Quarterback Johnny Unitas, left, won two championships before the Super Bowl era. Peyton Manning will try to win his second Super Bowl in three tries Sunday. (Getty Images and Associated Press)
New York — The greatest quarterback in creation did not flap his arms like a bird, and he could not fly. He did not shout “Omaha” when he was ready to take the snap from center. He never shilled in TV commercials to promote the sale of pizza pies or credit cards.
And his name is not Peyton Manning. The greatest quarterback played in high-top cleats — solid black — and dropped back in mincing steps. And he fired darts to his receivers.
It is a plain coincidence Peyton Manning once wore the mellow blue uniform the greatest quarterback also wore. And by coincidence, the greatest quarterback ever did win what was once considered the greatest pro football game in history — right here in New York.
Until Peyton Manning wins a second Super Bowl, I refuse to bow to the media landslide that has declared him the greatest quarterback who ever touched an air-inflated football.
John Unitas was.
Out on top
Unitas left pro football with the legacy of a champion.
He left with two NFL championships won in an era before pro football became a sport of polish and propaganda. An era before America developed its television-induced lust for Sunday football.
Unitas left pro football 40 seasons ago with those two championships, four most valuable player awards, five AP first-team All-Pro selections and 10 Pro Bowl selections. He left with a multitude of passing records earned during the NFL’s then 12-game or 14-game seasons.
Peyton Manning is trying to develop a legacy.
He is trying to do what a young Unitas accomplished in the late 1950s.
Manning is trying to win a second championship. He is trying boost his record as a quarterback in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVIII to .500. The standard of mediocrity. He seeks an 11th victory in postseason football to square his record against his 11 postseason losses with Indianapolis and Denver.
There is an urgency now for Manning in this Super Bowl between his Broncos and the young Seattle Seahawks.
He is at the climax of his 16th NFL season. He is nearly 38. He has endured injuries. He has a football historian’s appreciation for legacies.
“I know that there are a number of players who have walked away as champions,” he told the Super Bowl media during this past week’s prelude.
“I’m sure that it’s a great feeling for those people. John Elway. Ray Lewis did it last year. And Michael Strahan. In talking to Ray Lewis and John Elway, they couldn’t play any more. They truly left it all out there.
“I’ve been truly at a one-year-at-a-time basis. So I really have no plans beyond this game.”
Elway. Lewis. Strahan. They sealed their legacies by winning their last games — in Super Bowls.
The Seahawks’ defense turns mortal quarterbacks into jittery ducks. Colin Kaepernick and QBs of his ilk.
Manning already is immortal. The numbers prove that. But Richard Sherman and the other Seattle defenders will supply that football pressure against Manning. He will flap his wings behind the line. Do a waltz step or two. Cry out the mysterious “Omaha” signal. And think certainly as the snap comes of the pressure being targeted on him.
But some place inside, there must be the mental pressure: the legacy. What will it be?
The greatest game
“I met John Unitas,” Manning told me at his previous Super Bowl.
He and the Indianapolis Colts lost that one.
And there was a certain reverence, a certain awe as Manning talked about Unitas and their private conversation.
Within Unitas’ legacy is the victory in what — then — was considered “the greatest game ever played.” It was December 1958 — one year after the Lions won their last championship. Even then, more than a half-century ago, we the media rolled out the superlatives.
That Sunday the Baltimore Colts played the New York Giants in the old Yankee Stadium for the NFL championship — eight years before the origination of the Super Bowl. It was tied 17-17 after four quarters.
And in sudden-death overtime Unitas, with his play-calling, with his darted passes, with his generalship guided the Colts the distance — to their touchdown with Alan Ameche powering 1 yard into the end zone. Colts 23, Giants 17.
That day Unitas was cited as the greatest — superlative — greater than Sammy Baugh, greater than Sid Luckman, greater than Bobby Layne and Otto Graham and Benny Friedman.
Unitas carried the Colts to a second NFL championship the following season. He played into the Super Bowl era, starting in 1967, continuing with various injuries long after he should have, in Manning’s words, left it all out there.
But Johnny U took his legacy with him.
This now must be Manning’s quest on Sunday — to finalize his legacy. To win a second Super Bowl — with all this greatness and all the accolades — Peyton has managed to win only one Super Bowl. Jeff Hostetler, Doug Williams and Trent Dilfer have won that many Super Bowls, too.
Peyton is playing catch-up at this Super Bowl. His quest is to match Unitas with two NFL championships. And Elway with two Super Bowl victories. And catch up with his kid brother, Eli, and regain the family bragging rights.
Jerry Green is one of two newspaper writers who have covered every Super Bowl. Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger is the other.