I have always been a fan of Peyton Manning. I admired both his talent and his class on and off the field. As a lifelong, unwilling fan of hard luck teams and athletes, I was also helplessly drawn to the choking, underachieving label that was pinned on him since the early years of his career.
For some context, my favourite hockey team as a child was the Quebec Nordiques, the team that set records for futility, had a first overall pick refuse to play for them, and then won a Stanley Cup the very first year they moved to a new city. My favourite baseball team was the Expos, who after many years of suffering were looking like the favourite to win the World Series and then the World Series was cancelled for the first time since the World War II. The first golfer I ever cheered for was Greg Norman.
In many ways, if Greg Norman was a football player, he would be Peyton Manning. Like Manning, Norman had one of the greatest careers ever in terms of week in and week out performance, but never had the same success in the majors, which is what defines the legacies of the greatest golfers. Also like Manning, he was not completely without success in the majors, winning 2 British Opens. Peyton Manning did win a Super Bowl (and took teams to two others), which separates him from some all-time greats like Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, and Fran Tarkenton.
If Manning had never won a Super Bowl, the debate around him would be (perhaps unfairly) much simpler; he would simply not be in the discussion as one of the truly greatest quarterbacks of all time. But he did win a Super Bowl, he lead a spectacular 4th quarter comeback against the Patriots in Foxboro in the playoffs, he did take three teams to the Super Bowl.
What is so interesting about Manning is that he was just so close to perhaps being considered by some serious football commentators as the greatest of all time. If the Saints surprise onside kick to start the second half of the Super Bowl had failed. If Mike Vanderjagt had made that 46 yarder against Pittsburgh. If Roethlisberger didn’t make that ankle tackle. If a few more breaks had gone his way Manning could have easily had multiple rings and maybe three or four.
The reality though is that like Greg Norman, he often put himself in situations where he needed to catch a break. People who talk of Larry Mize’s miraculous chip in to beat Greg Norman in a playoff at the Masters fail to point out that if Norman had shot even par in the final round then Mize would never have had the chance to make that miraculous shot in the playoff. Despite the gutsy onside kick recovery by New Orleans, Manning still had the chance to lead a game winning drive but threw a pick six to end the game.
He may not be the greatest quarterback of all time but he may well have had the most interesting career. No other football player has ever had more records or more what-ifs than Peyton Manning.