- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Nothing against Tiger Woods, but it was time for a change at the top when it comes to America's leading jock pitchman. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was gaining on Woods on merit even before the toppled fire hydrant and the smashed Escalade window, the debate about whether Elin Nordegren used a driver or a 9-iron, and, most recently, the report that Woods checked into a sex addiction program with a name that makes you do a double take. ("Gentle Path? Wait. That's not a seedy massage parlor on New York's Lower East Side? My bad.")
By the end of the Super Bowl on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, Manning could step into another vacuum left by Woods and replace the golfer as America's most admired athlete, too. If he hasn't already.
Neither is a role anyone might have confidently predicted for Manning when he left the University of Tennessee for the NFL in 1998 and quickly built an on-field persona as an arm-flapping, leg-stomping, attention-grabbing fusspot before each snap. Most quarterbacks try to affect a look that says calm, cool, collected and about to steal your girlfriend. Manning looks as if he's just been hit with a stun gun when he's at the line. He screams. His eyes bulge. When he has to scramble, which he loathes, he runs like a giraffe with buckets on his feet.
Put Manning in a TV commercial, and he's silky smooth, hysterically funny. He comes off as a genuinely good guy, the sort of pal you'd love to share jokes and beers with on a Saturday night. Even if you're not inclined to such things, when a Manning commercial comes on TV, you might find yourself actually stopping in your tracks. You might find yourself repeating his classic lines -- "Cut that meat! Cut that meat!" -- or blurting out, apropos to nothing, "Can you sign my melon?"
If we're lucky, one of these Super Bowl telecasts, we'll get just a continuous loop of Manning's best commercials running back to back. In fact, why not start this year? Give us no more cloying Clydesdales. Had enough. Danica Patrick glowering through another double-entendre ad? BOR-ing.
And what in damnation has happened to the baby in those online discount brokerage ads all of a sudden? Have you noticed he's changed? He looks like he went from eating pureed bananas to shaving -- overnight! As much as it pains me to say this, fellow Shankapotamii, it's time to face facts: The moment's gone. The new brokerage baby looks old enough to have a driver's permit and get his back waxed.
The amazing thing about Manning's pitchman shtick is that, with a couple of exceptions, I couldn't tell you exactly what Manning endorses to save my life. Manning is so deft, the star of each spot isn't the product; it's him. Advertisers clearly don't mind -- they flock to him anyway. I just know that right now on TV, Manning is letting Justin Timberlake kick his butt in pingpong, and he's saving the San Diego Chicken from facing a murder-one rap for choking a trance-like geek who says he doesn't watch sports. I'm still surprised Manning allowed another commercial way back when -- again, can't say for whom -- to dance around the longtime rap that he couldn't win the big game. You've probably seen it: A room-service waiter brings him a fruit basket and acidly says, "Don't choke on it."
"Good call!" Manning says, nodding. "I'll just cut it up, put it in a fruit salad or something. Thanks!"
This is a neat switch that Manning is pulling off. He's so secure in real life, anything is fair game to spoof. If Manning leads the Colts to their second Super Bowl win in four years, he'll strengthen his claim to being the NFL's best quarterback ever. And yet, in commercials, he's the hotshot who doesn't have a clue, the NFL star who's totally without ego or pretense. When make-believe people are mean to him, he's either cheerfully oblivious or he's imperturbable. When people are in a fix, he earnestly tries to help.
Even in his pitchman prime, Woods never was a natural like Manning is. Viewing Woods' mercifully gone razor commercial with Thierry Henry and Roger Federer is like watching three surgery patients counting backward from 10 just before the anesthesia kicks in.
Neither Woods nor Manning is very interesting in a news conference, either, although Manning is more loquacious. But ask Manning to act, and he's transformed. Suddenly, he has the comedic timing of Bill Murray, the same deadpan look and perfect inflection and cheesy winks and nods. Even his Louisiana drawl is a bonus. "Gonna get a mah-SSAGGGGE today." He's funny.
If you haven't seen Manning's hilarious 2007 guest host appearance on "Saturday Night Live," in which he does a send-up of the NFL's United Way commercials, do yourself a favor. Click here. Even more than Woods before his fall, Manning always has enjoyed a squeaky-clean image. But he allowed the SNL writers to parody it again and again.
While playing playground football with some kids, Manning doinks one boy on the back of the head and shouts, "Get your head out of your ---!", then banishes the boy to a portable outhouse and screams again when he catches the sullen kid peeking out the door. He shows the children how to jimmy open a car door ("You should hear a click ") until a police siren wails, and he runs off yelling, "Cops! Every man for himself!" He hits on a lady on a park bench with a hellllooo-there handshake and swigs from a beer bottle in another scene, telling the kids (who now are seated a horseshoe around him), "Now, I'll kill a snitch. I'm not saying I have, I'm not saying I haven't, but, you know "
In short, Manning allowed the "Saturday Night Live" writers to suggest that backstage he's a totally different and worse jock hero than we've been led to believe. And once again, he was totally, uproariously believable, like he wasn't acting at all.
Which, um considering how we've been burned by Woods and other sports frauds before might mean, that, uh before we start saying, "In Peyton We Trust," we should, well --
Hey Peyton, anything else we should know?
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the line of scrimmage, he's an arm-flapping fusspot. But everywhere else you see Peyton Manning, he's . . . well, funny. And that makes him an advertising dream. For now.