On the day former Tennessee quarterback and sure-fire Pro Football Hall of Famer Peyton Manning announces his retirement from the sport, it should be pointed out that SEC fans have a unique perspective from which to view Manning’s career. They, maybe more so than anyone else, can attest that Manning’s legacy as a player is more complicated than it initially appears.
Manning’s complicated legacy was perhaps most succinctly explained by ESPN’s Mike Greenberg, who called the former Colts and Broncos quarterback, “The best regular season quarterback I ever saw.”
It’s the words Greenberg doesn’t use there that actually speak the loudest. By calling Manning a great regular season quarterback, the implication is made that Manning was something less than great in postseason games — the time of year when the reputations of quarterbacks are truly earned.
The numbers back up Greenberg’s suggestion.
Manning ends his illustrious career with plenty of touchdown throws and passing records, but with only a 14-13 record as a starting quarterback in the playoffs. This gives him more losses than any other quarterback in postseason history — which is partially an argument in favor of Manning, because only a good quarterback would even get a chance to start that many games. However, what cannot be discounted — and what is unquestionably Manning’s most disappointing career statistic — is that his teams exited the playoffs without winning a single game nine times over the course of his career. Many of those so-called “one and done” performances came in games where Manning’s team was the point-spread favorite.
Those numbers create a conversation about Manning’s place in pro football history that is unlikely to ever cease, but SEC fans know that the debate regarding Manning actually began long before he was ever drafted into the NFL.
During Manning’s years at Tennessee, there were no playoffs in college football, but the annual game Manning’s Vols played against Florida might as well have been a playoff game because of the attention those contests received. Manning lost to the Gators all four years while in college. Those losses cost Manning any hope of winning a national title, and also stand as the most likely reason why he never won the Heisman Trophy.
The fact that Tennessee did finally win the national championship in 1998, the very next season after Manning’s departure from school, only serves to magnify Manning’s collection of missed opportunities.
This is — of course — too simplistic an assessment of Manning’s career. Sure, there may have been many playoff losses in the NFL, but there were also two Super Bowl wins. Manning may never have beaten Florida while in college, but he did lead his team to an SEC championship in 1997.
A career doesn’t have to be perfect to be great, and Manning — while in some senses imperfect — leaves football with his greatness secure.
That can admittedly be a hard concept to process. Manning just doesn’t fit well into the typical format of sports radio and TV debate shows. Those kinds of programs require every topic to be broken down into simple declarative statements. A player is either the greatest ever or worst of all-time, and there’s little room for nuance.
Manning, on the other hand, is more of a subject for a longform writer who enjoys employing conjunctions. The best sentences to describe him will have to include an “and” or a “but.”
Manning is a statistical giant in football and he often underperformed in comparison to those statistics in his team’s biggest games. He led his teams to many wins but maybe not as many as he should have.
It’s a complicated truth, and SEC fans witnessed it first hand.