far the most all time), 314 tds (by far the most all time), and a QB rating of 98.2 (highest for any decade). By any measure, he has put up the greatest statistical decade for any QB ever, and some of those numbers, like yards and TDs, he's not even close. In the decade, he threw for 4,000 yards nine times (three more times than anyone else has in a CAREER), and had eight straight seasons (2002-2009) of a completion percentage of at least 65.0, posting one higher than 66.6 (two completions in three attempts, an extremely high rate) six times. He has gotten a QB rating of over 98.0 in six of the last seven seasons, and the only other one was in 2008 when he played half the year on a left knee missing a bursa sac and inflamed, in which he had a rating of 95.0 and was the league MVP. Speaking of MVPs, he won the award four times in the decade, more than any other player in a career, and was runner up one other time. He's also four times had a perfect passer rating of 158.3 (something about as rare as a perfect game in baseball) four times in the decade, including in the playoffs against Denver. He has been the best QB statistically ever, and really his numbers this decade were mindboggling.
Except to dwell purely on the numbers is leaving the best part of the transformation Manning has undertaken in the decade out. He's no longer just a stat-monster (of course, the stats are still flying in bunches), but he has become the team. The Colts cannot run the ball. At all. They are below average at run defense, and fluctuate between average and good at pass defense. Those are combinations usually reserved for teams that go 8-8. Manning has led the Colts to 12 wins an astonishing seven years in a row, which is, again, more 12 win seasons put up by a QB in an entire career. For comparison, Brady has only had four such seasons in his career. Warner has had two. Favre comes closest with six. Manning is a stat-monster, sure, but he's also a winner above all, alot like fellow top-5 athlete Martin Brodeur. He has transformed himself into the ultimate winner, a guy that will just not let his team that should hover around .500 do anything worse that 12-4 and have a legitimate shot at a Super Bowl.
The year was 2008. Manning started the season without getting a single snap in training camp and had two knee surgeries to remove an infected bursa sac. The Colts themselves were playing without three of their alleged starting o-lineman, including Jeff Saturday, their star center, and had in their places, a two rookies and a second year sixth round pick. They were playing against the Minnesota Vikings, a team with arguably the best defensive line. Manning was a sitting duck, getting hammered time and time again as his o-line was too battered to keep the Viking's Williams Wall from applying major pressure, and he was too injured to escape their grasp. The Colts were doing nothing on offense because of the patchwork line, down 15-0 in Minnesota in the 3rd Quarter. Manning knew the team could not go down 0-2 on the season, he knew that it was his time to pull a Montana and literally bring the team back from the dead. He did just that, throwing for 200 second half yards, and somehow leading the Colts to a 18-15 win. These types of wins have become commonplace ever since the league decided to all stop blitzing him after his 49 td 121.1 passer rating blitzkrieg in 2004. The league adapted to Manning's brilliance starting in 2005, and Manning brilliance outworked them again. He started to stop putting up 4 tds a game, he started just killing teams instead by outgunning them mentally. Every coach was outworked by a player at the peak of his powers. This Minnesota game would be repeated so many times.
There was the Jets game in 2006 when the Jets had five different leads, but lost when Manning put up two TDs in the last 5 minutes. There was the Broncos game in 2006, when Manning, against a defense that had allowed just two TDs in the first 5 games, put up 28 in the second half to beat the Broncos in Mile High 34-31. There was the 2007 game against Tennessee, when he put up 321 yards against what would become the league's best pass defense to win 22-20 in Nashville. There was the game when he beat the Jaguars, winner of four straight, in 2007 by throwing to Wayne, Clark and Aaron Moorehead and Ben Utecht. There was the 2008 game in Heinz against the best defense to grace a football field since the legendary 2002 Bucs, where Manning put up 240 yards and three tds to beat the eventual champs in their building 24-20. There was the game two weeks later when he led a game winning field goal drive in 30 seconds to beat the Chargers in San Diego (yes, he can beat the Chargers). There was the game in 2008 where he was 29-34 to lead a comeback in Jacksonville in 2008, when the Colts were down 14-, to win 31-24 to clinch a playoff spot and a 3rd MVP. There was the game in 2009 where he held the ball for 14 minutes total and led the Colts to 27 points with 302 yards on just 14 completions to beat Miami in Miami. There was the game against New England where he scalped the Pats to the tune of twenty-one fourth quarter points to erase a 31-14 deficit. There was the game two weeks later when he led another 17 point comeback in Houston. Then he essentially mirrored his 2008 performance with a 23-30, 308 yard 4 td fourth quarter comeback against Jacksonville to lock up another MVP and home-field advantage.
