Peyton Manning will walk off a field for the 293rd and perhaps final time Sunday as an active NFL quarterback. The confetti will be falling and someone, whether it’s Manning’s Denver Broncos or Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers, will be in the initial stages of savoring and reaping the rewards of a Super Bowl triumph.
Will it matter to Manning’s already considerable NFL legacy which team and which quarterback are doing the celebrating?
It certainly will, say some prominent observers.
“For Peyton Manning and [with] Peyton Manning’s understanding of history and his love for the history of the game, he’s gonna need more than one Super Bowl [victory], when his brother already has two Super Bowls,” Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin said this week. “He can’t even sit at his own table at home with the family to claim that. How could he ever sit at the table with all the greats if he can’t even sit at his own table at home?”
Manning has played 15 seasons, not counting the one he sat out with the Indianapolis Colts while on the mend from a series of neck surgeries. He has played 266 regular season games; Super Bowl 50 will be his 27th career postseason game. He has rewritten significant portions of the NFL record book and he is the league’s only five-time MVP. His ticket for Canton, Ohio, has long since been punched, and there is no debating he is an NFL quarterback legend.
The notion that Manning’s place in history could change Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, after so many seasons, games and accomplishments, might seem a bit odd. But the difference between being a one-time Super Bowl winner and being a two-time Super Bowl winner could be significant, some contend.
“You’re darn right,” Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders said. “The quarterback, he’s the only one, with the coach, who has a [won-loss] record. So it has tremendous impact.”
No one is saying that Manning is not an all-time-great quarterback no matter the outcome Sunday. He already has a place in history. But perhaps that place in history could be enhanced with a second win in what will be his fourth career Super Bowl appearance, two with the Colts and two with the Broncos.
“His spot is already carved out,” said former quarterback Kurt Warner, a Hall of Fame finalist this year. “But I just think, for me, the perception of how good he’s been at playoff time has changed a little bit over the past few weeks. It definitely would be some icing on the cake if he could win this one.”
An argument can be made that Manning is the greatest regular season quarterback ever, given his records, MVP awards and teams’ success. It has been more difficult to make the argument that Manning is the top quarterback in history minus any disclaimer. His career postseason record is 13-13. His teams have had nine one-and-done playoff exits in his career. His one Super Bowl victory is three fewer than his main contemporary rival, New England’s Tom Brady.
“In my mind he’s a Mount Rushmore quarterback in the National Football League,” said Warner, who, like Irvin and Sanders, is an analyst for the NFL Network. “But I will tell you that over the last couple weeks my perception of a few things has changed with Peyton. I think initially my perception was that he wasn’t as good at playoff time and that when you’re talking about the two quarterbacks of his era, Tom and Peyton, I think you got the impression that Tom was much better at playoff time and in those moments than Peyton was.
“And I think that was a big knock on Peyton. Again, I say big — it’s all relative within his greatness. It’s just that all the one-and-dones that people talk about and his playoff record overall. [But] when he beat Tom in that situation, not having his best stuff physically, to go to 3-1 against Tom and Bill [Belichick, the Patriots’ coach] in AFC championship games, puts himself in his fourth Super Bowl — I’m a firm believer that getting your team to the Super Bowl is a much bigger task than winning the Super Bowl.”
Yet winning this Super Bowl does matter in Manning’s unique circumstances, Warner said.
“I think if he wins this one, just because of where it places him with two Super Bowl wins, the nature of how this one played out, the fact that they beat Tom [Brady] and Bill [Belichick] to get here when everybody thought the Patriots were the best team in the AFC, I think it would mean something, especially if it’s his last game and that’s what people remember,” Warner said. “Winning at this point, I think it does take it to a little bit higher level from just the perception of him in playoff football, championship-type football, than normally I would think with a lot of guys.”
Manning cannot vault ahead of Brady with a win Sunday, both Sanders and Irvin maintained. Brady’s four Super Bowl triumphs are tied with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the most ever for a quarterback.
“You forget that,” Sanders said. “Let’s forget that argument. Brady is Brady. And now everything flows from there because you can’t compare that. I can go on and give you statistics that back that up with offensive linemen that are Pro Bowlers, with the receiving corps that Peyton has had and Brady hasn’t had. That’s a whole different thing. What Peyton is playing [for] now is for his legacy, for his rightful place. But I can’t put him beside Brady with the accomplishments. You can’t do that.”
Said Irvin: “Whenever you can have your emotional leader of your team be the quarterback, you’ve got a chance to win a lot of games, a lot of games. This is the edge that Tom Brady has always had over Peyton Manning. ... Tom Brady is down there head-butting with Gronk [tight end Rob Gronkowski] and all of those guys and celebrating the touchdowns, and he is the emotional leader of that football team. Peyton Manning has never been the emotional leader of any of his football teams. That’s why Tom has many and Peyton only has one.”
Manning, who turns 40 in March, has not said whether Sunday’s game will be his last. But he is coming off a career-worst regular season. His body betrayed him via a series of injuries, including an ailing foot that led to Brock Osweiler taking over temporarily as Denver’s starter.
Manning told Belichick on the field following the Broncos’ win over the Patriots in the AFC title game that this may be his last rodeo.
Often when an athlete acknowledges he might retire, it means he knows that he is retiring. But Manning certainly is not one to upstage the Super Bowl by making an announcement beforehand.
If this is to be his exit, he has a chance to make it a glorious one.
“Two? It’s funny because it seems as if there’s a pressure that every NFL player goes through, and certainly more so the quarterback goes through, just to win one Super Bowl,” Irvin said. “But in order to be considered one of the greats of all time, it seems as if you have to walk away with more than one.”