Every era believes it has seen the best quarterback to play the game. No one will be more clutch than John Elway, more mechanically sound than Johnny Unitas or better pre-snap than Joe Montana. These discussions have created water cooler arguments for decades, but many football fans unite to agree on one player -- Peyton Manning.
There's something haunting about watching Manning play because he defies expectations. We're told playing quarterback is the hardest job in the hardest sport with the most pressure, but he makes it all look easy. Obviously it isn't simple, but there's something elegant about watching him from pre-snap to completion. It's a ballet with more barking, an economy of movement from the quarterback while offensive players react, moving around him like satellites -- desperately glancing back at their passer to make sure things are being done just right.
Everyone is a "field general" these days, because it's a fun way of saying "this dude's important" while evoking imagery of military bravery. But when it comes to Manning? It really is an apt descriptor. Everybody watches him, an entire team leans on him, while elevating him to the rare status where coaches begin to be questioned the way wide receivers often are: "Is it him or is it Peyton Manning?"
Most cultures have a phrase or string of words than connote a gleeful anticipation of possible failure. It's a glass ceiling that ensures someone can be good, as long as they're not too good. The critique of Manning used to be that he couldn't win the big one. Bred out of eight years without a Super Bowl win in Indianapolis, there was a pervasive perception that he would be good enough to be the league's best statistically, but not practically.
After the Colts won in 2007 the conversation changed. Manning bought himself some time, but when it became clear Indianapolis wouldn't be a dynasty the same doubts were raised. It morphed into "he hasn't won the big one enough," which persisted until his injury.
Having neck surgery arrived at a time where excuses no longer needed to be manufactured, it was a foregone conclusion Manning couldn't rebound from a potentially career-ending injury. It was time to faux-mourn what was lost, pour one out for No. 18 and start filming the retrospective documentary. The veteran quarterback spoiled the narrative again, bouncing back from injury a clearly different quarterback, but better than ever in many ways.
Now all that's left is the weather. Mother nature is the final bastion of hope for those trying desperately to find reason why Manning isn't one of the best ever. If he falters in the cold and snow they win, a victory will finally kill the narratives (maybe).
If something is missing it's often better to step back and approach it again with fresh eyes. It feels like Manning's neck injury was that moment. Perhaps it's too presumptuous and romantic to envision the hobbled veteran learning to thrive in spite of his deficiency, but we only have the result to go off. His arm might not throw the ball as far, and the needle might not be thread quite as quickly -- but in many ways Peyton Manning is the best version of himself we've ever seen.
Those small physical problems have been patched with a heightened mental game. Manning is more active pre-snap than he's even been and his decision making feels like it's been muted by a lack of physical confidence, giving birth to a quarterback who's on-field evaluation is a cut above anyone else who plays the game, or perhaps has ever played the game.
5,477 yards, 55 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. These are the numbers, they tell part of the story. The stars in a wide sky of a career spanning years and towns, places and moments. Peyton Manning's journey to the Super Bowl is one of immense success but snark, a constant effort to find ways to diminish the accomplishments of the best quarterback of his era. One game remains that will allow him to put a second ring on his hand, kill the narratives and determine whether he's remembered as one of the best on paper, or simply one of the best.