One morning in the fall of 1995, David Cutcliffe was sitting in his office at the University of Tennessee, trying to put words to greatness not yet achieved. Cutcliffe was 41, an Alabama graduate who was in his third year as offensive coordinator for the Volunteers. Four years later he would become head coach at Mississippi, and he now holds that same position at Duke. He's the kind of man who can leave a civilian in the dust about 45 seconds after he starts talking about the passing game. Back in '95 he was on his way up the ladder, still trying to measure what might be in front of him.
His quarterback-in-training was a lanky sophomore named Peyton Manning, whose lineage was thoroughly discussed then, though not as thoroughly as it is now. Manning was still largely unproven as a college quarterback. A writer sat across from Cutcliffe doing what writers do: Trying to elicit breathless quotes about a subject. Manning's predecessor at Tennessee had been Heath Shuler, who was as good in college as he was bad in the NFL, and who is now a U.S. congressman from North Carolina.
Deep down, Cutcliffe felt that he knew what he had in Manning. But here he took a leap. "No disrespect to the guy we had here before," Cutcliffe said. "But don't compare this kid to anybody. Before it's all done, you're going to be talking about Super Bowls and Hall of Fame and maybe the best ever." Cutcliffe isn't the first coach to turn loose the hyperbole on an unproven kid, but he was right. Super Bowl (one victory, one loss), Hall of Fame (lock), best ever (in the discussion).
There are grounds for debating Manning's greatness, but only within a very narrow and rarefied range. He's had trouble beating Bill Belichick (5--7 regular season, 1--2 in the playoffs). In his own generation maybe Tom Brady has been better, depending on how you calculate. Manning won a Super Bowl (XLI) but, again, only one. He played indoors. Still, if Manning never plays another game, both Brady and Drew Brees will need at least three more monster years to surpass his career-yardage total, which ranks behind only Brett Favre's and Dan Marino's.
Less tangibly, no quarterback has been more responsible than Manning for refining the modern precision passing game, or for restoring the decidedly old-school skill of calling his own game. At its peak (2006--09) the Colts' air attack was almost unstoppable, the product of Manning's intellect, anticipatory throwing and courage in the pocket. And he has been (or was?) the face of his franchise for longer, and to a greater degree, than any other active player. All pretty remarkable for a guy whose delivery is a little too high, whose passes often wobble and who can't outrun Vince Wilfork.
Sadly, this reckoning of Manning's work has taken on the feel of a professional obituary. Manning, 35, missed the entire season when his neck was slow to heal from three surgeries. The Colts went 2--14, and owner Jim Irsay fired vice chairman Bill Polian, general manager Chris Polian and coach Jim Caldwell and prepared to select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the first pick in the 2012 draft. Manning, meanwhile, twisted in the wind, saying little until last week, when he got frosted at seeing Irsay pal Rob Lowe tweet that Manning was retiring. Peyton took his case public in an interview with The Indianapolis Star. Irsay responded in a less-exclusive manner, and then both men issued a preposterous joint statement promising to make nice while the Super Bowl is in their shared city.
It's no minor plot point in all of this that one of the teams in that city this week is the Giants, for whom Manning's little brother, Eli, is the quarterback. Four years ago, when Eli's Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, Peyton gave interviews in which he expressed genuine pride in his little bro. Now the ever-hungry maw of sportswriting, talking and blogging is demanding to know whether another Super Bowl victory would allow Eli to surpass Peyton on the alltime quarterback ladder. The answer is unequivocally no, but the fact that the question is even being posed is all you need to know about Peyton's year.
The reality of the iconic, face-of-the-franchise NFL quarterback nearing the end is often unpleasant. John Elway, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw and Marino all played their entire careers with one team and left at various spots along the dignity timeline: Elway with a farewell Super Bowl, Marino with a pile of records, Aikman and Bradshaw with multiple Super Bowls though diminished by injuries at the end.
But Joe Montana played his final two seasons with the Chiefs, a bizarre figure wearing number 19 in red and yellow. Joe Namath closed out with the L.A. Rams, hobbling on surgical knees 3,000 miles from Broadway. Unitas went to the Chargers at age 40, and in his last start he completed as many passes to the Steelers (two) as to his own receivers. The most graceless of all graceless exits belongs to Favre, who went from the Packers to the Jets to the Vikings, and who was rumored to be considering another comeback as recently as November.
Manning seemed more likely to follow the lifer model. Maybe not with an exit Super Bowl like Elway, maybe not with quite as much damage as Aikman or Bradshaw, but with one more Super Bowl than Marino.