Of course, even before his talent level around him finally caught up, he was busy doing the same thing to less fanfare. There was the 2000 game against the Patriots where he put up a perfect passer rating, bringing the Colts back from down 16-7 in the third quarter against Belichick, winning 30-23. There was the game in 2001 where he outdueled Trent Green in his KC prime in Arrowhead, putting up 28 second half points to win 35-28. There was the game in 2002 where he put up 150 second half yards in a blizzard in Mile High to lead a come-from-behind win 23-20. Then, of course, there was the amazing comeback from down 35-14 with five minutes to go against the defending Super Bowl champions and best defense in the league Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa. And finally, there was the game in 2003 where he led the Colts back from down 31-10 in the third quarter against the Patriots and came up one yard short of winning 41-38. Of course, there was the flawless, mistake-free promise to win the division later that year in Tennessee against a great Titans team. Then, in 2004, when his defense failed him most and allowed 45 points, he put up 472 yards and 5 tds against Kansas City, or when he had a run of 5-4-5-4-6 tds in five straight games. Peyton has been the master in close games, in tight games, in blowouts, in comebacks and in slugfests. He is the master, period.
There have long been doubts and jeers pointed towards Peyton because of his "playoff failures". These did have some merit to them pre-2003, when he lost all his three playoff games. But since, they are ridiculous, and are purely the last grasp that some deranged Brady-fan clings to when falling of Mt. Manning. Since 2003, when he finally had a team with enough talent that an average QB like Jake Plummer could have led them to 10 wins (while Manning led them to 12+), Manning has gone 9-6 in the playoffs, with only Brady winning more playoff games. Manning has, in the last seven years, won a playoff game four times (03, 04, 06, 09), reached three AFC Championship Games, two Super Bowls and won a title. In each of his last four playoff losses, against the Steelers in '05, Chargers in '07 and '08 and the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV, Manning has put up over 290 yards, with the last three each eclipsing the 310 mark. He threw for 402 yards in a loss, where both of his interceptions first touched Colts receivers and bounced off, and a game in which his team was ludicrously banged up (and even a QB like Philip Rivers would have led to about a 7-9 record) and lost in overtime he threw for 310. Then, he threw for 333, the third most ever for a Super Bowl loser. These playoff losses cannot be blamed on Manning. In 2008, and 2009, the Colts don't even sniff the playoffs or the Super Bowl, respectively, without Manning and with a QB like Rivers or Brady. Manning himself won three extra games for those teams. Manning was those teams.
The playoffs are where legends are made, and truthfully, the Manning legend as an all-time great can be built from the playoffs using just two games, the two games that define Manning more than any other, and his two greatest performances to boot. They were both in the highest of pressure situations, and both included comebacks against top defenses. They were the identical cases of the 2006 and 2009 AFC Championship Games. First, the '09 version. Down 11 points to the Jets with 2 minutes to go against the best defense in the league, as well as the best pass defense since the ludicrously good 2002 Bucs unit, Manning displayed probably his best quality game. He unleashed hell on the league's best defense, torching a team that up to that point allowed a paltry 166 yards passing, Manning threw for 377. Against a team that on average allowed 14 points, Manning put up 30, 24 coming in the games last 32 minutes. Against a team that normally allowed 260 total yards, Manning and the Colts put up 460. It was brilliance, it was beautiful, it was total Manning. Never once did he lose his cool, never once did he force anything, never once did he panic. The opportunity was there. The Colts were playing badly at home in a playoff game. Unlike his rival Brady, who two weeks had a similar situation against Baltimore and decided to throw up one of the worst performances in QB playoff history, Manning maned up and decided to stop messing around and just owned Rex Ryan and the Jets.
For More on the 2009 Title Game, check out the earlier post: "The Beatification of Manning" (http://loungingpass.blogspot.com/2010/01/beatification.html)
However, nothing is more Manning than his epic 2006 AFC Championship Game win against the Patriots. Down 21-3 to his biggest rival, backed up to his own 12 with just 2 minutes remaining in the half, Manning put up 35 points on the best defensive mastermind of his generation, ruthlessly tearing through the Patriots flaccid defense to the tune of 349 yards, with 186 of them coming in half number two, which he entered down 21-6. It was the biggest comeback in Title Game history, and it was against the most resourceful defense in the NFL, playing with the pride of a Dynasty to defend. Manning, against the team that had caused him so much heartbreak and agony, and had trounced him time and time again, laid out the heavy machinery and broke Belichick and killed the Pats dynasty. It was the greatest game of Manning's life, and it was a defining one too. Here was a man discounted and blitzed early in his career and in the game, down 21-3. Manning made his comeback, went on to capture the ring and stake his claim on top of the NFL world.
Manning's legacy is not done, nor is it complete. He will have many more years to win another ring and forever silence his critics. He will eventually pass Favre to claim hold of all the major passing categories for a career. He will most likely eventually take his place on top of the Mt. Olympus of QBs, joining or knocking off Joe Montana. However, that is for the future. This is about the past 10 years, and those alone have been something to behold; a decade of dominance and influence. It is Manning's brilliance that made the no-huddle popular. It is Manning's brilliance that has influenced a whole pack of young QBs who wing it around like him, call plays and audible like him, and who throw for 4,000 yards like him. It was his singular brilliance on that Sunday Night in the old RCA Dome that killed the hated Patriots Dynasty. It is his personality and charisma that has allowed himself to transcend the caging helmet of a football player/mercenary and become the leading ambassador for the NFL. Jim L. Mora once said of Manning, "we played greatness today." No, Jim, you are wrong. You, and the rest of the NFL, played greatness for ten straight years.