No one is arguing whether Peyton Manning is among the best quarterbacks ever to yell “Omaha!” an annoying number of times, then throw a league-leading number of passes for a ridiculous number of yards and touchdowns. No one is arguing whether the Denver Broncos quarterback will be in the conversation years from now when America debates which quarterbacks were great in their time.
But when the sculptors finally take to that plateau and start putting faces to the Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks, when the surveys count down to the best one of the best ones, there is no guarantee Manning will beat out Joe Montana, Brett Favre, John Elway or perhaps even Tom Brady — unless he wins Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday.
This game, Manning’s third career Super Bowl, will make him a two-time Super Bowl champion or a two-time Super Bowl loser. The game could, one way or another, be a great career’s crowning achievement or a second consecutive disastrous disappointment on the NFL’s biggest stage.
This Super Bowl could be an argument-ender to anyone debating Manning’s legacy one way or another.
Super Bowl XLVII could decide Peyton’s place in NFL history.
( And cue the moment when Peyton Manning runs a naked bootleg away from all this legacy talk.)
“I’ve been asked about my legacy since I was 25 years old, which I’m not sure you can have a legacy when you are 25 years old, or even 37,” he says. “I thought you had to be 70 to have a legacy. I’m not 100 percent sure what the word even means.
“I’m down the homestretch of my career, but I’m still in it. It’s not over yet. It’s still playing out. This has been the second chapter of my career, and it is an exciting chapter. I’m certainly excited to be back in the Super Bowl on behalf of the Denver Broncos.”
Understand, this is not a conversation about whether Manning is a good or even great player. That was settled long ago.
He has been the league’s MVP a handful of times. He has won more games than any QB save Favre. He has passed for 4,000 yards in a season 13 times and the next closest player, Drew Brees, has done it eight times. The Denver Broncos media guide needs 13 pages to detail the extent of Manning’s shining accomplishments.
Champ Bailey, an almost certain first-ballot Hall of Famer who has played 15 years, gets seven pages in the same media guide.
“It is funny to me, I think it’s just people look at his numbers, what he's done, and there is nothing to talk about, nothing, no questions there," teammate Demaryius Thomas says.
Because Manning has reached such heights, the question now becomes not whether he is an all-time great, but perhaps the all-time greatest QB. And that conversation is not quite as kind to Manning.
To be the all-time greatest, the expectation is the man has to have done great things in great moments. Denver Hall of Fame quarterback-turned-executive vice president John Elway was considered great because he tilted the field.
He took Denver teams with flawed rosters and good-but-not-excellent defenses to three Super Bowls. But he lost three consecutive Super Bowls. It wasn’t until he won two Super Bowls in a row to combine with his great physical gifts and regular-season statistics that Elway climbed to the same grand level of a Montana and others.
Dan Marino? He was the greatest pure passer of all time. He owned every passing record when he retired and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But he never won a Super Bowl and Favre has since rewritten all his records. So while Marino would still get every vote for president in South Florida, the rest of the country more often includes him in a group of greatness with Dan Fouts but not so much Montana and Favre and Elway and Brady.
(Yes, Dolphins fans painful).
So why isn’t Manning already at the head of the most elite class? Why isn’t this football prodigy teaching the AP quarterback greatness course?
His postseason resume.
Those who say Manning doesn’t have to win this or any other Super Bowl to solidify his case as the greatest of all time have no answer for his postseason statistics and failures particularly when they’re compared to others.
Manning has a record eight first-round playoff losses. He is a .500 quarterback in the postseason and that’s not an issue for mortals, but in the company of immortals, that doesn’t compare to Joe Montana’s 16-7 record, which includes four Super Bowl victories in his four tries.
Elway was 14-7 in the postseason and left us with that memory of that helicopter blade leap for a first down in his second consecutive Super Bowl win.
Tom Brady has won three Super Bowls and two of those happened because he authored last-minute game-winning drives. Yes, Brady has struggled in the playoffs since that last Super Bowl win. But he’s still 18-8 in the postseason.
Manning is 11-11 in the postseason after winning two playoff games this postseason. He has thrown 22 interceptions in those 22 games.
He threw the memorable interception that was returned for a touchdown and delivered the Saints to their Super Bowl victory against the Colts.
And even in his Super Bowl victory against Chicago, Manning was solid but not unspectacular.
Those are facts.
And they can be overshadowed with a Super Bowl win or, just as easily, compounded by another Super Bowl loss.
Manning can become the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams. Or he can join Craig Morton and Kurt Warner in the group of men who tried and failed.
That, of course, is another cue for a Manning supporter to state that the quarterback’s legacy is already sealed — no matter this Super Bowl’s outcome. But even Elway fumbles on his way to making that argument:
“I don’t think this game, one way or the other affects his legacy the way that he has played,” Elway says. “He’s going to be one of the all-time greats no matter what. And this game will definitely help [the argument against that] if we lose it. But the bottom line, this year that he has had — legacies don’t get great until you’re done.”