Tuesday February 16th, 2010

It has been more than a week since the Super Bowl, and I keep wondering what it must be like to be Peyton Manning and the Colts these days? Tough gig, this NFL icon business.

No matter how you cut it, the reality is the Colts lost one game all year that they tried to win, but as misfortune would have it, it was the only game deemed unforgivable to lose. Nothing remotely perfect about how Indianapolis will remember the 2009 season.

Then there's Manning. Here's his lot of late: He makes just one truly damaging mistake all season -- just one -- but it happens to come in the final four minutes of the Super Bowl, and helps decide the biggest game of the year. One week, everyone's lining up to christen him the greatest quarterback of your generation -- and maybe ever -- and the next week, some are questioning his legacy in light of his first meaningful loss in more than a year. That's covering every base.

That unprecedented fourth MVP trophy that won him so much acclaim and praise in January? It seems such an inconsequential consolation prize in February. Almost unbelievably, and certainly unfairly, the why-can't-Peyton-win-the-big-one talk is back, and many of the same folks who declared the label dead and gone three years ago when Manning won the Super Bowl are the ones reprising it a bit now.

Think about this: Manning has had to endure having his legacy examined because of one pass and one loss in a season filled with great passes and great wins. He threw for 333 yards in the Super Bowl, but that doesn't matter. He was supposed to win that game, earn a second ring and cement his place in the game's history. He didn't. He "failed.'' He lost. The Colts lost. They were favored. But they let everyone down, and now they deserve whatever's coming to them in the way of ridicule and scorn.

What a ridiculous crock. I know it's a bottom-line business in the NFL, and to the winners go the spoils, and all that, but for once I'd like to see a little perspective practiced when it comes to the loser of Super Bowl XLIV. Yes, Manning's career 9-9 playoff record matters when it comes to defining his legacy. There's no way around it. But it shouldn't matter more than the rest of his body of work. It shouldn't drown out everything else. It's a part of the puzzle. Not the entire framework.

Of course, the idea that Manning's legacy can be accurately defined at all while he's still in mid-career is flawed. That legacy is a moving target, and at best we're taking snapshots while it's still in motion. Let him and the Colts win a second ring next season, and some of the same superlatives that were trotted out all week in South Florida pre-Super Bowl will be trotted out in the post-Super Bowl analysis in Dallas. You can count on it.

The biggest problem I have with the Manning bashing I've heard since the Super Bowl, though, is that it fails to take the other half of this story into account. That the daring and opportunistic Saints won the game as much as the struggling Colts lost it. That Tracy Porter and his game preparation put him in position to intercept Manning and ice the game with that 74-yard touchdown return, not just sit back in the secondary and wait for the football to come to him like some latter-day version of Larry Brown against Neil O'Donnell.

Sometimes the other guy and the other team are just better on a given day. It happens, even to Manning, whose standards are almost impossibly high. To me, Porter made the play more than Manning or receiver Reggie Wayne botched the play. But somehow that's getting lost in translation, because it's so much easier to focus on the opportunity missed by No. 18 and the rest of the Colts. Every game has to have a well-defined winner and a loser, even if we always over-dramatize both to the extreme.

I called ex-Super Bowl winning quarterback turned ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer on Monday to see what he was thinking about the Manning question more than a week out. Dilfer is usually pretty insightful, and isn't afraid to criticize a star NFL player if he feels it's warranted. So I asked him about this one pass and one loss defining a legacy stuff, and wondered if the resurgent can't-win-the-big-one talk isn't more accurately a way of noting that Manning can't always win the big one.

He had more than a few thoughts on the matter.

"The thing is, I would argue it was a much better play by Porter than it was a bad play by Wayne and Manning,'' Dilfer told me. "I'd say it was about 80-20 in that regard. The thing that [ticks] me off is that we have so many different platforms to explain the game to people, and yet they still don't seem to know that you can do things right as a quarterback at times and still have things go badly.

"Other guys make good plays too. I've seen that interception now on film, and I've seen the replay a million times. I've talked to coaches on the [Colts] staff. Porter jumps the pattern. He's recognizes the pattern, and he jumped the throw based on his film study. It was a great play by Porter based on being prepared. That happens in football. The other guy can make a better play than you make.''

Except when it happens in the closing and defining moments of a Super Bowl, of course. That's when all nuance is lost, and nothing sticks but the broad stroke perceptions of winner, loser, hero, goat. Porter, Manning. Champion, underachiever. If the label fits, apply it.

"I had one coach this week tell me [Manning's] greatness was emphasized to him this year more than ever, because the Colts running game was so bad,'' Dilfer said. "Because of the lack of physicality of their run game, because he had two young receivers (Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie) to work with in the lineup, and because Dallas Clark can't block anybody. And even with all that he took a 14-2 team to the Super Bowl and had his team driving to tie the score in the final minutes.

"I think Peyton Manning has the greatest burden on his shoulders of anyone who has ever played in the NFL, at any position. He has to do more for his team than any player I've ever watched, studied and or heard of. He took a 6-10 team and took it to the Super Bowl. The Colts are completely dependent on Peyton Manning's greatness. Every game. Not just in the Super Bowl, but in every game. I refuse to say anyone's the greatest of all time, but I have said I think he played the quarterback position better this year than anyone ever played it. And I feel even stronger about that now than I did before the Super Bowl.''

Dilfer doesn't lack for definitive feelings, but it's the middle ground here that feels right to me. I'm not interested in excusing Manning's mistake at the most critical point in the Super Bowl. He made it, it's part of his record, and he and the Colts have got to live with the painful consequences.

But I'm not interested in excoriating Manning either, or letting one pass serve as a referendum on his legacy. His interception was horribly timed, but it was far from a horrible throw. After being so good for so long this season, perfection proved to be beyond reach for Manning and the Colts. Favored or not, even icons don't always get results.

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