The word most frequently used in the run up to, and in the immediate aftermath of, Super Bowl XLVIII was “legacy,” specifically the one attached to the quarterback of the Denver Broncos.
Every sports talking head show on TV and every radio talk show OD’d on the word, and it would have been nice if somebody had bothered to look up the word to discover its actual meaning. For what these people have been talking about isn’t really Peyton Manning’s “legacy,” but rather some combination of his historical impact or pecking order among all quarterbacks who have ever taken a snap in the National Football League.
All this had little or nothing to do with “legacy,” which my handy-dandy Scribner-Bantam English Dictionary defines as 1) “Money or property willed to someone,” or 2) “Any thing handed down from an ancestor or predecessor.”
So, if whoever succeeds Mr. Manning scurries to and fro, gestures frantically, and calls out the name of a large Nebraska city in advance of the snap, we can safely say that the current Denver quarterback has handed down his specific quarterbacking technique as a legacy to his successor.
Now that we have that bit of linguistic housekeeping taken care of, we can address the topic of Peyton Manning’s — what shall we call it? — historical memory. That’s what I’ll call it. You are perfectly free to call it something else.
When assessing most sports figures, what really matters in the end? If it’s strictly a matter of championships, then hold all calls, we have a winner because no one on this earth will live long enough to see someone eclipse Bill Russell’s résumé as the Greatest Winner In The History Of American Team Sport (and, most likely, International Team Sport, as well). Bill Russell was a member of two NCAA championship basketball teams at the University of San Francisco, a member of the 1956 gold medal-winning United States Olympic basketball team, and a member of 11 Boston Celtics NBA championship teams in 13 years as a professional. The next two or three résumés put together won’t top that.
Basketball is a team sport. What, therefore, do we say about Jack Nicklaus, with his 18 titles and 19 runners-up in the golf majors? And I don’t want to hear from the golf-isn’t-a-sport crowd because if we lined up all the top-shelf athletes in other sports who dream of being accomplished at golf, the queue would stretch from Boston to Seattle. In Jack’s world, he remains the standard by which all others are measured, and no one knows this better than Tiger Woods himself.
We must, therefore, render to team sports the things that pertain to team sports and individual sports the things that pertain to individual sports.
Football, I think we all agree, is a team sport. Nothing happens in a vacuum. That’s why anyone who makes a definitive judgment regarding Peyton Manning’s place in history based on the game we saw last Sunday evening is foolish and misguided. No Baugh, no Luckman, no Graham, no Van Brocklin, no Unitas, no Starr, no Tarkenton, no Bradshaw, no Marino, no Montana, no Aikman, no Elway, no Favre, no Warner, no Rodgers, no Brees, and, without any question, no Brady could have gotten very much done given the mismatch that was the Seattle defense vs. the 10 overwhelmed teammates wearing the same jersey as Peyton Manning. In fact, I’ll wager that every NFL quarterback sitting at home watching this debacle was thinking the same thing: “Thank God that’s not me out there.” I’ll likewise wager Russell Wilson was standing on the opposite sideline thinking the same thing.
Where Peyton Manning fits in the big scheme of things is a worthy topic. I love making historical comparisons. And part of all such discussions is the right of every participant to establish his or her criteria, to create your own personal straw man argument to pulverize or emphasize an area of expertise that might not occur to someone else in order to bolster your case.
If someone believes championships are the be-all and end-all, that’s his or her right. I must admit I use the championship thing as the trump card in my Russell arguments. But basketball and football are not equivalent team sports. One or two superior basketball players may disproportionately affect the outcome. In football, you start off with 22 and then add special teams, including placekickers. It’s very different and it must be taken into consideration when evaluating football players and their place in history.
Going by championships alone is tricky. A few years back I came across a very intriguing question: In terms of an NBA career, would you rather be Robert Horry or Charles Barkley?
Robert Horry was never a star. He played in no All-Star Games, won no postseason awards, and only averaged double figures three times, and not once in the final 12 of his 16 seasons. But he is the most prolific non-Celtic ring gatherer in NBA history. He played on seven title teams and is the only man to have won rings with three different teams (Rockets, Lakers, Spurs). And he was no mere spear-carrier, either. He made some of the biggest shots in NBA playoff history.
Charles Barkley played in 11 All-Star Games. He was the 1992-93 MVP. He was a first team All-NBA performer five times, a second-team member five times, and a third-team selection once. He was the best player on the One and Only Dream Team. He was a drop-dead, first-ballot Hall of Famer. Oh, and he never played on a championship team.
For me, this is an easy call. I’d rather be Charles Barkley. Robert Horry was good, but he was far luckier than he was good. Charles Barkley was unquestionably great. Unlike, say, Larry Bird, he was never complemented with a Kevin McHale, Robert Parish or Dennis Johnson.
There’s something else, and it gets to the heart of the matter.
To me, the greatest thing anyone who isn’t Bill Russell can do is leave behind an everlasting image, or distinct feel. Charles Barkley ripping down a defensive rebound and taking the ball coast-to-coast with all the fury of the 5:05 Special and then ramming one home was a breathtaking sight. It’s what I think of when I think of Charles Barkley. He left a mark on the game. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t win a title, any more than it was Ernie Banks’s fault he never played in a World Series, while a loudmouth named Billy Martin played in five of them and was on the winning side in four.
Times change. It’s harder to win championships now when each sport has a multitiered playoff system. It’s harder to keep teams together in salary cap leagues such as the NFL and NHL. We should be very careful how we judge players when there are so many variables that did not exist in years past.
That’s why the one thing that remains constant is the opportunity for each player to leave behind that image, and Peyton has certainly done that. He has set a standard of professionalism that will be difficult to match. I’m not sure you can bequeath his Manningness. Peyton Manning is irreplaceable.
This phenomenon is not unique to athletics. We have a short-order cook at the Globe cafeteria named Kim Robey. She is the Tom Brady-Larry Bird-Bobby Orr of short-order cooks. She knows how everyone wants everything and she gets it all right, every time, all while carrying on a lively conversation. If she ever leaves I’m sure people will wind up saying of her successor, “Well, he/she is OK, but he/she is no Kim.”
If any athlete reaches that stage, it’s Mission Accomplished, championship or no championship.Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, the year Bill Russell won a gold medal in the Olympics was incorrect in an earlier version of this column. Russell won his gold medal in 1956.