Manning Up
Peyton Manning is not your average overpaid, 230-pound football player.


The sports talk this week has been mostly hysterical stuff about Randy Moss’s butt. Seems that during last week’s game in Green Bay, he pretended to moon the fans at Lambeau Field. The great surprise was not that Moss would do something vulgar and childish–he has a solid reputation for it–but that the broadcasters would react with such fastidiousness. Have they never watched television? The ads, during just about any game, are gamier–and harder to explain to the kids–than what Moss did. Every fifth grader knows about mooning and, anyway, Moss kept his pants on.

For the more resolute fan, the Moss discussion got quickly tiresome, not least because there were more interesting things to talk about. Peyton Manning’s head, for instance.

Manning finished one vote short of being unanimously certified as the NFL’s most valuable player this season. And that is an inadequate measure of the kind of year he had. He [beat] Dan Marino’s record for touchdown passes in a season–49–passed for more than 4,000 yards, and threw only 10 interceptions in 497 attempts. There is a formula for rating NFL quarterbacks and on a scale of difficulty, it ranks between Chinese arithmetic and the IRS code. Suffice it to say that Manning’s number–121.1–was record-breaking…and to a degree that is astonishing.

But the numbers don’t do justice to what Manning has done for professional football. He plays the game–and his position–in a way that moves aficionados to recall, mistily, the legendary quarterbacks who could take over a game not so much with their arm or legs, but with the head. Manning, more than anyone who has played the position in a long, long time, wins because he out-thinks the other guys. Standing stoop-shouldered in the blue jersey, helmet with the horseshoe logo on it, and looking not very much like an athlete, he reminds you of Johnny Unitas, the great Colt quarterback who made professional football the national sport. That was in the 1959 championship game against the New York Giants which was tied at the end of regulation. In a long drive in overtime, Unitas called the plays like a chess master setting up an opponent who is good–very good–but still outclassed. Unitas was merciless, carving up the Giants defense, and you could imagine that he loved every remorseless minute.

Unitas was one of the last quarterbacks to call his own plays. Football is a coach’s game and coaches crave control like a junkie lusts for drugs. They started sending plays by substituting players, then signaling them in from the sideline and, finally, went with the tech solution–earphones in the quarterback’s helmet.

There were quarterbacks who resisted but the coaches prevailed. In the modern game, coaches call the plays; quarterbacks execute them.

Like every other professional quarterback, Manning gets plays called in to him. But he changes them at the line more than any other quarterback. The picture most fans carry in their minds of Manning is of him standing erect, wildly pointing and urgently shouting out new signals to his players. Earlier this season, Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens linebacker, tried to rattle Manning by mirroring the pointing and the other gestures. Manning didn’t rattle and the play he’d called left a receiver so wide open that he could have been lost in space. He took Manning’s pass in for an easy touchdown.

While he is not even 30 years old, Manning has been doing this for a long time now. He could probably see a blitz coming and pick up the hot receiver while he was still in diapers. His father is Archie Manning, who played quarterback for the University of Mississippi and married the homecoming queen. People who watched him play never forgot it and in Mississippi they still talk about “Archie,” in tones that make it clear he wasn’t made from your ordinary clay.

Archie never won championships at Mississippi and his professional career–mostly with the hapless New Orleans Saints–was more like a sentence than a job. The Mannings raised three sons to be football players. One, Cooper, had to give up the game because of a spinal condition that made it dangerous for him to play. Peyton, playing high school quarterback, completed 80 passes to Cooper.

And when his brother could no longer play, Peyton felt as though the torch had been passed to him. He could have followed in his father’s footsteps but the University of Mississippi’s football team had declined so far that even a talent like Manning’s could not resurrect it.

He went to Tennessee and the Mannings got hate mail.

He could have gone professional after his junior year but returned for his senior season hoping to lead Tennessee to a conference–and possibly a national–championship. There was also the possibility of a Heisman Trophy. But Manning–and Tennessee–couldn’t beat Florida. Not that year. Not ever. He started three games against Florida and Tennessee lost them all.

Still, he had a brilliant career at Tennessee and there is a street leading to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville that is called “Peyton Manning Pass.”

His career in the pros has been, if anything, more impressive. Except when he is playing against New England, the team he and the Colts will face this weekend, in the 2nd round of the NFL playoffs. If they win, the Colts move on to play for the American Conference championship. Win that, and they are in the Super Bowl. Winning the Super Bowl validates you as a quarterback and Manning still hasn’t done it.

The obstacle has been the New England Patriots. Last season, in the playoffs, Manning threw four interceptions in a loss to New England.”I played like a dog,” he says. He was better in the first game of this season. But the Colts still lost.

Both those losses were in New England, where the game will be played this weekend. One theory you hear discussed among the football cognoscenti is that Patriot coach Bill Belichick has Manning’s number. That Manning might be the brainiest, canniest quarterback anyone has seen in a long time; but Belichick is even smarter and craftier. He was, after all, the defensive co-ordinater for Bill Parcells on his Super Bowl teams. As people like to point out, “Belichick has won Super Bowls without Parcells, but Parcells has never won a Super Bowl without Belichick.”

So, the question is: DoesBelichick have Manning’s number? Has he, somehow, gotten inside his head? Can Manning beat the Patriots?

Manning–who looks like what Huck Finn would have looked like if Huck had been 6 foot, five inches and 230 pounds and played pro-football–is saying all the right things. How tough the Patriots are…how much he respects them…what great players and how well coached they are…blah, blah, blah.

One suspects that he learned to talk this way at his daddy’s knee, which is where he also learned to study film and break down defenses. The Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions. Manning is the best quarterback in football. This is a playoff football game.

Why is anyone talking about Randy Moss’s butt?

Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.


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