American Football: It's now or never for Manning the nearly man

The Indianapolis quarterback has set records but, Nick Halling writes, Super Bowl XLI will decide whether he can shake off a reputation as a 'choker'

Few players have mastered the art of playing quarterback quite like Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. In a sport obsessed with statistics, Manning's body of work bears comparison with any of the legends of yesteryear.

In nine seasons, he has thrown for 37,586 yards, and in seven of those nine years, he has thrown for over 4,000 yards, a figure most passers would be delighted to attain just once. In addition, to the yardage, he has compiled 275 touchdowns at an astonishingly consistent rate. He has never thrown fewer than the 26 he managed as a rookie in 1998. Nobody has ever thrown for as many yards or touchdowns in their first nine seasons, not even the prolific Dan Marino.

He is durable, too, having never missed a game through injury, while his ability to analyse and break down an opposing defence is a skill at which he is the unquestioned master.

All of which leads to a conundrum. The American sporting public, and many millions more around the world, will watch Manning lead his Colts against the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI tomorrow night, and ask the same question. Can Peyton Manning win when it really matters, or will he stumble as he so often has in the past on the threshold of greatness? Anything less than victory for the Colts here tomorrow, and the whispering campaign will reach a climax. Peyton Manning, they will say, may put up big numbers, but he will never be a great quarterback.

It is no exaggeration to say that Manning is facing his destiny head-on. Born 30 years ago in New Orleans, the second son of the former Saints quarterback Archie, Peyton was throwing footballs almost before he could walk. A brilliant college career at the University of Tennessee had Manning marked down early for a professional career, and it did not seem to matter that he missed out on winning a Heisman trophy, the award given annually to college football's pre-eminent performer. Nor that Tennessee failed to win a national championship under his stewardship.

The Colts had no doubts, making him the first player selected in the 1998 collegiate draft. His rookie year was a difficult one, even if his talent was clearly evident. But under Manning, the Colts have won plenty of regular-season games, only to crumble hopelessly when the tempo was raised for the play-offs.

Even this season, when the Colts have reached their first Super Bowl in 36 years, they had done so in spite of Manning, not because of him. His return of six interceptions against only two touchdowns during three post-season games hardly inspires confidence.

Part of the problem has been his personality. Introverted, driven and fiercely competitive, Manning has sometimes tried to do too much on his own. As his head coach, the shrewd Tony Dungy, pointed out: "I don't think Peyton is going to change with this being the Super Bowl. Every game is the Super Bowl to him." Team-mates have sensed a mellowing in their leader, however, and it is this that helped the Colts to overcome a 21-3 deficit against their long-time nemesis, the New England Patriots, to book their passage to Miami.

Manning did not panic, but was businesslike and poised as the Colts embarked on an extraordinary second half in which they prevailed against the Patriots 38-34. But unlike previous years, when the quarterback would have tried to be the hero, the Colts were successful by balancing Peyton's passing with the powerful runs of Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes.

"He finally understands that it's not all about him," said the Colts' Aaron Moorehead. "As long as he's comfortable and not too wound up, we'll be the same way. If he's wound up and acting nervous, we'll be that way too."

Moorehead has touched upon the key to this year's Super Bowl. Chicago cannot match their rivals for offensive firepower, but defensively the Bears are a handful, and they will come after Manning relentlessly, hoping to force him into making costly mistakes.

How will he cope, not only with the Bears in his face, but also the scrutiny of millions waiting expectantly for further evidence that Manning is guilty of the worst crime in American sports, of being a choker? Certainly there has been a relaxed air around him here this week, while his credentials have been endlessly debated in newspapers and on the airwaves. If this is the crossroads of his professional life, he seems ready to take the right path.

"The reason you have confidence is because of how hard you have worked and prepared," he said. "Pressure is something you feel only when you don't know what you are doing."

Quarterbacks are defined by what they do in the Super Bowl. Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins holds every quarterback record worth owning, yet never won the big one, a fact always brought up when discussing his legacy. "Peyton has to win it, and he erases that 'yeah but'," said the veteran broadcaster and former coach John Madden. "Then, they can never say it again."

The stakes are frighteningly high for this likeable, quiet young man from Louisiana. Victory will assure his greatness, defeat will seemingly confirm him as a master craftsman stymied by a terminal flaw. It is not a comfortable place to be, but Manning has nowhere to hide now. He has been surrounded by doubts for most of his life. Tomorrow, he will finally get the chance to dispel them once and for all.

Wembley to stage NFL game

The Miami Dolphins and New York Giants will play a regular-season game this year at Wembley, the NFL announced yesterday. The game will be played on Sunday, 28 October, the first time a regular-season game has been played outside the Americas.

NFL owners voted last October to play up to two games outside the United States every year for the next five years, with only one game to be played this year. The first regular-season game abroad was in 2005 when 103,467 saw Arizona Cardinals play San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City, the largest crowd for a regular-season game in the NFL's history.

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