Peyton Manning (18) clearly knows how to direct a winning team, as his 10 seasons with at least 12 wins — an NFL record — shows. (Joe Mahoney / Associated Press)
Jersey City, N.J. — Let’s not kid ourselves. This is Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl. In a season where he set NFL passing records for yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55), and led an offense that scored an NFL record 606 points, he can become the first quarterback to lead two franchises to Super Bowl titles.
Manning has been at the epicenter of every major story line leading up to Super Bowl XLVIII. It will be historic if the Broncos win, for Manning and for the franchise, which is seeking its third Super Bowl title.
If the Seahawks prevail, it will be because their No. 1 defense was able to derail Manning and their secondary, the Legion of Boom, will forever be memorialized along with other iconic units like Denver’s Orange Crush, Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain, Dallas’ Doomsday Defense and Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters.
But it all revolves around Manning. His name has been invoked in nearly every media scrum — Denver and Seattle players alike — all week long.
There was fourth-year Denver receiver Damaryius Thomas talking about how he’s still in awe of Manning.
“Nervous, man, I was nervous the first day I met him,” he said. “He’s smart. He’s the ultimate pro. He knows his thing. He takes care of business on and off the field. The way that he goes about preparing himself for the game, what he does before games and during games, I’ve just learned so much. I never knew that you could look at a safety, linebacker or defensive end and figure out what the coverage is going to be. He’s definitely the best.”
There was Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme, his teammate in Indianapolis, talking about Manning’s playful side.
“Nobody is more intense when we’re preparing, when we’re in a meeting, when we’re in practice, but no one is more of a prankster when we’re not,” he said. “He’s great to have in the locker room. He gets mad at me when I talk about this prank because it ruins it if it gets out to too many people, but if he offers you sunscreen on the golf course, don’t take it.
“When you put it on your body, it will not protect you from the sun. It will actually make you feel like you’re on fire. I had a great round that day.”
And there was Seattle second-year quarterback Russell Wilson, perhaps the least talked-about starting Super Bowl quarterback ever, as much in awe of Manning as anybody, talking about attending Manning’s passing camp as a high school player.
“Obviously, it’s not me versus him, but he’s a guy that I have so much respect for,” Wilson said. “All of the amazing things he’s done over his career, he’s built this unbelievable legacy, and he’s one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks to ever play the game.
“One day I want to be like him in terms of the way he thinks. He’s just a master of the game. I’m working to get there; I’m on a constant quest for knowledge.”
An unprecedented season
At age 37, in his second year in Denver, coming off four potentially career-ending neck surgeries, a four-time MVP, 13-time Pro Bowler, 10-time All-Pro (seven first-team selections), the NFL’s active leader in nearly every passing statistical category, Manning has this stage Sunday at MetLife Stadium to stamp his legacy as the greatest quarterback in the modern era.
“I think it is remarkable,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “A year ago, I thought he might have been the most remarkable — to miss a whole football season with four separate neck surgeries, to come to a new city at the quarterback position, which I think might be the hardest position to change teams, and have the kind of season he had a year ago, was truly remarkable.
“To build on that, and to have the kind of season he’s had to this point this year, I think is unprecedented.”
Kurt Warner and Craig Morton are the only other two quarterbacks to lead multiple franchises to the Super Bowl. Neither of those men won in both cities.
“Obviously, Peyton is one of the best quarterbacks that ever played, probably in the top two or three,” Warner said. “You have to look at it like a total career is regular season and postseason. As far as regular season goes, he’s the best quarterback we’ve seen. (New England’s) Tom Brady, having played in five Super Bowls, is probably the best postseason guy.
“You have to add the two up. How far is he ahead in the regular season to make up for the fact that Brady has won four Super Bowls? I don’t know the answer. I just know he’s in that conversation.”
Manning’s 167 regular-season wins is second all-time to only Brett Favre (186), but his winning percentage (.696) is .072 higher. Manning’s 77 road victories is an NFL record. Manning’s 10 seasons of at least 12 wins is an NFL record.
“I judge it like this — before the snap and after the snap,” said Warner. “Before the snap, I’ve never seen anybody better who can see defenses, understand defenses, understand the nuances and change plays and get you in the right play— I’ve never seen anybody do it even close to the way he can.”
For the record, Manning is not playing for his legacy.
