Maybe it was just one game. Maybe it was just one loss against a team that was due to win the Big One. But for this season, more than any other during the Peyton Manning era, the Indianapolis Colts looked and played like they were the team to beat in the NFL.
Then the Big One came, and maybe they played like they had the quarterback to beat instead.
If Peyton Manning is going to win another championship, it’s obvious he’s going to need to do so with a competitive equal-whether it is by way of mind (see Tony Dungy), by way of offensive weapon (see Marvin Harrison), or both.
Manning’s current playing status reminds me of Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever: Tony Manero made life look easy in the Discotheque, but in an anticlimactic ending, his deadbeat friends where out of the picture and he certainly did not get the girl.
Joe Montana won championships with a combination of Walsh and/or Rice. Jordan did it with Pippen and Jackson. Shaq with Kobe and Jackson. Kobe with Gasol and Jackson. Even in showbiz, Johnny Depp goes with Tim Burton to the same tune of Scarlett Johansson’s application of red lipstick.
Some quarterbacks, for better or worse, play long enough so their careers can be categorized into phases. John Elway, arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, seemingly solo-piloted three Super Bowl losses by a combined score of 40-136, before winning a pair of titles with fellow All-Pros Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe.
This past season unquestionably marked a new chapter for Manning, perhaps the concluding one as well: post Dungy, post Harrison.
How many great players and/or minds is Manning going to battle with each Sunday of an NFL season? Sure, defensive end Dwight Freeney is great when healthy, but Manning is in clear need of a new, top shelf toy to play with directly; either a receiver who can prove to be at his best when his team needs him the most (and will not let an unknown cornerback get the best of him), or a dynamic running back that the organization can rely on to actually carry the ball 20+ times in a game.
One can’t help but wonder why Joseph Addai, who averaged nearly six yards a carry against a flimsy Saints run defense, did not get more opportunities. That game was made-to-order for Addai to win the MVP with, but the Colts decided to let Manning and Brees spar instead.
And Brees simply landed more punches.
And is Jim Caldwell, Manning’s current head coach, and his perceived laissez-faire nature, fair to be labeled with a championship coaching mentality?
The Indy engine is clearly not broke, but that seductive, tantalizing “check engine” light is definitely on here. Does the mechanic, Colts GM Bill Polian, just obstruct the warning’s view with a band aid (like I do), or does he get under the hood and decide that something needs to be replaced?
The Most Unlikely Pair of Champions
As for the Saints, I can only think of one quarterback/coach story (Warner and Vermeil) that was more unlikely to go from rags to riches quite like Drew Brees and Sean Payton.
Think about this: take the arm of a child’s action figure or doll and turn it around in a complete circle. That’s just about what happened to Drew Brees’ throwing arm as a result of a tackle while quarterbacking the San Diego Chargers, tearing his labrum in the process. Needless to say, it was his last play as a Charger.
My earliest memory of Sean Payton comes during his stint as the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants. In 2002, when Payton couldn’t get the ball to tight end Jeremy Shockey in the red zone enough, head coach Jim Fassel took the play calling duties away from his young coordinator. Last week, on Super Bowl Sunday, Shockey caught a key second half touchdown on a play called by who else, but Payton.
In 2006, Payton is hired as head coach in New Orleans. During the very same offseason, Brees, after being shown the door by the Miami Dolphins in favor of Daunte Culpepper during the free agency shopping period, followed Payton in eventually signing with the Saints. During the recruiting pitch, Payton wanted to take Brees and his wife somewhere attractive in the New Orleans area, and instead found themselves somewhere in the vortex of Katrina’s version of Ground Zero. Brees and his wife had a revelation, while Payton thought he blew his chance to sign Brees.
And that’s how the foundation of one of the great player/coach relationships in modern day sport was built. These guys deserve to be called champions.
*The Superbowl coverage was superb, both during the game for CBS, and in post game for ESPN, respectively. Jim Nance was his neighborly and economical self. Phil Simms wasn’t perfect, but he was steady and insightful enough to prove he is still a big-game performer, nonetheless.
*Chris Berman, channeling Dick Vitale, called ESPN Primetime highlights like his Boiler was on fire, and it strangely seemed appropriate. Chris Carter gave us the kind of insight only a football player could, when commenting on injured but playing Dwight Freeny’s assumed status during the fourth quarter, “That medicine is wearing off!” I believe it was either Keyshawn Johnson or Tom Jackson who immediately punctuated Carter’s color with a steely and befitting, “A-men!”
*I can’t remember the last time I paid more than one complement to ESPN, but here goes another: While it may not pay the bills, they hit the nail on the head with added focus on the post game press conferences. For students of sport, this is what perfect world ESPN would do more of: raw, unchained access.
*The contrast in energy surrounding both the Drew Brees and Peyton Manning postgame press conferences, respectively, was unprecedented. It almost seemed like Brees was being baptized into a firmament of NFL superstardom right then and there; every single reporter must have had 20 questions he or she wanted to ask, but could only ask a pair. And Brees managed to keep his cool and articulate that the win was more than just a game. It was like he carried his in-game artistry right over to the press conference. Really cool stuff…goosebumps.
*Then there was Manning, who treated that press conference like it was about as nourishing as a month old burrito supreme from Taco Bell. It didn’t help that all the A-list reporters were speaking with the Saints, and all the newspaper sidebar and Australian reporters were assigned to asking him questions like, “Did the Saints show you anything in pre game warmups that led you to believe they were going to make life difficult out there for you today?” Manning just stared at the media coordinator, before wiping the beads off his forehead and throwing out a diplomatic response. Throughout the press conference, Manning’s ego and conscious appeared to be at war with each other, hence the sweating. The Saints were the better team, but he just didn’t want to believe it yet.
*Brees and Payton’s on field roles work together like a longtime pitcher and catcher battery. Payton is willing to throw some wicked sliders, even if the bases are loaded and the odds aren’t in his favor because he knows he can trust Brees, his catcher, to keep the ball and game in control. It just goes to show you how much the two believe and trust in one another.