Like most people, I’ve had my fair share of laughs at the expense of Peyton Manning over the years. His patented Manningface scowl. That glowing arc reactor that appears on his forehead. The oversaturation of commercial appearances (paging Aaron Rodgers). But as I watched the Broncos/Raiders game last night, I was reminded of something I had forgotten over the last year: Peyton Manning is really good at football.
Like, really fucking good. Which is crazy because before this season I, (also like most people) assumed Manning was done being good at football. Even if his head somehow managed to stay attached to his neck, surely age or atrophy from being out of football for a year would catch up with him, right?
In fact, Manning’s brilliance might be more evident this year than ever before. And maybe it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise. After all, Manning’s success has never been solely predicated on his ability to throw the ball particularly hard, spin the tightest spiral or certainly, his mobility. But remember, this is a guy who just five months ago we weren’t sure would ever play again, let alone return to his previous form.
What’s made Manning’s comeback so impressive is that unlike elite athletes in other sports, Manning didn’t have the option of reinventing his game with new wrinkles in what he can do physically. Unlike Jordan who developed a post game when he couldn’t beat defenders off the dribble anymore, or a pitcher who adds a new slider to his repertoire when he loses velocity on his fastball, Manning had to do what he’s always done – just better.
And that might be the most remarkable thing of all. That Manning, in having to rely even more heavily on his command of the field, can still be among the league’s best. It’s a testament to not only the work he’s put in to recover physically, but in the preparation and work he’s put in to know the game of football better than anyone else on the field with him. It doesn’t matter if he can’t throw it 65 yards in the air or squeeze the ball into tight windows, he knows what players are going to do and where they’re going to be even before they do. Basically, Peyton Manning has become the Jedi Master of quarterbacks.
He’s become a real life version of a season in Madden playing with a subpar roster. You start out getting your shit kicked in, but eventually, you start to pick up on the little things. Recognizing what plays work against certain defenses, anticipating blitzes, making reads and audibles at the line and before you know it, Nick Foles is hoisting the Lombardi and winning the league MVP.
Is Peyton Manning the best quarterback of all time? I don’t know. There’s a growing list of guys you could make the case for wearing that crown. Montana, Elway, Marino, Unitas. And by the time he retires, a guy named Brady, too. But based on what he’s done so far, I think Manning has one title all to himself: The smartest quarterback of all time.