manning face2

Before we begin here, I’d like you to do something, but then come back (please come back?). Go over to the Google machine, and punch in this simple search: “Peyton Manning legacy”. As of this writing, that produces 43,100,000 results.

In the wake of a 43-8 trouncing Sunday night in Super Bowl XLVIII, that’s what the masses want to talk about. This will shock you, but the conversation is usually polarizing in either direction. There are those who think he’s still among the all-time greats, and that when we discuss said greatness at the quarterback position, his name always belongs in the same sentence alongside the likes of Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas. Then there are others who cite Super Bowl jewelry as their ultimate signifier of success, noting that Manning has only one ring while the true legendary quarterbacks in league history have at minimum enough rings to occupy two fingers.

The discussion of Manning’s legacy dominated the two-week buildup prior to the Super Bowl, and now given not only the outcome but also the supremely lopsided score, intermittently throughout the offseason we’ll reach for the same conversation as a safety net when boredom sets in. On a fundamental level, it’s a classic sports discussion in which we’re sitting in the great imaginary sports bar in our mind (or a real one, that works too), and these questions are essentially being asked and an answer is attempted: what has Player X accomplished? How did his play compare to that of his peers? And how did it compare to his predecessors?

But I have a more important question: what is a legacy, and how does it work?

I really can’t tell given the chatter over the past two weeks in reference to Manning, so let’s try to work through this together.

Can a specific play define or alter a legacy?

The core problem with the Manning legacy discussion is that right away it becomes completely arbitrary if we allow it to change so dramatically based on one game. Or worse, even one moment.

Sort of like this:

It’s easy to use Manning as a punching bag these days, but such is life in professional sports when we look at legacy moments after games end. And right now, Manning’s legacy doesn’t look so hunky-dory.

What is a legacy moment? Last Friday prior to what should have been the best game in the history of time, I gleefully indulged some Super Bowl nostalgia by counting down the top 10 most memorable championship game plays of all-time (so, about arbitrary things…). With the exception of a few, at first it seems like every play on that list is a legacy play, which must be a moment on a grand stage that changes how we view a player.

Immediately there’s a problem. Take Peyton’s little brother, for example, and we could point to this as a career-changing throw…

But the quarterback there looks much different from the chucker here…

The former clip (the magnificent one) came only one season before the latter clip (the dreadful one), and now of course Eli just finished a year when he threw 27 interceptions, a career high that led the league. Currently then his legacy resides somewhere in the vast space between those two extremes.

For the elder Manning, the memory of him being railroaded by a historically fierce Seahawks defense is fresh, especially Malcolm Smith’s 69-yard interception return which was a product of Cliff Avril’s hit. His interception last year to seal the Broncos’ fate in the divisional round is pretty fresh too. Hell, so is this…

As crippling as they were, focussing on those plays and only those plays erases a larger, more defined and true image. But there’s also the slightly longer view, which seems to fit given how the NFL is structured.

Can a game define a legacy?

What’s missing with any legacy discussion that takes place directly after the Super Bowl is that inherently nothing so grand can be defined by a single game, yet that’s how the league is designed. The brutality of the sport makes it so, which is why every year each team plays only 16 games, a minuscule number compared to other major North American sports (the NBA and NHL play 82, while baseball plays 162). The importance of each game is then dramatically heightened, and the championship is determined by the winner on one night, and one game.

Each season of football is, by its very nature and structure, a small sample size. Yet we insist on making definitive conclusions and swaying the perception of a player after reducing that sample to just one Sunday evening. This is the framework we’ve been given.

We use that one game to define legends, which is especially true with quarterbacks. Only 11 in league history have earned more than one Super Bowl ring, and they’re the golden kings of championship country. Two of them — Montana and Terry Bradshaw — have won four.

But here we run into a problem too. Does a performance in a single game — even if it’s the grand stage of the Super Bowl — negate other previous shortcomings, or mask those that follow?

Take Brady, for example. He’s tremendous and remains so, but to those who use Super Bowl wins as their sole divider between the quarterback have and have-nots, he’s now nearly a decade removed from his last big game victory, and he’s lost two since. Does that make him legacy scum?

Or we can look to Manning’s boss John Elway, who carried the same loser stigma throughout most is his career after dropping three Super Bowls before winning back-to-back championships, and then dropping the mic. If we reverse that and pretend to live in a world where Elway broke out as a rookie and won two straight titles, he would still possess those rings, but perception would likely change. He’d be the promising young quarterback who couldn’t maintain success throughout his career.

Determining a legacy by counting rings reduces a player to one game, and the happenstance contained within it. No matter how grand that game is, a single game can never be “legacy defining“. By that logic, we’re putting Manning on the same level as Trent Dilfer.

What the hell is it then?

Manning himself doesn’t know, and as he said last week, it’s a question he’s been asked since he was 25. The appropriate literal definition goes as follows:

Legacy: Something that someone has achieved that continues to exist after they stop working or die.

The death part there sounds a little dark, but the notion is clear. A legacy is an entire body of work, the totality of a career, and the records and achievements which are everlasting.

It’s everything, and indeed for Manning we can’t look back on his career without including the interceptions, the playoff stumbling, and his poor play Sunday night. But having a single-minded focus and honing in on only those mistakes is foolish.

He did win a Super Bowl. Merely advancing there is a significant accomplishment in a league where the window for success is so brief, and Manning has now played in three, becoming one of just 12 quarterbacks in league history to do so. He did just lead the greatest offense of all-time that scored a record 606 points as he established new league highs in passing touchdowns (55), and passing yards (5,477). In five of his 15 seasons he’s been named the league’s most valuable player, and he’s only missed the playoffs in two of those seasons.

If a legacy encompasses an entire career and it’s what a player leaves behind once he walks away, Manning’s isn’t perfect, because a perfectly pristine legacy doesn’t exist.

But it’s pretty damn good, and five years after he retires he’ll be enshrined in Canton on his first ballot. That’s where the best legacies go.