He went out in a flurry of references to cheap beer and mass-produced pizza, which was the thing about Peyton Manning that set him apart: For a dude who occupied the most glamorous position in American sports, he always seemed to position himself most comfortably among the masses. How many of the greatest quarterbacks of all time regularly played themselves as a suburban everyman doofus (and a parody thereof) on television?
You know the answer, and the answer is one.
On Monday afternoon, a few weeks removed from winning the second Super Bowl of his career, the real-life Peyton Manning held a televised press conference announcing his retirement from the NFL. This is, from an objective standpoint, the proper decision for Manning to make. He will spare us the ignominy of a post-Denver career with the Los Angeles Rams that might have potentially wound up an unmitigated disaster, given the precarious state of Manning’s body at this point. He will go out as at least one of the top five quarterbacks in NFL history, and maybe something more than that, depending on your perspective on the perpetual barroom/talk-radio arguments that will now attend his career.
And that’s the thing about Manning: He is obviously a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he will obviously be recognized as a player who revolutionized his position in the way he analyzed and studied and prepared for opponents. His numbers are astonishing: He is the career leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns, and he won five Most Valuable Player awards. If you measure greatness in terms of prolific statistics, he is at the top. But nobody does that in the modern age; if the measure of greatness weren’t winning, then Donald Trump would still be a reality television character. Because of that, there will be always be buts with Manning, in part because he will always be set up against Tom Brady, who within that paradigm has twice as many Super Bowls (as of now) and a better case to be recognized as the greatest quarterback of all time.
Part of the fascination with this comparison is that Brady and Manning’s public perceptions were so divergent; Brady, with his Ugg ads and supermodel wife, always stood above the masses. Manning was the sloppy dad, spilling marinara sauce from that chicken parm sandwich spilling down his shirt. And the wins and losses reinforce the perception: Manning was 6-11 in his career against Brady; he was 14-13 all-time in the playoffs, and nine of the teams he played on lost their first playoff game. Before he won that first Super Bowl with the Colts, Manning was seen as the cerebral nerd who couldn’t get out of his own way in crunch time.
A second Super Bowl win unquestionably aids that perception of Manning. But there is also no doubt that Manning’s second Super Bowl was a gift bequeathed by his defense and bolstered by backup quarterback Brock Osweiler, who stepped in when Manning’s body failed him midseason and helped secure home-field advantage against the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. Without those things, Manning might have faded out of view with only one Super Bowl to his name; without those things, Manning might have slipped farther down the historical lists.
He goes out, instead, near the top, but probably not at the top. He goes out with a couple of entirely uncharacteristic stories – one about questions over his ties to HGH and the other about a college incident involving an athletic trainer – that have yet to be fully unraveled. If the worst-case scenario in either proves to be true, it would impact Manning’s legacy in a major way, since his appeal had always been in his everyman persona. He was the most successful athletic commercial spokesperson of his era because he played the clueless dad better than anyone had before; he was sort of the anti-Joe Namath, the dude who lent an air of geekiness to a position that had long since been associated with quiet cool. There is nothing cool about plugging Budweiser, but Peyton Manning didn’t care how it looked. He just did it. This is what made him great, even if he wasn’t the greatest.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb