And still, there's no way to look at Manning's brilliant career without noticing that there's an awful lot of heartbreak in it.
Why? What is it? Sunday in Miami, with the Colts trailing by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, with those Who Dat Saints fans chattering nervously at their seats' edges, with many Colts fan waiting expectedly, with the New Orleans defense looking like mere props in the Miami chill, Manning dropped back to throw. There seemed so little doubt that he would lead the Colts into the end zone and tie this game and send America into the next level of football euphoria. Really, there seemed no doubt at all.
It was third down and 5. He just needed a nice easy throw. Nobody -- not even Joe Montana or Len Dawson -- ever throws the easy ones better than Manning.
He threw it ... and it landed in the arms of New Orleans corner Tracy Porter. And Porter ran 74 yards for the touchdown. And the New Orleans Saints won the game 31-17.
"He made a great play," Manning said after the game. "He made a great play. That's all I can say about it. Porter made a heck of a play."
And Manning lost one more big game.
* * *
What is it? Yes, true, Manning is not alone as a heartbroken quarterback. JohnElway suffered a lot of heartbreak for most of his career. DanMarino did too. DanFouts.
Who has suffered more heartbreak than Favre, the all-time leading everything quarterback? He's had a number of crushing losses, a litany of big moment mistakes. But, see, with Favre that only stands to reason. Favre plays on the edge. He throws the ball into double and triple teams. He has thrown 40 more interceptions than any other quarterback in NFL history. He has also thrown 130 more interceptions than Manning. Favre is that kid at school who doesn't study the night before a test. He wings it. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, not.
That's not Manning at all. Manning takes no shortcuts. He studies all night. He makes prudent choices. He does not tempt destiny. He works hard to do the right things.
So, how do you explain the crushing defeats? Manning lost only five games at Isidore High in New Orleans. Three, though, were in the state playoffs; his team never won a state championship. He was a walking legend at the University of Tennessee -- and still is one. He lost only five games there too. But three were to Florida, and the Volunteers won their national championship only after he left.
Were these his fault? No. He was the best football player on the field. But ... the losses came just the same. Manning has led the Colts to the playoffs every year but one, and there have been plenty of rough losses there, too. He lost his first three playoff games. In his fourth playoff year, he finally won a couple of games, but then threw four interceptions in a painful loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The next year -- the year Manning threw a then-record 49 touchdown passes and seemed determined to bury the past -- the Patriots held Manning and the Colts to three points. The next year, the Colts lost their playoff game at home to Pittsburgh.
Manning was despondent after that Pittsburgh loss. He talked about making his peace with the football gods. He sounded wounded and even disappointed in his teammates. He did not shy away from the elephant in the room ... the simple fact that he had trouble all his life winning the biggest games. "I cannot argue with the truth," he said sadly.
But the very next year -- when it seemed like Manning was condemned to a Schottenheimer existence of good-but-not-quite-good-enough -- he led the Colts to a Super Bowl championship. The odd thing was he did not put up particularly good numbers -- he threw only three touchdowns in the run along with six interceptions. But that didn't matter so much. He completed big passes. More, he led. He inspired. He turned around his entire persona. He was named Super Bowl MVP.
And it seemed like, yes, THIS was the real Peyton Manning. The one we had been expecting. Manning was a valiant winner ... it has just taken time for him to show it and for everyone to see it. Yes, true, the Colts lost their first playoff game the next year, and again the next, but Manning put up big numbers and, anyway, he had already broken the spell. He had his Super Bowl ring.
Then, this year -- with a new head coach, a shaky defense, a new cast of receivers and no running game -- he carried the Colts to the Super Bowl. It was one of the greatest seasons and one of the greatest achievements in NFL history. In the playoffs, he refused to let the Colts lose -- with his team down 17-6 to the Jets, he threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns. That Peyton Manning -- the one who bad things happened to -- well, he was long gone.
* * *
You know something funny? All week, Saints players sounded like, well, like they idolized Manning. It was nice ... hey, it's always nice to hear players show respect for the great players. But the Saints were especially respectful. They talked at great length about how they could not match wits with the guy, and how they could never be sure what he would do, and how it would be an honor to face up against one of the all-time greats. You half-wondered if, after near-sacks, they might ask for autographs.
And when the game started, the Saints really did seem in awe of Manning. First possession, he drove the Colts right down the field, 53 yards, which led to a field goal. Second possession, he drove them 96 yards for a touchdown, which tied a Super Bowl record. Manning had all the time he needed to throw. He competed just about every pass. It looked easy. The Saints finally forced a punt on the third possession, but only because Colts receiver PierreGarcon dropped a pass that hit him in the chest. Manning looked invincible.
Then, the whole flow of the game changed. Much of it was the aggressiveness of the Saints. The worry all week was the Saints were content to just make the Super Bowl and would not play with the necessary edge. But it wasn't like that at all. They had plenty of edge. Coach SeanPayton went for it on fourth-and-goal. He called for an onside kick. He came in with an attacking style. And the Colts got pushed around a bit.
Still, you never got the feeling that the Saints could stop Manning. And yet, after the hot start, the Colts could never quite get going either. They played timid at the end of the first half and it cost them points. Later, Colts' coach JimCaldwell had his 42-year-old kicker, MattStover, try a 51-yard field goal -- Stover had not made one that long since September 2006 -- rather than give Manning a chance to go for it on fourth-and-11. The Colts ran the ball better than they had all year, Manning was completing a ton of passes, and still the Colts only had 17 points late in the fourth quarter. The Saints had 24. And that's when Peyton dropped back and threw the pass that Porter intercepted. The pass that determined the game.
"It was great film study by me," Porter said afterward. "A great jump. And a great play."
"I'm sure [Manning] would like to have that play back," said Saints defensive coordinator GreggWilliams.
"Disappointing," Manning said. "Very disappointed. Disappointed."
One play, of course, should not define a player. And it doesn't alter that Manning IS one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. When he retires, he will have made his case as the very best. But you knew, even as Manning walked off the field, that he would not sleep Sunday night. It was just another in a series of sleepless nights in the brilliant career of Peyton Manning.