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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

O'Boyle: Manning’s legacy on the line Sunday

This Sunday, Peyton Manning will play the 293rd — and likely last — game of his career. In the 292 previous, including postseason games, he’s passed for more than 80,000 yards and nearly 600 touchdowns. He’s won five NFL MVP awards, seven first-team All-Pro selections and 14 Pro Bowl nominations. He holds the records for passing yards and passing touchdowns in a single season. He sang to his chicken parm.

Now, his entire legacy comes down to one game. One game he’s only playing because the Denver Broncos have the top-ranked defense in the NFL. One game to finish a season where Brock Osweiler played eight games as the Broncos’ quarterback, and Manning might not be there without him.

When the clock hits zeroes Sunday, we can all look back upon Manning’s career and declare him either the greatest of all time who won Super Bowls for two different teams or a choker who could perform in the regular season but only grabbed one ring. It all comes down to Manning’s performance on the day. Actually, that’s not strictly true. It all comes down to whether the team Manning is on wins or loses.

That doesn’t seem fair, does it?

No player’s legacy should hang on one single game, especially not against one of the greatest teams ever assembled.

If Manning wins, does that change the fact that he just plain stunk for a large portion of this year? That he might have had the worst game of any quarterback ever when he met the Chiefs in what now looks to be his last-ever regular season start? Manning wasn’t the one hitting Tom Brady 20 times in the AFC championship game: It was the fearsome Broncos pass rush that ensured he’ll be playing for a second ring. His other title, in Super Bowl XLI, was also won by a great defense, not by an elite performance from Manning. His rings won’t be proof of his own greatness but of his team’s.

And if Manning loses, does only having one ring diminish his accomplishments all that much? For most of his career, he didn’t have a strong defense behind him. He did in 2006, and he won the Super Bowl, and now he has one again. If his teams were better on the other side of the ball, Manning’s postseason pedigree would have been proven long ago. Only one team can win the Super Bowl every year, and Manning has come up against some great teams. He’s had the occasional subpar performance, but that can happen to any player, especially a passer of Manning’s style forced to play road games in January. It doesn’t mean he’s a “choker.”

One player does not win a championship. Football is a team sport. Judging Peyton Manning by his team’s accomplishments is unfair, win or lose. It may be the most important position in the sport, but no quarterback can singlehandedly determine how many rings they win. Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl. Dan Marino did not. As much as a legendary quarterback increases your chances of winning, they can only do so much.

The belief that one player can singlehandedly win it all for their team is hardly unique to football. When LeBron James takes the Cavaliers to another NBA Finals defeat this year (because it’s hard to see anything but second place for Cleveland), irrespective of his performance, he’ll be accused of an inability — or worse, a lack of motivation — to win it all. But like Manning in football, there’s only so much you can expect from an all-time great.

I’m not sure exactly where Peyton Manning ranks among the all-time greats at the quarterback position. Ultimately, it’s almost completely useless to compare players with different systems, coaches, teammates, passing rules and eras. But I know this: There are 292 games that aren’t Super Bowl 50 that play into his legacy too.