by Bert Bartlett
Every once in awhile, if you happen to be paying attention, an athlete will let you know exactly how he is doing by his disposition, body language, and decisions. Jaded by the volume and repetition of football they broadcast, announcers mostly miss it. About a month ago, in prime time in Atlanta, Peyton Manning was scared to death, throwing three flutterball interceptions into a bevy of double and triple coverage Falcons, all in the first half. His throws looked like ones rookies make, so uncertain in follow through it was obvious he wanted them back before they left his hand. This was all quite un-Manning like.
Peyton wasn’t afraid of the defense, or what his coaches, Bronco GM John Elway, his parents, his brothers, the fans, or the media would think, or say. After a year removed from the game with serious neck injury, to the extent many opined he should never strap on a helmet again, a rusty Manning was afraid only of his harshest critic: himself. Can I , or should I – still be out here, doing this? It was a rare moment of doubt in the long, illustrious career of #18.
Fast forward to 10 days ago, on Monday Night Football. His team is down 0 – 24 in San Diego, at halftime. On the opening drive of the 3rd quarter, he quickly threw a long post for a TD that simply looked like garbage points, the outcome already decided. But it ignited an electric Bronco feeding frenzy on both sides of the ball, them scoring 35 unanswered, for a record comeback win, in six hundred and sixty something games of MNF. That’s 660+ games, as in 41 regular seasons. Though with midriff padding, he looks more these days like Gramps than The Golden Boy, do not let looks deceive. Peyton’s Place is back. And Denver is tickled that it’s in their town, given all they took, and still maintain, a terrific risk in having signed him.
The talking heads have all chortled about sporadic spirals and such, but it’s irrelevant, though his deep ball is mostly gone. His game has never depended on velocity or bombs, but always on crisp route running and immaculate timing with his receivers, who he can elevate simply by stepping on the field with. No quarterback in the history of the game has had his brilliance above the shoulders. He has a large forehead, room for that Central Processing Unit of his, that continues to make Isadore Newman School in New Orleans proud.
It is indeed a bit surreal when he is in no huddle operation, the play clock uncomfortably ticking down, :04, :03, :02, :01, while he acts like he is standing there killing time in the comfort of his living room, concurrently pointing out blitzers to his linemen, changing routes for the receivers, or plays, keeping in mind and sight what kind of coverage the defensive backfield is toying with, and oh, taking the snap and executing the play, all amidst clanging crowd and opponent noise at airport decibels, and general chaos. Yet much more often than not, he ends up knowing just where the soft spot in the defense is and how to manuver the ball just beyond the first down chains. Over and over again, with such methodical efficiency that during his years with the Colts, it could get septic and downright boring. Defenses got baffled, along with fans, and all could only wonder, How’d He Do That?
It’s much more fun watching Peyton in an underdog capacity, as he is at an advanced age with a new team, and in only a 2 – 3 year tight window (including this one) to win another title. That has to be what is motivating him, given that he can command seven figure incomes from endorsements and speaking engagements alone. It is curious he chose Denver over San Francisco, given that the 49’ers clearly have a stouter defense, and snow at home outside in December versus balmy by the bay. But we, like all the defenses he has stripped to bare bones, we have learned not to doubt him. Manning’s only off color stroke on his career canvas is his still cumulative losing record in the post season.
Its so true that in life; people, experiences, games too, most of it can only be fully appreciated when they’re gone. Ask last year’s Colts how much they missed Manning; they didn’t even resemble a football team, much less an NFL product, in his absence. The extent was such that it’s not sour fan grapes to say that owner Jim Irsay should have done something in the way of monetary credit for their season ticket holders towards this year’s games. But unlike the majority of movies, the majority of Second Line gigs for great NFL quarterbacks typically don’t have a good ending. Johnny Unitas was a sad, shadow of himself in San Diego. Joe Namath gimped around on bad, inflated knees in Los Angeles. Joe Montana did some good things when with the Chiefs, but not for long. The exception was one of Brett Favre’s years with the Vikings, in ’09, when he came within one careless interception of going back to the Super Bowl, and keeping the Saints out of it. Drew Brees didn’t become a great quarterback until after he arrived in New Orleans.
The Saints are hanging onto any season hopes by a thread, and if Sunday night in Denver isn’t an elimination game, it’s awfully close. Unfortunately, the match-up forebodes terribly for the Saints’ defense, which now has surrendered more yards after 6 games than any team in league history (approx. 1,500 teams). ‘Dat’s the kind of We’re Number One we’d rather not say. As one loyal fan initmated this week, it was a moral victory that the Saints held any opponent under 600 yards. But, the Saints’ defense has been in better postion more consistently the past three games than it was, so hapless in the first three. Hope. And the unit is capable of some chutzpah every now and then, such as when Malcolm Jenkins heroically chased down Buc receiver Vincent Jackson as he ran out of gas, unikely preceding and certainly motivating a fourth down stand from 2 yards out that saved 7 points, and likely the game.
Defeating the Broncos and nullifying Peyton in Mile High at this point in time is the most difficult challenge remaining on this year’s schedule for the Black & Gold, which includes the Eagles and Michael Vick, the Cowboys and Tony Romo, the 49’ers and Alex Smith, Brother Eli in New York, and the Falcons and Matty Ice (twice, though really, in the Dirty Bird rivalry, it doesn’t matter who the QB is). Somebody on the Saints staff should find some kind of tangible gris gris to sprinkle on the filed during warm-ups.
The return of Interim Coach II, Joe Vitt can only help the Saints, freeing up Aaron Kromer to focus exclusively on the offensive line. Brees is clicking on all cylinders again and the return of tight end Jimmy Graham will be most welcome. Running the ball more than usual is a viable option to shorten Peyton’s time on the field. And how about Joe Morgan? Were football an Olympic sport, he’d have gotten Gold for his gyriatric tackle breaking and getting into the end zone after the catch.
On paper, this one has network shootout hype that may be lived up to, mostly because the Saints may not be capable of playing any other way. Some are predicting it will draw the highest ratings ever for NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Like the last time New Orleans needed to beat Peyton Manning, a possession or two will have to be stolen from him along the way. The Broncos won’t be surprised by any onsides kicks, though maybe special teams can do something for New Orleans, like block a punt, or fake one. Bronco running back Willis McGahee is a potent slasher but gets excited at crucial times and careless with the ball, so the Saints should should be going for a strip every time he has it. Playing catch up to Peyton’s antics is the last position the Saints want to be in. If it comes down to a last possession, let us pray it’s #9 who has the ball.
Something, anything. Somehow, someway. This will be that kind of game for the visitors and their fans, and it’s been that kind of year for the Saints.