Peyton’s Quest

Written the morning after Super Bowl XLIV



It’s about 2:30 and I can’t sleep. Images of the Super Bowl are still racing through my head. The one that will remain ingrained in my memory is Peyton Manning slowly walking off the field after the game. This one was absolute heartache; this is one he should have won.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the name Peyton Manning. It was 1995 and I was at soccer practice. Coach Ken could not stop talking about this sophomore quarterback named Peyton who was gonna lead the Vols to glory. You see, Coach Ken was a UT alum who lived and died with every Rocky Top game. He believed that this young quarterback was gonna lead the team to greatness. So, the enthusiastic young sports fan that I was, I decided to check out Tennessee.

I saw, what everyone else saw. Here was the real deal. A man with a cannon of an arm who put up astronomical numbers. My first thought was—this guy can’t miss. Shoot, he’s never gonna lose. He rarely did.

But, those Vols teams never quite lived up to the hype. In the big games, they routinely got shellacked. I’ll never forget Peyton in the Swamp. It must have been 1996. Those were classic matchups because they pitted top 10 teams against one another on the 3rd Saturday in  September. So, both teams played a couple scrubs to get their feet wet—then faced each other in an epic matchup.  Looking back on Wikipedia— both teams were ranked in the top 5 as the time. Tennessee was No. 2 and had national title aspirations. Florida had Steve Spurrier, the Fun n’ Gun, and a ferocious D. I had high hopes for Manning, and the team I had begun following closely. Shoot, those guys on College Gameday were nuts. Florida wasn’t going to dominate; Peyton would find a way to prevail.

Florida’s D dashed my hopes. It seemed like Manning ran for his life the entire afternoon and spent a good chunk of  time on his butt as his offensive line wilted under constant pressure. The game was a rout. Florida scored, Tennessee punted or turned the ball over, and Florida scored again. It was brutal to watch.

After the game, with Tennessee’s national title hopes dashed, some reporter asked Spurrier what he thought of the Vols prospects for the year. His answer was classic Spurrier: “Well, you can’t spell Citrus (Bowl) without UT. Tennessee fans went nuts. Spurrier, as he always seemed to, stroked the fire after kicking the opposition’s ass.

That year, sure enough, the Vols ended up in  the  Citrus Bowl. Tennessee won going away and the 4th quarter was spent listening to speculation of whether Manning would  come back and play his senior year.

He did.

The next fall started out the same. Both UT and Florida were in the top 5 when they met. Florida won convincingly. People began to wonder, can Peyton win the big game? Shoot, it seemed like a reasonable question, he was beating everybody else—Alabama, Georgia, and LSU were no match for him. Manning led his team to the Orange Bowl in  Miami. It wasn’t the national championship game, but it was a premier bowl game against Nebraska. Surely, Manning would lead his team to victory and end his collegiate career on top.

Nebraska won convincingly. More than that…it was a slaughter. The Huskers ended up with a split national title with Michigan.

Peyton Manning went off to the NFL and began a great career. He put up gaudy numbers almost immediately. But, he couldn’t win in  the playoffs. He  lost 3 straight including a 41-0 shellacking at the hands of the Jets. Did that follow the infamous “Playoffs,”Jim Mora soundbit? I don’t remember. Clearly, Manning was out of his league when the games mattered most.

And that’s when it happened. I fell out of love with Peyton Manning. The Texans entrance into the NFL, and the subsequent re-alignment which placed the Colts in the AFC South, only accelerated the falling out. But then, Tony Dungy left Tampa for Indy and the Colts began dominating the AFC during the regular season…including their routine W’s over the Texans.

My only solace was the Patriots. They humbled Manning in 2003 and 2004. The Steelers took care of Manning in 2005. The qb always seemed to be the bridesmaid and never the SB winning bride. Finally, Manning and Dungy put it together in 2006 and won their championship.

Manning removed the monkey off his back in February 2007. Since then, his greatness has been readily acknowledged and their are no  more comparisons to the likes of Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, and Fran Tarkentons(hall of famers without the ultimate prize).  He earned universal respect as a world champion and was widely acknowledged as the best qb in the game. He’s certainly held that title since Week One of 2008.

This week was a Manning love fest. Shoot, even the Saints talked of him in glowing terms. The debate was whether this win would make him the greatest of all time.

I think this win would put him at No. 3 behind Unitas and Montana. Seriously, no offense to Brady and Elway, but Brady couldn’t capture those titles without his defensive genius Bill Belicheck and Elway couldn’t come close in the big game until he had Terrell Davis. Ditto Dan Marino. One thing I remember saying—Manning would never throw that pass Brett Favre made at the end of regulation in the NFC Championship. He never makes that mistake.

Fast forward to Super Bowl 44. 4th quarter: Colts down 7.This is gonna happen—I remember saying as the Colts got the kick off with some 5 minutes to go. Manning leads the team swiftly down the field. It seemed too easy; it seemed preordained. This SB is going to overtime. “Wouldn’t it be great if it went to OT and the team that won the toss went down to kick a field goal and win?”I remember asking my dad.

Then it happened…Manning drops back on 3rd and 5. No problem. Does anyone make 3rd downs look so effortlessly as Manning? He throws it out to Reggie Wayne.

Then…It happened. A pick six. And in that instant—as Tracy Porter headed 76 yards towards the end zone, I fell back in love with Peyton.

Maybe, that love came back because I realized he’ll never be the best of all time. Sure, he will set all the statistical records and probably beat Brett Favre’s ironman streak. He might even win another Super Bowl or two. And maybe, everyone else will conclude that he’s the greatest of all time.

But, you can’t beat clutch and you can’t beat perfection.

Tom Brady won 3 Super Bowls and only Eli Manning’s heroics deprived him of a 4th. Brady led his team to a 14-10 lead with less than 3 minutes left. He did not lose that title.

Joe Montana won 4 Super Bowls. He never threw an INT in the biggest game. His will always be the mark. Shoot, you can’t beat perfection. Even my mom said: “Peyton’s good, but he’s no Montana.”

Manning, rightly or wrongly, will go  down as the goat of this game. He had the ball in his  hand, marching his team down the field for a tying score. He threw a pick six!!! Are you freaking kidding me. Wow.

I still thought he could pull it out. But alas, his final effort came up short.

And, in his failure, I came to love him again. I loved him for giving me great effort, producing dramatic television, and keeping me on the edge of my seat. I love him because I never get cheated—it’s always worth the 3 hour investment. Mostly I love him because he throws the football the way it was made to be thrown.

He’s the most talented qb in the league and he works diligently at his craft. He doesn’t coast on his talent. He doesn’t waste it. He leaves nothing to chance. Sometimes, that’s not good enough. Sometimes, the other team is JUST a little better. But, that’s life.


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