NEW YORK -- Though it takes many forms, the most-asked question from the 5,000 or so media assembled for Hype-a-palooza — aside from “Have you ever seen so many cops?” — is the one about Peyton Manning’s legacy, whatever that means.
If you didn’t know that today is the day before the day before Super Bowl XLVIII, you’d think we were all here for the Legacy Bowl, or, more accurately, Legacy Bowl II.
Legacy Bowl I happened five years ago in Miami, where Manning, 31 yards from a tying touchdown late in the game that would elevate his stature onto the cloud where only quarterbacks who have won multiple Super Bowls live, whipped a simple out pass for Reggie Wayne straight into the eager hands of one Tracy Porter, who raced all the way to the wrong end zone and a 31-17 New Orleans Saints victory.
Those were the bad old bountygatin’ Saints, but even if there was a price on Manning’s head that night, they couldn’t have hurt him worse than he hurt himself with that throw, because regardless of what he’s done since, Peyton is still found wanting by self-appointed arbiters of legacy design.
Their view is that Manning simply must beat the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, lest he emerge into another offseason as something less than a man in full. The Greatest Quarterback Who Should Have Been Greater isn’t so much a legacy as a scarlet letter.
The best answer to standard issue legacy queries this week came not from anyone in the Broncos camp at Jersey City, but from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll addressing the media in Newark.
“Peyton is as good a football player as you could find at any level, at any time, in any state of the history of this game,” Carroll said. “He’s been able to bank on great experience. He’s always been a winner. He’s always been a championship guy. But now he’s banked on the great experience he’s build up behind him to formulate an offensive system that is unnatural.
“The numbers, the production, and the winning that they’ve created with his leadership is extraordinary. The problem that he presents us with is so much related to this experience, because he makes the right choices. His decisions are perfect. He matches up the plays with the defense. He takes advantage of all the qualities that a great quarterback could take advantage of, and he’s accurate, he’s mindful, and he’s competitive. He’s all of that.”
Now that, I think, is a legacy.
And all that isn’t going to be diminished if, like almost everyone else in this league, he finds himself on the losing side against the best defense to walk the earth since the 1985 Chicago Bears, statistically speaking.
If that happens, it’s not going to be because Manning didn’t know what to do against Richard Sherman and the flying-around ’Hawks. It’s not even going to be because some part of Manning’s maniacal preparation will have been misspent.
“He can recall certain examples from certain games that I can’t,” said Denver quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. “It’s important to him to understand, ‘OK, who am I going against from a play-caller standpoint?’ That’s when he’ll use those games in the background that he says, ‘Well, this coordinator that I’m facing this week from this team, he was the coordinator for so-and-so back in 2003.’
“In some ways, it makes a lot of sense. We’re not going against necessarily what we’ve seen on tape by that play-caller against three other quarterbacks that aren’t even similar to Peyton. They have a different game plan, right? So let’s go back and look at the games that he’s had to challenge Peyton in, and let’s use those as our possibility of coverages and blitzes we might see.”
There’s no doubting that Manning has been programmed to succeed from a young age, but there’s something in the soft-spoken complaints of his detractors that sounds like the fear of those vanquished by some robotic presence.
“I am not a robot,” Manning said. “Maybe at one time I was as a younger player. I might have been. I’ve changed my preparation routine in these later years. There are a lot of things that have changed for me since that [2010 neck] injury — enjoying the new team — and having kids has a lot to do with that.
“There was a time when I would come home from practice and I would stay up until 1-1:30 because I had to watch all four of their preseason games that night. I thought that if I didn’t watch all four of those games, the world might come to an end the next day.
“I didn’t need sleep as much when I was a younger player. Now I come home and I love spending time with the kids and putting them to bed. I don’t stay up as late. I need to get my rest more. Maybe I was a robot early on. Now, I’m a little more human.”
I suppose it’s useful to point out that at some point Sunday, likely in the first half, Manning will surpass New England’s legacy-assured Tom Brady for most postseason passing yards in the history of this game. But Manning doesn’t want his legacy quantified; he wants it, in one sense of the word, qualified.
“This legacy question keeps popping up, and I guess I’ve had a little more time to think about it,” he said. “If I had my choice, what my legacy would be, it would be that I played by butt off for every team that I ever played on, that I was a really good teammate and I did everything I could to win. Whatever happens along the way is fine with me.”
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org.