On that not-too-distant day Peyton Manning announces his retirement from football, he’ll be celebrated as the most productive passer in NFL history.
Winner of five Most Valuable Player awards and selected 14 times to the Pro Bowl, Manning has thrown for a league-record 71,940 yards, a number better comprehended this way: 40.8 miles.
And yet when the playoffs resume this weekend, the Denver Broncos’ 40.8-mile man will rate as No. 8 among the eight starting quarterbacks whose teams have made it to the division round. Manning might be a legend but he is not to be confused with Superman — more on that guy in a moment — a reality confirmed by the plantar fascia tear near his left heel.
Manning’s injury sidelined him for two months, but during the third quarter of the regular-season finale, when the Broncos needed some relief help to secure the top-seed status in the AFC, the 39-year-old replaced the struggling Brock Osweiler and rallied Denver to a comeback victory over San Diego.
So Manning will take the first snap against Pittsburgh, a lifetime-achievement distinction based on his 24 games of postseason experience.
Welcome, fans, to the middle of January, when the person standing behind the center is transformed from an essential player into the main-man, leader-of-the-pack hoss who almost certainly will determine the difference between advancement and elimination.
Eight teams remain in contention for the Super Bowl. All eight of these teams boast quarterbacks who fit any definition of “elite.” This can’t be a coincidence.
To evaluate the eight in a nutshell is to envision the home stretch of Academy Awards telecast. In the category of Best Player in a Leading Role, the nominees are:
▪ Tom Brady, for making the four-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots a dynasty in a league arranged for parity.
▪ Alex Smith, for his heady, steady stewardship of the AFC’s most feared underdogs, Kansas City Chiefs.
▪ Carson Palmer, for his late-career emergence as an MVP candidate with the Arizona Cardinals.
▪ Aaron Rodgers, for his 104.7 career passer rating — best in NFL history — with the Green Bay Packers.
▪ Russell Wilson, for putting the Seattle Seahawks in position to become the first NFC team to appear in three consecutive Super Bowls.
▪ Cam Newton, for throwing 30 touchdown passes and running for 10 more in 2015 — an unprecedented achievement that vaulted the Carolina Panthers from so-so to a 15-1 powerhouse.
▪ Peyton Manning, for setting NFL records in all-time passing yards and touchdowns during the swan-song phase of his career with the Denver Broncos.
▪ Ben Roethlisberger, for winning one Super Bowl as a pedestrian game-manager with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and another as a sure-armed slinger who couldn’t miss.
Manning, Brady and Rodgers are first-ballot cinches for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and despite his off-field issues, Roethlisberger appears destined for enshrinement as well.
And while Wilson still has some work to do after only four seasons in the league, the odds are short — as in, Secretariat in his prime short – he will join them. (When Wilson’s induction is announced on the eve of the 2030 Super Bowl in London, his conversion of a muffed snap last Sunday into The Play That Saved A Season will be prominent in the career-highlight video package shown on whatever medium that resembles television in 2030.)
As wondrous as he is, Wilson won’t merit the check-box mark in the position-matchup graphic preceding the Seahawks game Sunday against the Panthers. That’ll go to Newton, whose crusade to cast himself as the NFL’s version of Superman finds his many detractors grumbling about a violation of truth, justice and the American Way.
Get over it. There’s a reason Newton is the only player to have won a Heisman Trophy, participated on a national championship team and been selected as the first overall draft choice in the same year. That he’s talented and wealthy and peers into cameras with the self-assured smile of a glamorous movie star should not obscure the possibility he’ll be recalled, someday, as the greatest of quarterbacks.
Alex Smith won’t be in that discussion. The Chiefs’ QB is perceived as an overachiever by those who’ve forgotten he was the NFL’s first overall draft choice in 2005, but the label will endure because he’s uncommonly intelligent.
Smith vs. Brady looms on the Saturday undercard between the Chiefs and Patriots, followed by Rodgers vs. Palmer in the nightcap between the Packers and Cardinals. Sunday figures to be a buckle-the-seatbelts showdown of dynamic dual-threats at Carolina — Wilson vs. Newton — before the weekend winds down at Denver, where the ailing Manning will be opposed by Roethlisberger, who sprained an AC joint and tore ligaments in his right shoulder during the Steelers’ brutal wild-card victory at Cincinnati.
Four games will showcase as many as five future Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, Wilson and Newton), two Heisman Trophy winners (Palmer and Newton), four No. 1 overall draft choices (Manning, Palmer, Smith and Newton) and two players (Manning and Roethlisberger) who’d be standing on the sideline in street clothes if chance to go the Super Bowl wasn’t at stake.
Consider this — Brady, Roethlisberger, Manning, Wilson and Rodgers have combined for 14 Super Bowl appearances, including nine victories. And only 49 Super Bowls have ever been played.
As for the winner of the Best Player in a Leading Role?
The envelope is yours, Steve Harvey.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org