“I’ve been asked about my legacy since I was 25 years old,” he said. “I’m not sure you can have a legacy when you are 25 years old, or even 37. 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.”
Facing the inevitable
Still, he’s admitted to having some wistful moments this season, times when he was made aware of his inevitable mortality.
“I was part of some great teams in Indianapolis, and the two that played in the Super Bowl are very special, and the one that won it (after the 2006 season) was a great group of guys,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that we will be coming up on a 10-year reunion in just a couple of years, which does make me feel quite old. I’m not sure you can still be playing and still go to a reunion in the NFL, so maybe that’s the time I should be out of the NFL.”
Manning also was touched by a tribute the Oakland Raiders had for their 1983 championship team when the Broncos were there in Week 17.
“That was 30 years from that point and boy, it really impacted our team,” Manning said. “Coach Fox made a point that those guys will always have that bond, no matter where they live, how much hair they’ve lost, how much weight they’ve gained, they will always have that bond. Coach Fox made a point that, if we were to win it, you will always have that connection.
“I always have that connection with that 2006 Indianapolis team, which is very special to me. It would be fun to have that same forever bond with this team.”
The scar on his neck serves as a similar reminder to Manning, of his mortality and of the rare and precious gift he gets to unwrap on Sunday.
“My brother Cooper dealt with neck surgeries and injuries as a high school and college player, and had to give up football. That made a big impact on my life,” he said. “I remember at the time, when Cooper got injured, they did a test on me and Eli. I would have been a junior in high school and Eli would have been a sixth-grader, or something. They said our necks weren’t picture perfect and didn’t look ideal, but they’re stable enough to keep playing football.
“Cooper had to give up playing football. In some ways, when I had my neck problems, I thought maybe I had been on borrowed time this entire time. I was fortunate to have 20 years of health to play football. If that was going to be the end of it because of a neck injury, I really, believe it or not, had a peace about it. I’ve had this unbelievable string of health to play 20 years of football — high school, college and pro ball — and I was fortunate for that.”
It was shortly before his brother Eli’s Giants defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI that Manning’s career got a reprieve.
“The doctor said, ‘Your neck is secure.’ He said, ‘I’d let you play Super Bowl Sunday and if you were my own son, I’d let you play,’ ” Manning said. “As soon as the doctor told me that it was the end of it for me on the neck discussion. Now, it was simply a matter of performance.”
A changed man
Performance-wise, Manning has come back as good as ever. But he admits, the injury has altered him profoundly.
“There are a lot of things that have changed for me since that injury, and having kids has a lot to do with that,” he said. “There was a time when I would come home from practice and I would stay up until 1-1:30 in the morning because I had to watch all four of their preseason games that night. I thought that if I didn’t watch all four of those games, the world might come to an end the next day.
“My preparation has changed. I come home, and I love spending time with the kids and putting them to bed. I don’t stay up as late. I need to get my rest more. Maybe I was a robot early on. Now, maybe I am a little more human.”
Manning has repeatedly said this game wasn’t about him, it was about his team. He said being the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two teams was never a goal. He has turned questions about his place among the game’s all-time greats into a comedy bit.
“I don’t have a list but I think I could describe the perfect quarterback,” he said. “Take a little piece of everybody. Take John Elway’s arm, Dan Marino’s release, maybe Troy Aikman’s drop-back, Brett Favre’s scrambling ability, Joe Montana’s two-minute poise and, naturally, my speed.”
“I don’t have the list but as John Elway once said, ‘Anytime you might be in the conversation of someone talking about some of their favorite quarterbacks, that’s a nice compliment in itself.’”
Elway, who is the Broncos vice president of football operations said Manning doesn’t need another Super Bowl win to validate his career.
“I don’t think this game, one way or the other, affects his legacy the way that he has played,” Elway said. “He’s going to be one of the all-time greats no matter what.”
Manning, finally, after fending off the legacy questions all week, put it like this:
“At 37 years old, and in my 16th season, especially in a week like this, I think it’s healthy to take some time to reflect and smell the roses,” he said. “This legacy question keeps popping up, and I guess I had a little more time to think about it. If I had my choice, my legacy would be that I played my butt off for every team that I ever played on, I was a really good teammate and I did everything I could to win. Anything along those lines is fine with me.
“Those are things that I care about.”