There's a better than average chance (in fact, given that Rex Grossman is the starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears, there's actually a much better than average chance) the Indianapolis Colts will win Super Bowl XLI. And when they do, as cameras flash and bright metallic confetti dances in the air all around him, Peyton Manning likely will stand center stage and hold the Lombardi Trophy up high, like a cross on a hilltop, like a sign of his deliverance and redemption. Maybe he'll kiss it, maybe he'll cry, maybe he'll shout at the devils who've been hounding him so long. It will be a sweet scene, moving, inspirational, and just the thought of it makes me yawn.
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It isn't written that Peyton Manning has to win a Super Bowl.
My favorite thing about Peyton Manning right now (well, my second favorite thing, after his Nacho Libre-esque turn in the Sprint mobile ad), and certainly the most interesting aspect of him from where I sit as a fan of the game, is that he's not Montana, Elway or Brady. He hasn't won the Super Bowl. He hasn't won anything. Ever. We can't dismiss him, because he's clearly a freakin' brilliant player with a tremendous work ethic, epic yardage and touchdown numbers, and maybe better field vision and schematic understanding than anyone who's ever played the game. But we can't wholly endorse him either, because we think someone this good should win the Super Bowl, maybe win several of them, and until he does, and if he doesn't, it feels to us like some sort of unresolved chord hanging in the air, like some crime case left unsolved. It used to be this way with Elway. Before Super Bowl XXXII, we couldn't make sense of him, he didn't compute, somehow both a gunslinging badass leader and a big fat loser. Maybe it made him sort of pitiable (and I have no doubt it made him miserable), but it also made him pretty fascinating. Like a Zen koan, he was something to be pondered, wrestled with, considered and reconsidered; there was no quick, easy take on him, no appropriate label or category (save the ubiquitous and meaningless "best player never to have won " lists). How good was he? How bad was he? You couldn't say. When he went back-to-back in XXXII and XXXIII, all that went away. He was wrapped up in a bow, just another in a long line of winners, just another in an interminable list of "champions" who've struggled through adversity, just a story we already knew by heart.
Everything else being equal (which is to say, you know, as long as the player in question isn't my guy, playing for my favorite team's first title since Jim O'Brien forgot to snap his chin strap), I much prefer the riddle to the story. Manning as he is now, not yet a Super Bowl winner but with a history of near misses and missed opportunities, intrigues me more because he's so obviously human, so clearly sweating and pressing and, head bowed even to the last second of the AFC Championship Game, hoping. Sometimes he's amazingly cool, sometimes he wilts. Sometimes he wins, sometimes so far, when it matters most he loses. There's nothing Teflon automatic about him, nothing foregone, nothing so mutely cool and cagey as Brady has been (or has been perceived) in his winning, or as Montana was in his. He's a bit of a mess, really.
I like my mythic heroes as much as the next fan, but there's a peculiar satisfaction, and in the end a more thoroughgoing admiration I feel when I sense a guy, even a guy as talented and accomplished as Manning is, has to slug it out, snap by snap, series by series, searching for a balance between pushing too hard and letting it come to him, between freaking out and staying steady. They're all doing that to one degree or another of course (Montana nearly hyperventilated during the game-winning drive in SB XXIII), but winning the big one whitewashes a QB, makes him seem robotic. The winning is everything, and everything else is explanation, a bend in the path of destiny (blame NFL Films and its captivating slo-mo narratives, blame our primordial human desire for order and meaning). I can respect what he's accomplished, but I don't feel connected. As the most talented, highest-profile loser in the NFL right now, Manning lets me know how incredibly difficult it is to be a quarterback, not just on a technical level (which it is) but on a basic you-must-chill level. As much as respect, he commands empathy, a much rarer, deeper thing. Screw devotion to a beatified champion avatar, idle idol worship of some emblem of greatness, screw fandom as something on bended knee. Give me the guy full of foibles, or better yet, the guy stung by defeat, the guy marked by frustration and suffering. Give me Marino over Montana. Give me young Elway over old, give me Charles over Michael and Ernie over Cal while you're at it. These guys are in the fabric of life, in life as I know it; sometimes overwhelming, usually full of disappointment, and rarely fair.
There's nothing that says Manning has to win a Super Bowl. It's not written down anywhere. Life doesn't work like that. Neither does football. Ask Fran Tarkenton. Check in with Jim Kelly. We're talking about Manning at all this week, we're talking about him getting over the hump and winning the big one and slaying his Bradychick dragons and standing on the doorstep of the pantheon in part because he stepped up and hit Bryan Fletcher for 32 down the left sideline, but we're also talking about him because he got lucky, because Reche Caldwell ham-handed it to him. It could just as easily have gone the other way. If Caldwell keeps his eyes in his head and the ball in his hands, Brady's still a god and Manning's still his boy. A drop here, a yard there, a tuck ruling in the snow, a ball that fades wide right, a reach by Roethlisberger; luck and little things, so goes the proverbial thin line, so is the nature of the football beast.
Manning's travails tell me more about the game than his successes do. They reveal the creepy, capricious demon luck (and bad luck) at the heart of sports. His not winning reminds me that preparation, want-to, even execution, though crucial, are not everything, and sometimes are not enough. His losing reminds me it doesn't always all add up. There's a vicarious rush that comes with watching someone revel in a championship, but it's fleeting, gone the morning after. Watching him lose, watching him subjected to his own limitations and the shortchanges of fate -- that lingers, that's something I carry around. And it's not just some bent existentialism I'm carrying, it's a richer understanding of the nuts and bolts of football, too.
When the super-talented, fiercely prepared, incredibly dedicated Peyton Manning comes up short, the old saw about a football team being 11 men on each side of the ball working in unison, each of them a key cog in the machine, seems real to me. We (understandably enough) tend to fixate on quarterbacks, heaping glory and blame on their shoulders as if no on else suited up. But if he's the alpha dog, that doesn't mean he's the omega, too.
When Manning loses, the complexity of the game, the largely invisible combination of assignments, responsibilities and skirmishes involved on every play comes to the fore. When it goes wrong for Manning's club, I appreciate how unlikely and how impressive it is when things can and do go right. Reduced to highlight-reel looks at a ball moving from point A to point B, the game can look easy. Distilled in the failings of a team led by the high-functioning, high-profile Manning, the difficulty and the near impossibility of the game is revealed. I end up loving it all the more because I see it for what it truly is: a collaboration, a combination of sacrifice and trust and commitment.
I know this is all selfish and unfair to Manning and the Colts' faithful. I know a win on Sunday would be some hard-won relief after years of waiting. If he's your guy, if they're your club, buena suerte, sincerely. But I have to say, if he wins, if he's washed in the sanitizing postgame bubbly and slobbers on that shiny silver trophy, I'll be sorry to see the great gifted loser go, I'll be sorry never to have to think about Peyton Manning again.
Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.