As I reflected on Peyton Manning’s decision to join the Denver Broncos it became apparent that the former Colt’s decision to remain a “Horse” had less to with winning championships than it did with the fear of failing to win another Super Bowl title and keeping his legacy intact. In fact given Manning’s long standing history of failure in the post-season, his decision to play his twilight years in Denver shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.
On paper the San Francisco 49ers seemed to be the most logical team for the quarterback sign with. The Niners offered a first rate offensive line for protection, one the league’s top rushing attacks, a solid receiving corps, and, most importantly, arguably the best defense in the NFL. It’s a team that is built to win right now and one that requires only a quarterback that can turn field goals into touchdowns to produce at least one Lombardi Trophy.
Instead Peyton chose a Denver team that possesses a questionable offensive line, rushing and receiving corps, as well as defense. True the rushing attack racked up tons of miles last season, but that was after changing from a conventional offense to the magical mayhem of Tebowism. And despite winning the AFC West last season and defeating an injury riddled Steelers team in the first round of the playoffs, the Broncos are far from having a legitimate Super Bowl contending roster.
This is not to say that the addition of Manning in Denver won’t improve the performance of everyone on the offensive side of the ball. But the Colts’ struggles in during the 2010 season highlight the fact that Peyton can only do so much when surrounded by average personnel and when the playoffs come the Broncos and Manning’s flaws will be exposed. Additionally, we should never forget that the only time Peyton won a Super Bowl was during a post-season where Indianapolis’ defense was a dominating force on the field, Manning had two Hall of Fame receivers catching his passes, and a more than efficient running game that he could rely on.
I suppose there is some logic to Manning’s decision in choosing Denver. He remains in the AFC, the conference Peyton is familiar with. Consequently Manning will not hinder his brother Eli’s chances of winning another Super Bowl, that is unless they meet in the final game of the post-season. Additionally, Manning will apparently have free reign over the offense in Denver; something that has been speculated wouldn’t have been the case in San Francisco.
But what makes Denver a disappointing and also illuminating choice by Manning is that by going to Mile High, Peyton has freed himself from the criticism that he would have surely felt if he had failed to win a Super Bowl in San Francisco.
The Niners and their fans have already witnessed arguably the greatest post-season quarterback in the history of the NFL, Joe Montana. They know what greatness is and expect it. If Manning had taken the job in San Francisco, the franchise and its fan base would have expected at least one Lombardi Trophy. Any failure by the future Hall of Fame quarterback would have resulted in the growth of the black mark already on Peyton’s career. Specifically, that Manning is a phenomenal regular season quarterback, who lacks the ability to lead and deliver in the post-season.
By selecting Denver, Manning will play out the remainder of his career in a city that is more understanding of coming up short. Not to say that Bronco fans are less passionate than Niner fans, but they did endure countless seasons of disappointment with John Elway under center. Thus they are conscious of the fact that possessing a great quarterback doesn’t always equate to winning Super Bowls. Like any other team, the franchise and fan base most certainly want to win, but they and the media will be more understanding if the Broncos fail to win a Super Bowl than would be the case in San Francisco.
Additionally, the blame for not winning a championship in Denver won’t necessarily have to fall on Manning’s shoulders. Blame could rest with a weak offensive line, the lack of consistent production from the running back position, receivers that weren’t quite as good as those in Indianapolis, or a defense which allows more points than Peyton’s offense can score. This is not to say that the roster in Denver will not improve during Manning’s tenure as the Broncos quarterback. But as the roster currently stands there are plenty of reasons other than Peyton that the team won’t win a Super Bowl.
However, if Manning had selected the Niners, then it was going to be all about him. Alex Smith, a quarterback nobody wants, nearly got San Francisco to the Super Bowl and logic suggests that having a Hall of Fame quarterback under center should have resulted in at least one championship for the City by the Bay.
Yet, selecting the Niners would have been a risky move for Manning’s legacy. He already possess two Super Bowl appearances, one Lombardi Trophy, and currently people aren’t questioning his “championship” character. However, if Peyton had failed to deliver a championship to San Francisco history would remember the quarterback for his championship short comings as well as his passing records. Playing in Denver lowers the expectations and pressures on Manning to win, all the while leaving his legacy largely untarnished should he fail to have success at Mile High.
Frankly, Manning’s decision tells us that Peyton understands more about himself than anyone else. Mainly that for as calm, steadfast, and productive as he is in the regular season, the finality of the post-season isn’t an atmosphere he thrives in and Manning would rather allow circumstance than his own performance to dictate whether or not he achieves the glory of another Super Bowl Championship.
In the end Peyton has earned the right to play where ever he wishes, though his decision to play in Denver might result in the quarterback being remembered as the second best Manning to ever play in the NFL.
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