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Bond between Peyton Manning, John Elway runs deeper than you think

Photo: David E. Klutho/SI

Peyton Manning (left) and John Elway have followed similar paths to greatness.

NEWARK, N.J. -- With apologies to Richard Sherman and the weather, both of which seemingly inspire endless discussion and debate, there's one topic that captivates me above all others about Super Bowl XLVIII: The numerous and intriguing parallels that link the quarterbacking careers of Peyton Manning and John Elway, unquestionably the two most illustrious names that have anything to do with this game.

Stand back for a moment and consider the fascinating symmetry that has fallen into place over the span of time for the Denver Broncos' record-breaking passer of today and yesteryear, as the current starter and equally famous chief football decision-maker prepare together for their return to the game's grandest stage. I'm starting to think there's something at work here on the karmic level that might be a bit further down the road than first realized, and it has plenty of possible impact on Sunday's outcome.

The more you look into their shared history, and how much they've walked in each other's shoes, the more there is to chew on. Especially when the subject is late-career Super Bowl trips and pushing back against the perception of not being able to "win the big one.'' Can anybody relate quite as well to the pressures and potential of this week's opportunity than Manning and Elway, who both already own a place in the NFL's pantheon?

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The multifaceted connections between them extend probably much further than even most of us have realized. To wit:

• Of course, Elway and Manning were both drafted first overall in the NFL, 15 years apart, by the same organization: the Colts. Elway never played for them, forcing a trade to Denver in 1983, which was the Colts' last season in Baltimore. But Manning spent 14 years with the Colts in Indianapolis, putting that NFL city on the map, before joining Denver in 2012.

So if you're scoring at home, that means both Elway and Manning have been the property of just two NFL teams, the Colts and Broncos. On Sunday against Seattle, Manning has a chance to become just the second Denver quarterback to win a Super Bowl, joining Elway, the two-time champion.

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• Elway won his second Super Bowl ring in his 16th NFL season. Manning is going for his second Super Bowl ring in his 16th NFL season, having earned his first with the 2006 Colts.

• At 38 and seven-plus months, Elway was the oldest starting quarterback in Super Bowl history when he won game MVP honors in Denver's Super Bowl XXXIII conquest of Atlanta in January 1999. At 37 and 10-plus months, Manning will be the second-oldest starting quarterback in Super Bowl history. The two stars briefly co-existed in the NFL firmament, with Elway's final season of 1998 representing Manning's rookie year.

• In Elway's last two seasons in the league, 1997-98, the Broncos went 26-6 in the regular season and won back-to-back Super Bowls, a fairy tale ending for the Denver icon. In Manning's first two regular seasons as a Bronco, Denver has posted that exact same 26-6 record and is now back in the Super Bowl for the first time since Elway's 1998 swan song.

• Both men have well eclipsed the fame of the successful football fathers who raised them in the game, with Jack Elway's career as a college coach and Archie Manning's collegiate and pro quarterbacking career having been just the warm-up act for their ultra-famous sons. But you can't tell either one of their stories without Jack or Archie being at the center of it.

• And finally there's this, a little esoteric, but you'll forgive me for taking the comparison down to the Super Bowl-driven details: Elway in 1997 won his first ring against a historic NFC Central foe in the Packers, then came back the next season and beat a team (Atlanta) led by a three-time veteran NFL head coach in Dan Reeves (Broncos, Giants and Falcons). Manning? His first ring came at the expense of a historic NFC North (same division, new name) rival in the Bears in 2006, and now he and his Broncos face a Seattle team led by a three-time veteran NFL head coach in Pete Carroll (Jets, Patriots and Seahawks).

I expected to dazzle Elway with all these career congruities when I put them to him just before the Broncos' Super Bowl Media Day session began on Tuesday, but the old quarterback called an audible on me and had one of his own lined up.

