A legacy, by definition, requires time to marinate. It’s not something one really can pin down in the moment.
And with that in mind, here’s a spoiler of how you will feel about the Peyton Manning HGH investigation in 10, 20, 30 years when it become easier to digest Manning’s “legacy”: You won’t care. At least, not enough to warrant much of a reaction beyond “Ohhhhhh right, remember when Peyton got accused of using HGH?”
The NFL announced Monday that it had found “no credible evidence” that Manning had used HGH during his playing days, as we was alleged during an Al Jazeera America report in December. The case is now closed from the league’s perspective, with no punishment forthcoming to Manning.
Manning’s retirement no doubt made this a cleaner process than it may otherwise have been. Other, active players named in the report (James Harrison, Clay Matthews Jr., Mike Neal and Julius Peppers) are still under investigation. Should the NFL happen to turn up anything, it would be far easier to hand down a punishment than if Manning had been deemed guilty.
The manner in which Denver won the Super Bowl brushed aside the Manning-HGH talk to an extent, too. The Broncos rode the backs of their defense to the title, with a battered Manning playing a small, supportive role in the process. Had Manning lit up the vaunted Panthers defense, a few more HGH questions would have been asked in the aftermath.
Regardless, with the NFL issuing its verdict, the whole unusual affair will be little more than a footnote—if that—in Manning’s biography.
Eventually, a similar situation will unfold with Tom Brady’s role in the Deflategate case. Right now, that remains about as significant a storyline as there is in the NFL, what with Brady suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season. Down the line, when Brady is up for Hall of Fame induction or the NFL Network airs one of those “Greatest QBs of All Time” shows? It’s not going to matter much.
Of course, there is no universal conclusion when it comes to a player’s “legacy”. So, for example, diehard Patriots fans always will view Brady in a different light than those trained to hate him by team allegiance. The Colts, who first brought the football-inflation issue to light, and the Rams, at least some of whom still believe something was amiss during Super Bowl XXXVI (Brady's first Super Bowl) probably will want to keep an asterisk pinned to Brady’s career achievements.
If so, well ... so what? Brady won’t lose his Hall slot nor any of his accomplishments to date based on the Deflategate resolution. Manning certainly won’t hear much more about the Al Jazeera report now that he will be relaxing at home on Sundays.
The only lingering threat to Peyton’s perception is how those other HGH investigations play out. If the NFL keeps digging for weeks and months, then drops the hammer on the other four players named by Al Jazeera’s report, it would force everyone to circle back with an eyebrow raised to Manning’s clearance.
Even in the event of that unlikely outcome, Manning does not have much to worry about. A shift in public opinion? A few more hours spent discussing the legitimacy of Manning’s final season? Hardly anything that would keep Manning up at night, let alone linger past the next few months.
That’s the other reason determining a player’s true legacy requires patience. There is an immediacy to just about everything these days, and that includes trying to define the impact made by professional athletes. The immediacy, however, breeds fickleness. Talk to anyone about Manning’s career right now and you are just as likely to relive his benching for Brock Osweiler as the 71,000-yard career he had.
The wistfulness will set in eventually, and Manning’s Hall of Fame credentials will easily supersede anything about Al Jazeera America or the NFL investigation. This was but a blip on the radar.
There are exceptions to the rule, but for the most part all that matters in the long run—to teams and fans—is what a player can do on the field. Brady has a slightly extended fight for his reputation ahead. For Manning, the HGH claims figure to be forgotten almost as quickly as they came.