NEW YORK — The quarterbacks in Sunday’s Super Bowl may as well be named Felix and Oscar.
Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson led the Broncos and Seahawks to the championship game, and on the surface, they are a classic odd couple.
Manning is old (37) by NFL standards, Wilson is young (25). Manning is tall (6 feet 5 inches), Wilson is short (5-11). Manning was the No. 1 pick in the draft, Wilson was passed over until the third round. Manning throws “ducks,” as he laughingly admitted last week, while Wilson is a strong-armed former baseball prospect. Manning is a statue in the pocket, while Wilson extends plays and makes things happen with his feet arguably as well as any quarterback in the game.
It’s old school vs. new school, in every sense of the phrase.
“It’ll be great to go against Peyton,” said Wilson, who is finishing up his second season. “Obviously, it’s not me versus him, but he’s a guy that I have so much respect for. All of the amazing things he’s done over his career, he’s built this unbelievable legacy, and he’s one of the best — if not the best — quarterbacks to ever play the game. One day I want to be like him in terms of the way he thinks. He’s just a master of the game. I’m working to get there.”
If the Broncos win, it will likely be behind Manning’s arm. The Broncos rode it all season, as he led the league in passing attempts (659) while throwing for 5,477 yards and an NFL-record 55 touchdowns. The Broncos’ offense is all timing and rhythm, and no one gets the ball out quicker than Manning. Denver ran the most offensive snaps in the NFL this season (1,156) and had the fourth-fastest offense in the NFL in terms of seconds per play. They were No. 1 in total yards and points.
“We need to move him,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Manning. “We need to get him off the spot so he has to move, so he has to adjust. When he’s in rhythm and solidly in the pocket — which he is a great majority of the time — then you’re really dealing with the best he has to offer.”
If the Seahawks win, it might be because of Wilson, or it might be because of the defense and running game, which carried Seattle for much of the season.
The Seahawks grind it out better than any team in the league. They finished No. 17 in total yards, No. 26 in passing, and ran the fourth-fewest offensive plays and had the fourth-slowest offense in the NFL. Wilson’s 407 pass attempts were ranked 22d.
“We’re definitely a run-first offense,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “When you have a back like Marshawn Lynch and the offensive linemen that we have, we’re kind of built for that.”
However, what Wilson does do better than just about any quarterback in the NFL is extend plays, get outside the pocket, and make something out of nothing — pretty much the exact opposite of Manning.
“There is definitely some built-in stuff that we do to try to help him and to get him out on the edge,” Bevell said. “And then some of those plays just happen in the course of the game that he manufactures. We just make sure we’ve given our receivers enough rules to be able to know, ‘OK, when he goes out this way, here is how we want you to react,’ because we don’t know what play that could happen on.”
Their differences, however, are only skin deep.
One of the biggest reasons why Manning and Wilson made it to the Super Bowl is because their leadership and intangible qualities are off the charts.
Manning’s preparation and dedication to his craft are well known, but even at 37, and with his credentials secure, he still pushes himself harder than ever, and asks the same from his coaches.
“The great ones that are truly great want to be coached and want to be coached hard,” said Broncos quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, who also coached Steve Young at the end of his career. “He’s a strong self-evaluator of how his performance needs to be. He wants to be on top of his game every day at practice, not just on Sunday.
“At the beginning of the year, we set a goal — let’s try to make this year your lowest interception percentage of your career — interceptions per number of times throwing the ball. Going into the season it was 1.6 percent. And every day we work on all the little things — footwork, placement, stuff like that. And this year he made it 1.5 percent.”
Wilson, meanwhile, impressed many talent evaluators in college, when he transferred from North Carolina State to Wisconsin for his senior year, learned his new playbook in two weeks, and was named a captain by his teammates. Wilson then took it a step further when interviewing with teams before the 2012 draft.
The Broncos brought Wilson to their facility for a visit, where he met Manning for the first time. Wilson had also attended Manning’s annual summer passing camp when he was in the 10th grade.
“I was actually in the film room watching some tape, and someone brought Russell in,” Manning said. “I had a chance to shake his hand. It was an exciting time in his life, getting ready for the draft. So, I wished him luck and told him I enjoyed watching his college career.”
However, the Broncos ultimately took quarterback Brock Osweiler in the second round.
“When we brought Russell in, he was phenomenal,” Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “I was amazed with how sharp he was, and when you watched the college tape, you just kept trying to figure out why you wouldn’t take the guy.”
Wilson’s height was the main reason he fell to the third round. Bill Parcells had a rule that he wouldn’t draft quarterbacks shorter than 6-3.
“It was hard for me to want to like him because of the height issue,” Knapp said. “If you look at the history of the NFL, I think there are only three quarterbacks who played in the Super Bowl who are under 6 feet, and that’s a hard prerequisite to accept.”
Wilson may be small, but he shuffles around the pocket and finds passing windows as well as any quarterback in the league. Wilson only had six passes batted down at the line of scrimmage this season, the same number as Manning.
“He’s very similar to Drew Brees in the pocket,” Seahawks general manager John Schneider said. “You can watch the way he moves and slides and finds lanes. He’s very smart with the ball.”
Wilson views his height only as a positive.
“I believe that God made me 5-11 for a reason,” he said. “For all the kids that have been told no, that they can’t do it, or all the kids that will be told no. That’s one of the reasons that I left playing baseball, to be honest with you. I had this urge to play the game of football, because so many people said I couldn’t do it.”
Manning epitomizes the classic dropback passer, in the same vein as Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, and Tom Brady. Wilson, the athletic, do-it-all playmaker, represents the future.
“I want to change the game,” Wilson said. “I think guys like Peyton Manning have changed the game in terms of the way he thinks, in terms of the way he processes things. Tom Brady is the same way. He’s so clutch, people fear him when he steps on the field. Drew Brees is a guy like that. And one day I want to evolve to that.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.