Never, never, write off an old-timer in the National Football League – at least not when he’s a quarterback called Peyton Manning.
Little more than two years ago, at the ripe old age of 35 and virtually unable to throw the ball, Manning underwent neck surgery that might have ended his career. Such fears, to put it mildly, have proved unfounded. On Sunday, as his Denver Broncos brushed aside the Oakland Raiders, Manning wrapped up statistically the greatest regular season by a quarterback in NFL history.
In truth, he only played half a game, but that was more than enough. At the interval the Broncos led 31-0, by which time Manning had already thrown four more touchdown passes to bring his 2013 total to 55, eclipsing the previous record of 51 held by Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.
In the process, he threw for 266 yards, setting a new single season mark of 5,477 and helped Denver to a new team scoring record of 606 points, almost 38 per game. At half-time, with both the game and the records in the bag, and the Broncos certain of top-seed status with home-field advantage in the AFC play-offs, Manning was withdrawn to conserve him for the more important battles ahead.
Statistics alone, of course, are not the only measure of historical greatness. A string of NFL rule changes in the last two decades, helping offenses and protecting quarterbacks, have given a significant boost both to the passing game at which Manning excels, and to scoring in general.
Manning may be the best of his era – “He’s set the standard,” Brady, the only current NFL quarterback of comparable age and achievement, told Sports Illustrated magazine, which didn’t even wait until the end of the regular NFL season before naming Manning its 2013 sportsman of the year.
But many a purist would hold that the greatest season of all belongs to the Miami Dolphins’ Dan Marino in 1984, when he threw for 48 touchdowns and became the first to break the 5,000-yard barrier, records which lasted for 20 years. Marino, though, never had to come back from comparable adversity. Manning had spent his first 13 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, and expected to end his playing days with them. Then came the annus horribilis of 2011, during which he underwent four neck operations to repair, and ultimately remove, a herniated disc that had destroyed the nerve in the right throwing arm on which all depended.
He missed the entire season (when Indianapolis went 2 and 14), but even worse was to follow. Manning’s arm was recovering, but in March 2012, the team announced it was dispensing with his services. That appalling Manning-less 2011 record guaranteed the Colts first pick in the 2012 draft, and the Colts had their eye on Andrew Luck of Stanford University.
Manning was stunned. Half a dozen NFL teams enquired about him, but he chose Denver. “He wanted to prove they’d made the wrong decision,” John Elway, the Broncos’ vice-president for football operations, said later. “When great competitors get scorned, they come back with a vengeance. We signed a Hall of Famer with a chip on his shoulder.”
By one reading, the Colts made the right decision. Luck has been terrific, becoming the first NFL quarterback to throw for more than 8,000 yards in his two debut seasons, in each leading his team to the playoffs. Last year, Indianopolis fell in the wild-card round. If they can clear that hurdle this weekend, the Colts could face the Broncos, setting up what surely would be the most gripping post-season match-up of all, between the young pretender and the spurned old master.
But in another sense, the Colts were mistaken. Against the odds, Peyton Manning at 37 is as good as ever. True, the arm speed may be a fraction less, but the consistency and the metronomic accuracy are intact. A Manning-led drive is brisk and all business, whose outcome seems virtually inevitable from the outset.
His first two regular seasons in Denver both produced 13-3 records, each time tied for best in the NFL. Last year’s quest for a championship ended in a wrenching 38-35 double overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens, who went on to win the Super Bowl. Revenge was almost instant however. In the very first game of the new 2013 season, Manning tied yet another League record by throwing seven touchdowns in a single game, as the Broncos crushed the Ravens 49-27.
Manning has already won one Super Bowl with the Colts, back in 2007. Now nothing less than another will suffice. Only the Colts and Brady’s injury-battered Patriots would seem to stand between Denver and another AFC title. For the oddsmakers, the final showdown will be between Manning and the Seattle Seahawks – led by Russell Wilson, along with Luck the other prime novice pretender to the master’s crown.
And if Manning does go all the way, he will silence his few remaining critics for good. He’s a choker, some say, who doesn’t deliver in the post-season, a player whose talent should have brought him more than one championship ring. And, others add, he’s no good in really cold weather. Super Bowl XLVIII could lay that charge to rest for ever. It will be played in the open air across the Hudson river from New York City on 2 February, statistically the snowiest day of the year.