FROM MY SEAT: A Manning for the Moment 

The story angles would be juicier if he were playing the New Orleans Saints for football supremacy this Sunday. Daddy’s team, representing the ravaged city where he grew up and first gained stardom as a high school quarterback. Instead, Peyton Manning will lead his Indianapolis Colts onto the field at Dolphin Stadium in Miami to butt heads with the Chicago Bears.

When you consider things on a deeper level, though, a throwback (old school?) quarterback like Manning is the perfect centerpiece for only the second Super Bowl in history to feature two of the NFL’s original franchises. (The Colts, along with the Steelers and Browns, were moved into the AFC when the NFL merged with the AFL in 1970. Until this year, only Super Bowl XIV with Pittsburgh and the L.A. Rams featured teams that predate the AFL.)

The unfortunate truth is that Manning plays in a city that has had football less than 25 years (more of an expansion team than even the Saints), he plays on artificial turf, and under a roof. But come this Sunday, the greatest quarterback the 21st century has yet seen will be exactly where he belongs.

Rightly or wrongly, Manning has been judged more for what he hasn’t done than what he has, dating back to his All-America days at the University of Tennessee. While he won three bowl games, passed for more than 11,000 yards, and won the 1997 SEC championship, Manning never beat Florida. (The football gods had this in mind in delivering the Bears — quarterbacked by former Gator Rex Grossman — to Miami this weekend.)

Those losses to Steve Spurrier’s bunch were a primary reason Manning didn’t win the Heisman Trophy as a senior, the hardware going to Michigan’s Charles Woodson instead. And since taking over the Colts’ quarterbacking duties in 1998, Manning had never reached the Super Bowl . . . until now.

In 2004, Manning broke a 20-year-old NFL record by tossing 49 touchdown passes in a single season. But it’s a broader, career-encompassing statistic that truly places the 9th-year signal caller in context among the sport’s greats. Consider:

Dan Marino owns almost every significant career passing record in the NFL, including yardage. He had a total of six seasons in which he threw for 4,000 yards. Joe Montana, John Elway, Steve Young, and Troy Aikman are all first-ballot inductees in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That foursome combined — all together — for three 4,000-yard seasons. (And two of them were playing catch with a guy named Jerry Rice.) Peyton Manning, folks, has had SEVEN 4,000-yard seasons, and is but 30 years old. Five or six more healthy seasons, and Manning will have done to the passing charts what Rice did to receiving records.

But he needs a championship.

As great as Marino was, as undeniably talented and popular, he played in but one Super Bowl, and was trounced by Montana’s 49ers in January 1985. I saw Warren Moon inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, last August, another quarterback in that “first-ballot” pantheon.

But the talk in the stadium — during the man’s speech! — was that he never so much as reached a Super Bowl. (Moon was rightfully applauded for being the first black quarterback to earn his place in Canton. Want to guess if he’d trade that distinction for a championship or two?) Elway, Young, Aikman, Brett Favre. However we might otherwise reflect on the career achievements of these passing legends, it’s the slo-mo images of their Super Bowl victories that remain with us in ways Marino and Moon can only fantasize.

Super Bowl XLI has an air of significance that feels unique, even for the most over-hyped sporting event on the planet. (As wonderful and fitting as it is to see the first black head coaches in the Super Bowl, I find it more astounding that the Monsters of the Midway — the team of Atkins, Butkus, and another Payton — are coached by a man named Lovie.) The Colts are playing in their first Super Bowl since Nixon’s first term. The Bears are there for the first time since George H.W. Bush was a vice-president.

But for all the firsts, for all the angles the media horde will gather before kickoff Sunday, it’s the arrival of the NFL’s best quarterback on the NFL_s brightest stage that should have Football Nation relishing this championship contest. Peyton’s place at the Super Bowl. Imagine that.

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