Papa Johns, Budweiser and Legacy: what Super Bowl 50 really means from a big picture standpoint.

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Like most fans, I love the postseason. For me, it doesn’t matter what sport it is; when the bad teams stop playing, I care a lot more. Since the White Sox and Bears are garbage, the only joy I can derive from the baseball and football seasons is the pleasure of watching functional organizations compete for titles. Unfortunately, both the baseball and the football playoffs drove me absolutely insane. 

First we had the idiocy of the baseball playoffs with announcers and writers trying to shape the narrative to be about the Royals winning by ignoring analytics (despite all evidence to the contrary), the obscene levels of outrage over Jose Bautista’s epic batflip and the gaggle of new Cubs  and Mets fans that started popping up as their teams became relevant for the first time in a decade.  Then the NFL season came and went, along with discussions of concussions, a variety of “Gates” and a reminder that I should never try to predict things ever again. After all that fun, we moved into the postseason and were treated to racial debates, conversations about “dabbing” and one large-headed quarterback and his farewell tour.

Other than reminding me just how out of touch and super white I am, the playoffs showed once again how important perception and legacy are to players; especially the ones playing the quarterback position. Both Peyton Manning and Cam Newton added significant chapters to their stories on Sunday night. The real trick is figuring out how we’ll look at this 5 or 10 years from now.

Cam Newton-

No player in the NFL has had as many swings in public opinion as Cam Newton. Coming out of college, he was the kid whose dad took 500 grand for him to go to Auburn after he got in legal trouble at Florida.  There was some legitimate discussion about how well his game would translate to the NFL until he lit up the league as a rookie. Then his teammates began questioning his leadership , he got criticized for his demeanor on the sidelines and we were ready to write him off as just another moody superstar. As recently as last season, we weren’t sure if he could ever lead a winning team, or if he was destined to be the Stephon Marbury of the NFL: great stats, no winning records and a losing attitude. Coming into this season with no top receivers, a seemingly shaky offensive line and an unproven secondary, the Panthers looked to be on the endangered species list of playoff contenders, and there wasn’t much hope for him to change our minds.  As the season went along and they kept winning, the conversation moved from “They’re not that good, they’re just beating bad teams” to “Dang, they’re the best team in the league”. As far as Newton himself, this season was chock full of stories regarding his improved leadership qualities and how he had finally matured as a player and a human being. Of course every narrative has to have a Yin and a Yang in order for us to argue, and Cam’s story arc is no exception. For every person who loved the dancing and celebrating, there was one who found it offensive and classless. This continued through the playoffs, helped along by his zebra pants, naming his son “Chosen” and his misguided comments about black quarterbacks and the role of race in his status as “polarizing”.

I don’t care about his race, those pants just look stupid….

The comparisons were made constantly between Cam and LeBron: both are the next step in the evolution of professional athletes. LeBron is the size of Karl Malone but moves with the speed of Scottie Pippen and the vision of Magic Johnson. Similarly, when he’s on his game, Cam can combine size,strength, mobility and throwing ability like very few before him.

 

I could write an extra thousand words on the balance both men have to strike between being a black man and being a businessman, but that’s a story for another time. This Super Bowl added a new LeBron comparison that most people didn’t see coming. In 2007, LeBron dragged a team that featured Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the NBA Finals where they were promptly beaten down by a Spurs team that knew just how to take down a one man team. They double and triple teams LeBron and forced him to try to win on his own. Similarly, the Broncos dedicated their entire game plan to pressuring Cam Newton off the edge, taking away the running game and forcing him to rely on the very Ilgauskas-like receiving corps of Philly Brown, Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery. After a regular season in which the Panthers averaged 31 pass attempts and 33 rushing attempts per game , they were forced to abandon the game plan and threw 41 passes with only 18 rushing attempts. Newton definitely took a step forward this season, but a big portion of his success was rooted in the Panther’s ability to control the flow of the game and set up big plays through either the read option or the intermediate passing game. When Denver took that away, we saw the immaturity in Cam’s game and caught a glimpse into where he needs to improve.