"Here's another great funny thing, and this isn't on your list,'' said Elway, standing in the bowels of Newark's Prudential Center, where the NFL conducted its Media Day for this first outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl. "You know on the Chinese calendar, it's the year of the horse, right? Well, we were both Colts and Broncos. We're horse-related.''

Actually, when it comes to Super Bowls, Elway wore more of the goat horns early in his career, helping a somewhat overachieving Denver team reach three Super Bowls in his first seven seasons, only to lose all of them in blowout fashion. The career-capping back-to-back rings completely changed the narrative, of course, just as it no doubt will for Manning if he captures a second Super Bowl win in three tries, following the Colts' 2009 upset loss to New Orleans.

Elway extinguished the can't-win-the-big-one label forever with his twin titles, and Manning now has the same opportunity to erase a stigma that has fairly or unfairly followed him to some degree since his stellar collegiate career at Tennessee.

That would be yet another tie that binds these two NFL greats, one already in the Hall of Fame and the other headed there as soon as he's eligible for the gold blazer. Perhaps the most meaningful tie of all.

"I remember meeting Peyton as I was on my way out and he was on his way in,'' Elway said. "But a lot of people don't know that when I was younger, my dad always talked about Archie Manning. I still remember him talking about the player Archie Manning was, and what he did playing at Ole Miss. My dad always said he thought Archie should have won the Heisman Trophy the year Jim Plunkett won it [in 1970]. For years, Archie Manning had been a big hero of my dad, and because of that he became my hero.

"Years later, when I was coming out of Stanford, I was getting recruited by I think IMG, one of the big agencies. We were interviewing agents, and Archie Manning came to my house representing IMG, and he came down to San Jose State when my dad was coaching there at the time. My dad had so much respect for him as a player. So it's kind of funny how it's come full circle, with me and Peyton together now in Denver.''

I don't think it's any coincidence that Peyton Manning gravitated toward Denver and Elway when he was deciding his playing fate in that eventful spring of 2012. How many people can really speak the language and understand the thinking of the Hall of Fame-caliber franchise quarterback? Manning saw offensive talent on hand and a franchise with a long and rich history, but it must have been reassuring to know that Elway, a fellow member of a small and select fraternity, was in charge.

"I think it mattered, but we never really sat down and talked about why he picked Denver,'' Elway said. "I guess I didn't ask because I thought it was the right place for him anyway. The one thing I felt, I just tried to put myself in his shoes. What would I want to see when I was visiting these different teams, and how I would want them to react to me?

"I wouldn't want them to act desperate. I'd want them to act like, 'Hey, if you come here, great, if you don't, we're going to be OK, too. But we sure want you here.' I've never been a guy who likes to get the hard sell, so I just wanted to stay away from that and show him what we have. I know if I was in his shoes, I would have loved to have a guy who was a quarterback running the team. Just knowing that guy has been through what you've been through and seen what you've seen. There's definitely a connection there.''

From all indications, one potential parallel between Elway and Manning, perhaps the most obvious, will go unformed. Elway retired in that blaze of glory, going out on top twice-over after winning his second ring. Manning has made it clear this week, win or lose on Sunday, he's not near ready to walk away. And how can you blame him? After missing 2011 with his four neck surgeries, then rewriting the NFL record book with his passing arm this season, Manning sees no need to follow Elway's lead on the retirement front.

"And he shouldn't, the way he's playing,'' Elway said. "He should get the chance to play until he's ready to walk away on his terms, not anyone else's. Just like I got to. I can't speak for him, but with what we've accomplished in the past two years -- and he's done it -- to get where we've gotten and as quickly as we have, I think it's a good fit. Put it that way. To have that respect and connection with Peyton that I have has been a tremendous help.''

It's an easy case to make this week in New York/New Jersey. Manning and Elway and the symmetry and intersection of their legendary careers is as intriguing as this Super Bowl gets. No matter how the weather, or even Richard Sherman, may howl come gameday.

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