By Derek Simon
Much of the chatter leading up to this year’s AFC Championship showdown between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots has centered on the quarterbacks — Peyton Williams Manning and Thomas Edward Patrick Brady.
New England’s Brady is the golden boy. He’s got a beautiful wife, four Super Bowl rings, two middle names and a normal-sized forehead. Oh, and his nickname is “Tom Terrific,” obviously given to him by a fawning fan who counts his autographed Brady jersey among his most treasured possessions, right behind that photo with the Hooters girls taken on his 40th birthday.
Manning, although born into football royalty (father Archie was the second overall pick in the 1971 NFL Draft and had many productive years with the New Orleans Saints), is straight out of a Tex Maule novel. He has as many Super Bowl rings as middle names (one) and when he mops his brow, he uses a ShamWow! He has a lovely wife as well and, on March 17, the Manning’s will celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary.
Yet, despite their differences, Brady and Manning have been near-mirror images on the gridiron. For his career, Brady has averaged 258 yards passing per game and has a 95.7 quarterback rating; Manning has averaged 271 yards through the air per game and has a 96.5 quarterback rating.
And while some are quick to point out that Brady is 11-5 in his head-to-head matchups with Manning, it should be remembered that 10 of those games were played in New England, where Brady and the Patriots are 8-2. In fact, it may surprise some to discover that, in the playoffs, the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks have split four decisions — with the home team victorious each time.
This would seem to bode well for Manning and his top-seeded Broncos this weekend.
But, alas, the years have not been kind to the former Tennessee Volunteers star. While Father Time has embraced Brady like the Prodigal Son (his 102.2 QB rating this year was the fourth-highest of his illustrious career), he has been downright cruel to Manning, whose 67.9 passer rating in 2015 ranked 41st among the 44 NFL players with at least 100 pass attempts during the year. Put another way, the studious and serious Manning ranked below Billy, the blond-haired, mustachioed kid who, between belts at the bar, plays quarterback for the Cleveland Browns — or did.
Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post compared Manning to another Hall of Famer — but not in a good way. Cannizzaro said that folks talk about Manning and his eroded skills “like he’s Willie Mays stumbling in the outfield as a Met in 1973.”
For those who’ve blocked it out like those “Hangover” sequels, Mays, a two-time NL MVP with a lifetime batting average of .302 and 660 career home runs, hit just .211 with six round-trippers in his final season with New York. To say that he was a shell of his former self is an insult to shells. He was a shell of a shell… of a shell… of a shell.
Mays had his final Major League at-bat in the 1973 World Series. Entering the game as a pinch hitter for Tug McGraw (Tim McGraw’s dad, as he’s known today), Mays proved T.S. Elliot correct, as he meekly grounded out.
Although they are polar opposites from a personality standpoint, it could be argued that Manning’s quarterback doppelganger is Joe Namath.
Like Manning, Namath was a high draft choice who got paid tons of cash (by the upstart New York Jets) and set numerous passing records during his injury-shortened career. When he retired, he was the only AFL/NFL player to have ever thrown for 4,000 yards in a season (1967) and he ranked third in games with at least 300 yards passing (21).
But, like Mays, Namath was horrible in his final year with the Los Angeles Rams… and he also left with a whimper — his last “completed” pass was to Chicago safety Doug Plank in an upset loss to the Bears on Monday Night Football.
But every once in a while, when the moon is just right, pigs sprout wings and doves cry, an old or injured star shines brightly once again — if only for an instant.
Such was the case on October 15, 1988.
It was the first game of the World Series and the Oakland A’s were leading the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning. MLB saves leader Dennis Eckersley was on the mound.
The Dodgers were down to their last out as Kirk Gibson made his way to the plate. Despite an MVP season, Gibson was coming off a horrendous NLCS and was nursing a bad left hamstring pull and a swollen right knee.
“You talk about a roll of the dice, this is it,” exclaimed announcer Vin Scully as Gibson settled into the batter’s box. “If he hits the ball on the ground, I would imagine he would be running 50 percent to first base — so the Dodgers trying to catch lightning right now.”
After two quick strikes, including a foul ball that saw Gibson hobble down the first base line like Quasimodo, the count was full when Eckersley delivered his patented backdoor slider… and Gibson deposited it into the right field seats.
The crowd went wild as Gibson fist-pumped his way around the bases.
“In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened,” Scully said.
Gibson was never the same after that. In fact, the very next year, he played in just 71 games and batted .213. But for one shining moment, the injured slugger proved that the heart of a champion can sometimes will the body beyond its physical limits.
For all that he accomplished on the football field, John Elway is remembered most in Denver for one play — and it wasn’t even a pass. It was a run that ended with a head-first dive for a first down in Super Bowl XXXII — the famous “helicopter play.”
Many believe it was that play — and Elway’s willingness to sacrifice his 37-year-old body — that propelled (see what I did there?) Denver to its first NFL championship against the heavily-favored Green Bay Packers, led by Brett Favre.
“We never felt so much energy after John ran like he did, refusing to go out bounds, absorbing that hit like he did,” defensive lineman Mike Lodish said. “When I saw that, I just shook my head and said, ‘That’s some kind of leader.’ We were energized beyond control. After John’s run, we knew we were going to be Super Bowl champions… finally.”
It is precisely that kind of impact that Peyton Manning can have on Sunday. Elway was just 12-of-23 for 123 yards and one pick against the Packers — hardly Hall of Fame stuff — but he came through when he needed to and let his team do the rest.
The 2015 Denver Broncos have a historically good defense, one that ranks favorably with some of the great defenses of the past, as the chart below aptly demonstrates:
You’ll notice that the Broncos average of 4.39 yards per play is more than a yard under the League average and that the Denver defense may be the most well-balanced since the 1985 Chicago Bears’ squad.
If Manning can simply make the most of the opportunities that he’s given — will his body to surpass the limitations imposed by 39 years of wear and tear — he might just accomplish the impossible and lead Denver to the Super Bowl in this most improbable of years.