By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Two weeks have passed. Much has already been said. I should have moved on. The Broncos won. Peyton Manning, in what was likely his last NFL performance, delivered a fairy tale ending. The Sheriff’s riding off into the sunset with a Lombardi Trophy in hand. Finito.
But the story is gnawing at me. So here it is, another Manning eulogy, although different from most others. If anyone deserves a lengthy farewell, it’s the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards, touchdown passes, Papa John’s franchises and goofy commercials. Manning’s earned the extraordinary attention.
The persistent intrigue isn’t based on Manning’s alleged HGH use. I’m a calloused veteran of sports and PEDs now. It wouldn’t surprise me if he did; very few people – in sports or life – are what they seem. Besides, a definitive answer is unlikely, so why expend the energy?
Manning’s on my mind because I don’t know what to make of the supposed fairy tale ending, and I’m unconvinced the quarterback does either. This wasn’t John Elway in Super Bowl XXXIII - a final epic performance from one of the game’s great quarterbacks. It wasn’t even a synonym for the still capable, if not dominant, Ray Lewis’s Super Bowl XLVII farewell. Manning’s decline began last year, but he physically disintegrated in 2015. A turnover machine early in the season, Manning was mercifully shelved with a foot injury in week 10. Until the regular season finale, when a healthy Manning replaced an uninspiring Brock Osweiler in a desperate attempt to win a critical game, it looked like the great quarterback would exit the game as a backup. Instead, The Sheriff won his second Super Bowl.
The fly in the fairy tale’s ointment is when Manning returned, a different version took the field. Consider these statistics. In Manning’s eight complete regular season games this year, he averaged 38 attempts, 268 yards passing and 7.35 yards/attempt. His interception ratio was 4.43%. In Denver’s three playoff games, Manning averaged 31 attempts, 180 yards passing and 5.9 yards/attempt. His interception ratio was 1.45%.
Do you see what happened? Manning’s attempts, length of throws and interceptions were all down. This was intentional management. Head coach Gary Kubiak correctly concluded that Manning, a five-time MVP and one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks, was now below average but still capable, if constrained, of avoiding enough bad plays so as to let the all-world Broncos defense win the Super Bowl.
The question is what Manning thinks of all this. Is he thrilled for the career and legacy-preserving lifeline or slightly annoyed at Kubiak’s manipulation of his final ride? The fairytale theory says the former. It postulates that Manning, the consummate teammate, had accepted his obvious limitations. But that would ignore the enormous and often reality-bending ego possessed by elite athletes and, I think, the likelihood that this great victory was tinged with some remorse.
Contemplating Manning’s situation triggered an unexpected excursion into Buddhism’s three forms of pain/suffering or “Dukkha”: physical (a broken arm), change (loss of a loved one, closing of a favorite restaurant) or conditioned state (a situation where a pleasurable act can cause pain in the midst of providing its pleasure). That’s an extreme oversimplification of a complex concept, a consequence of my very elementary knowledge, but the relationship to Manning’s situation is obvious. Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that Manning’s in the third state, meaning he found the playoff ride pleasurable (as football is conditioned to be) while also feeling, in the midst of the pleasure, disappointment for his incapacity to even be a facsimile of his once-great self?
This isn’t a criticism of Manning but rather a challenge to the conquering hero storyline. As life unfurls, our relationships with people, things, professions and interests evolve. This evolution can increase the pleasure of experiences or complicate them with some level of sorrow. Watching Manning’s Super Bowl run, I saw a man struggling to resolve the gap between his past and present abilities. At the sport’s apex, Manning had reached an equally pleasurable and difficult crossroads in his relationship with football. It was a fascinating conclusion to a great career, if not the perfect fairy tale.
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