The Legacy of Manning

SOCHI -- The legacy talk in sports is really kind of silly. Of course, legacy talk filled the air -- even here in Sochi in the early morning -- after Seattle pulverized Denver 43-8 in the Super Bowl. The legacy talk involved Peyton Manning, of course. Everyone’s arguing how he will be remembered.

It’s silly because no great athlete -- and for that matter no great movie, no great book, no great song, no influential person -- has just one legacy. No one is remembered just one way. Consider John Elway. I have spent way too much time in my life doing just that. And he came up again on Sunday. At the end of the Super Bowl, FOX’s Troy Aikman somewhat passionately (and maybe a little desperately) said that Seattle’s utter destruction of Peyton Manning and the Broncos would have no impact whatsoever on Manning’s legacy. None. Well I thought that was kind of an odd thing to say and tweeted as such. I found that at least a couple of people agreed with Aikman. Their example: Elway. Their line of reasoning: “Hey, nobody thinks of the three Super Bowls that John Elway lost big. You only think of the two Super Bowls he won.”

I have to say this opened my eyes. And here’s the reason: When I think of John Elway I ALWAYS think of the three Super Bowls where his team got crushed. That’s pretty much all I think about. The two Super Bowls the Broncos won -- I chalk those up to the singular brilliance of Terrell Davis and Denver’s remarkable offensive line. Specific to Elway, I think of 39-20 (Giants), 42-10 (Washington) and 55-10 (San Francisco).

The point is obvious. I openly loathe John Elway and have ever since he and his Broncos beat my childhood Cleveland Browns in three championship games. I am driven to remember Elway the way I remember him. So, I’ll be sure to tell you: His stats are not that great (a 79.9 career passer rating!), and he was roadkill in those three Super Bowls before he got one of the most dominant running games in NFL history.

OK, look, I’m not so blind or unrestrained that I refuse to acknowledge Elway’s greatness. He’s one of the best ever. But don’t tell me those bad Super Bowls never happened. They happened. If Elway had played brilliantly in those three Super Bowls and led the Broncos to victory, he might be a near unanimous choice as the best quarterback ever. But that’s not how it went.

What is a sports legacy, anyway? It is just how people remember the athlete. That’s all. Some people DO remember John Elway as the best quarterback ever. Different people have different memories. And, even more to the point, different people have different motives as sports fans. I know three people who believe -- and will argue relentlessly -- that Dan Marino was the greatest quarterback ever because of the way he redefined the NFL passing game when most teams still ran the ball more than they threw it. All three of them, you will not be surprised to know, are Dolphins fans.

Then, I know more than three people who think Dan Marino cannot even be included the greatest quarterback DISCUSSION because he never won a Super Bowl. All of them, you will not be surprised to know, are NOT Dolphins fans.

What is Dan Marino’s legacy? The answer is the question. The answer is that it is what you think it is.

Peyton Manning’s legacy for Troy Aikman and millions of others will be as the most productive passer in the history of the NFL so far. Fair. Nothing Manning did or did not do in this Super Bowl can alter his genius for throwing footballs. The incredible numbers are on the books, the record five MVP awards are on the mantle, the remarkable 2013 regular season which included NFL records in passing yards and touchdowns has been logged.

But Peyton Manning’s legacy for many others carries with it a touch of failure in the biggest moments. That’s also fair. Manning’s playoff record is 11-12. His Super Bowl record is now 1-2. He threw the big interception that sealed his team’s fate in the Super Bowl against New Orleans in 2010. He could not find ways to get his typically high-scoring team into the end zone enough in memorable playoff losses against the Jets, Chargers and Steelers.

And Sunday, from the start, he was overwhelmed by the Seahawks. Make no mistake: Seattle has an extraordinary defense, and they were primed and focused, and what they did to Manning on Sunday they certainly might have done to Joe Montana, John Unitas, Tom Brady or any other quarterback in their primes. But we’ll never know that. We do know that Manning looked lost. He had led the highest scoring offense in the history of professional football and he had been named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, and he seemed to have reached another level as a passer. But he threw two crushing interceptions and could not throw the ball downfield. He had absolutely no idea how to move against the Seahawks. That was probably the most shocking part. Manning was utterly stumped.*

*The ultimate sports cliche was trotted out again and again on Sunday: Defense wins championships. I don’t believe that’s actually true. Great defense certainly CAN win championships but great offense can too. For every dominant defense like Seattle, I can point to a dominant offense like Kurt Warner’s Rams team; you talk about the great defense of the 2008 Steelers, I point to the great offense of the 2009 New Orleans Saints.

But I think there is SOMETHING to the cliche, and it’s this: We do often forget the power of great defense. Great offense is easier to see, easier to understand, easier to build up in our imaginations. I think it was easier to imagine the Broncos scoring a lot of points against Seattle because we saw them score so many points all year; those touchdowns are vibrant in our minds. So then we watch a great defense dominate the way the Seahawks’ did, and it’s jolting, it’s visually gripping, and we think: “Great defense is better than great offense. Great defense wins championships.”

And the next time a great offense comes along, we start the whole process over.

Manning had a chance Sunday to leave a bright image of himself in the postseason. It would not have made the other failures go away, but t might have overpowered them for many. That’s not what happened. Instead, he left another image of defeat burning in the mind.

So, I suspect it will come to this: Peyton Manning’s fans will downplay his postseason failings because those don’t help their argument. It’s fairly easy to do this. They’ll say he’s only one guy, his offensive line let him down, he did all he could do, etc. Even Sunday, Manning set a Super Bowl record for completions, something utterly pointless but it’s on the books and can be used later.

On the other side, Manning’s critics will downplay his extraordinary numbers and overwhelming success because those don’t help THEIR arguments. This too is fairly easy to do. They’ll just make regular season games seem unimportant, they’ll shout “count the Super Bowls,” or remind everyone how often Tom Brady won the big game, etc.

Yes, people will argue. That’s Peyton Manning’s legacy: All sides of the argument. Well, that at least is something real. People only argue about the great ones.