Like LeBron’s finals appearance, this Super Bowl performance is going to stick with Cam for a very long time. Whether it’s fair or not, nothing he’s done up to this point- championships in High School, Junior College and the NCAA; as well as a Heisman and a totally deserved MVP- will matter any more.  When you throw in the gold MVP shoes, the dancing, ripping up flags in the end zone and leaving the postgame media session early (none of which I have much of a  problem with), Cam’s legacy is going to have a giant black mark as an immature millenial who can’t come through in the clutch until the day he wins a championship. Luckily for him, legacies can be rebuilt. After being labeled a venomous traitor who couldn’t win the big one, LeBron won a couple of titles and went “home” where rebuilt himself as the Savior of Cleveland and the ultimate example of basketball excellence. His legacy isn’t finished yet, but if he wins a title in Cleveland, all the negatives will only show up as a footnote in his post-career biopic (which he’ll probably direct and sell to major studios). In that same vein, we were all getting to the point where we had embraced Cam as the new face of the NFL- one that made people think about racial issues and was okay with showing his real personality. All it will take is one big win, and he’ll be right back in our good graces. If time has shown us nothing else, it’s the fact that history is told by those who win.

Peyton Manning:

Through a combination of his (seemingly) genuine “aww shucks” personality and appearance, nobody in the social media era has done a better job of cultivating their public persona than Peyton Manning. Up until the last two months with the HGH scandal, the biggest controversies Manning has been involved in were him being mentioned in Tom Brady’s ‘Deflategate’ emails and the erroneous report of his impending divorce in 2011. Even those two ‘controversies’ ended with Manning as the good guy. He and his normal seeming wife are still happily married with adorable kids, and the Brady emails only served to pile a little more dirt on Tom Terrific’s reputation. This well-groomed perception has paid huge dividends throughout Peyton’s career and even the latest reports of him hiring private investigators to vet the Al Jazeera report and his long forgotten sexual assault accusation have been mostly swept under the rug. They’ve been compared to each other their whole careers, so it’s only fair to contrast this with the way the public treats Brady: at the first whiff of scandal, we rush to find innocence for Manning and assume guilt for Brady and the Pats. There’s definitely a bit of “they hate us cause they ain’t us” with Brady and the Pats, but the biggest factor is Manning’s well oiled PR machine doing its’ job.

With Denver’s victory on Sunday, Manning joined an elite group of only 12 quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl victories. Combine that with his records accross the board and it would be easy to label him the Greatest of All Time. However, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Because, while he’s the undisputed best regular season quarterback of all time, Manning’s body of work has been less than stellar in big games. Whether it’s his mediocre postseason record, failure to win the biggest games in college or even the famous “Manning Face” we see in important moments, Peyton has consistently shrunk in the spotlight. With that being said, aside from a few articles here and there, Manning’s failures have been largely overlooked by the media and fans alike. For most of his career, the blame was cast on the defense, but he was supported by Colts’ defenses that ranked an average of 15th in the league throughout his tenure, and the Denver defenses have been dominant in his time there. He’s certainly had no shortage of offensive talent around him and thanks to his uncanny ability to avoid pressure, the offensive lines have held up well in protecting him. So why exactly do we preserve his legacy when we’re so quick to blast others? It all comes back to the first sentence I wrote- Peyton seems like one of us. Even though he has more money than some countries,  we picture him sitting down to a slice or two of Papa Johns and as he said Sunday night “having a few Budweisers”. We see him dancing to “Rocky Top” during practice and making us laugh on Saturday Night Live and we forget about the other side of Peyton Manning- the guy who runs every aspect of the offense like a World War II general and doesn’t leave anything to chance. If you do a internet search for “Peyton Manning Control Freak” you’ll get story after story about his obsessiveness and demand for perfection in himself and his teammates. We ignore the failures because in some ways, we empathize with that dichotomy. We don’t want to be reminded of our personal and professional failures, so why would we do that to Good Ole’ Peyton?

After all the passing yards and touchdowns, commercials and guest appearances, we’re left with the most complicated legacy in NFL history.Peyton Manning revolutionized not just the quarterback position, but the sport itself. Manning did for football what Jordan did for basketball. He helped change the way football players were marketed and helped usher in an offensive explosion on an unprecedented scale. We have to weigh that impact against the fact that he routinely came up small when it mattered most and was bailed out by his defense in both his Super Bowl victories. There’s no shame in getting help to accomplish your goals, Montana had Jerry Rice and a loaded team around him, and we don’t shortchange him one bit.

I’ve hated and rooted against Manning his whole career, but I’ll miss the way he dominated a game and made other professionals look like college players. Right now, I’m not sure what his ultimate legacy is, but twenty years from now, there’s a good chance we’ll forget the sub par performances in big games and the awkward old man ending to his career and call Peyton Manning the best to play the game. Well… at least until a new Greatest of All Time comes along.

 

 

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