Explaining Peyton Manning’s cult of personality

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“With the first pick of the 1998 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts select… Peyton Manning.” And that was it. From the day the Tennessee Volunteers’ star Quarterback was taken with the top pick of the draft, the Colts knew they were building a dynasty.

As number 18 came out of his rookie season with a paltry 3-13 record, people still knew he was the real deal. Only once more in his career would he fail to win 10 or more games in a season.

The Colts have been one of the powerhouses of the National Football League for more than a decade. With Manning under centre, they’ve won a Super Bowl, appeared in another and saw their hero scoop the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award four times – more than anyone in history.

If you’ve been following the league this year, however, you would have seen such luminaries as Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky quarterbacking for the Colts, because Peyton Manning has a bulging disc in his neck and will miss the entire season.

As a Ravens fan, I hate the Colts. Without their hero, they’re 0-11 (0-12 after Sunday barring a miracle) for the season, just five losses away from only the second ‘imperfect season’ of 0-16 in the history of the National Football League. And as somebody who can’t stand the Colts, I couldn’t be more upset. And on the surface, I realise that statement makes no sense – but first, let’s look at how on earth one player on such a team oriented sport can make such a difference.

As every single commentator and analyst in America has pointed out, “Peyton Manning doesn’t play defence or special teams”, but I believe it goes much deeper than that. Although it’s true, he was never called upon outside of his offensive duties, being robbed of their crutch, their talisman, their get-out-of-jail free card is weighing heavily on the minds of all the Colts players, and the result is this complete mess of a season we’ve watched unravel.

With a mistake prone quarterback incapable of leading the team down the field, the defence gets less time to rest, the special teams are required to defend more punts and overall, the team is less productive. Not to mention, in 2010 the Colts went 10-6 and their defence was in the bottom ten in points allowed. The cracks were starting to show, but Manning, 35, was still good enough to overcome that.

By the time you read this, the Patriots will have no doubt posted a cricket score at Gillette Stadium and absolutely nobody will be surprised. Another interesting point; when the schedule for the 2011 season was released, this game was slated for national primetime. A few weeks ago, it was moved to the relative anonymity of a 1:00pm kickoff – the potential Tom Brady v Peyton Manning shoot out will not be occurring, but rather, an extremely embarrassing afternoon for Jim Caldwell.

Now, onto why this is a bad thing despite by intense dislike of the Indianapolis Colts. The beauty of American sports is the equality that both a salary cap (baseball excluded) and a draft bring to the league. I’m sure everybody is familiar with the concept of a draft, the worst team getting the first pick, the next worst getting the second pick and so on.

Before this season started, there was a massive amount of speculation as to which struggling franchise would be the worst this campaign and land that coveted number one pick. This was an even bigger reward than usual, with basically every college football columnist in the country making the point that Stanford’s quarterback, Andrew Luck, is the best player at his position to come out of college since Manning himself.

Many teams began ‘Suck for Luck’ campaigns, bizarrely hoping that their team would lose more games than everyone else, just so they could grab Luck with the first pick. Absolutely nobody would have put the Colts in that mix…until Peyton’s neck started acting up. The losses began to pile on and by the time we reached Week 9 and the Miami Dolphins grabbed their first victory (and have since won four of five), nobody besides Indianapolis was winless. After 12 weeks, the next worst team has two wins. The Colts are a virtual lock for that Andrew Luck selection.

And I, like many others, am incredulous. I’ve had to watch Peyton Manning torture my team and bail out his inferior defence a million times, and when we’re finally getting to the back end of his career, they have one awful season and it just happens to perfectly coincide with the emergence of the next Manning? In this case, it really is better to be lucky than good.

So now Bill Polian and the rest of the Colts’ front office have a difficult decision facing them – when they draft Luck, what happens with Manning? He still has five years left on a huge contract. Which leaves them with three options; 1. Sign Luck and keep Manning, similar to how the Green Bay Packers dealt with having both Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, 2. Sign Luck and trade Manning for whatever they can barter for his aging body just to rid them of his huge salary or 3. Trade the number one pick and allow another team to take Andrew Luck.

Option one seems the most likely – had Favre not completely tarnished his legacy by eventually leaving for Minnesota via New York, it would’ve worked out perfectly for all involved. When the torch was passed to Rodgers in the 2008 season, rather than retire for a couple of months and then head to the Jets, Favre could’ve stayed as a backup/advisor, won a Super Bowl last year and faded gracefully into the night. Instead, he ended up with the Vikings in 2009 and the circus that surrounded everything he did with that football team was catastrophic.

The second option is a possibility as well. Some quiet whispers about the New York Jets and Washington Redskins being possible destinations. Again, this would probably work out great for the battling franchises in desperate need of a quarterback now, as well as freeing the Colts of that fat contract. Manning doesn’t appear to be the ego-maniac that Favre was, and may end up taking a pay cut or a trade to avoid hurting his team.

And finally, there’s the option of trading the pick. This seems like a huge longshot, but it’s worth thinking about just how much another team would give up for Andrew Luck. Even people that don’t watch the NFL know how vital quarterbacks are, and there are very few that could be considered elite. Ross Tucker of ESPN’s Football Today claimed he wouldn’t be surprised if a team offered the Colts three first round picks (meaning the Colts would still get a first round pick in 2012 but not the number one, AND get two first rounders in 2013 and 2014) for the number one in the 2011 draft, or several draft picks and players.

Again, this seems very unlikely but a package with the right pieces could be enough to entice Indianapolis to deal.

This entire situation really is a microcosm of the American sporting lifestyle, a team like the Colts who two years ago were in the Super Bowl, are now faced with the prospect of going 0-16, losing hero Peyton Manning and starting anew with Andrew Luck. Some cheeky Colts fans have already been spotted in the crowd with Luck jerseys on.

They had just better hope he doesn’t turn out like Ryan Leaf.