The bluffs and trenches of Commander Manning

Posted Feb. 12, 2010 @ 1 p.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

FT. LAUDERDALE — The Hall of Generals. Peyton Manning, the quarterback whose gallery displays scenes of spectacular glory and collapsing, puzzling defeats. How should witnesses judge the collection? And what other commanders featured in the wing have travelled such a strange and similar way?

You think of Napoleon and his cannons, his strange résumé of battles. Line them up and eye the counterbalance of work — on one end it's victories at Jena and Friedland and Austerlitz, the general defending the glories of France and its colors; at the opposite end you find his misery in Russia and that wretched, frozen retreat, half a million lost … and finally, to the depths of Waterloo. Epics, all of them, magnificent in their drama and grandeur.

So how should Napoleon, "Le Petit Caporal," be monumented for his performance in the big ones — overall, a winner or loser? It's a puzzling riddle.

"I used to say of him," Britain's Duke of Wellington once remarked, "that his presence on the field made the difference of forty thousand men."

We've heard similar things said about the quarterback.

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Last summer I called Colts president Bill Polian and politely implied that he didn't have enough weaponry to support his aging superstar, that Manning deserved better, and management should spring the checkbook for some free-agent mercenaries that would lend him a fighting chance.

Polian politely brushed it off. "We're happy with the players we have, thank you, and we think Peyton will be throwing the ball for the Colts a long time," and that was that.

Obviously there was enough happiness around for Manning to reach another title bout this year, but not enough to get past a Saints club that was a little bit deeper on offense and a little stickier on its pass coverages and a little zippier on special teams. Manning played well in the game. Yeah, he looked like himself out there. But now, at age 33, he's 1-1 in the Super Bowl round with how many cracks left to go?

He was the premier thrower in the SEC of the 1990s, and the No. 1 overall draft choice out of Tennessee. In Peyton's championship shot, the 1998 Orange Bowl, Nebraska drilled him to pieces, 42-17. He had thrown for 3,819 yards and 37 TDs that year. It took an OK passer named Tee Martin to lift the Volunteers to the crown — a year later. Puzzling.

As a pro he has played a close-second cello to Tom Brady, until 2006, when he stiffed the Patriots with a late drive to grab the AFC championship, his finest hour. The Super Bowl thing against Chicago felt like punctuation, but it finally added the necessary polish, the gemstone, to his career.

And all along it has been passing marks smashed and statistics heaped and comparisons made (Montana, Johnny U., Marino?), and my lord, what a master he has been.

But when you looked at the difference between Manning and Drew Brees last Sunday, you saw that Brees' receivers were sometimes reaching and lunging to make their grabs, while Manning was again nearly perfect in his passes, that robotic placement and delivery. He'll ace you every time in drill inspections. Until he fired that bad ball, the one the Saints took back the other way. Brees took the trophy.

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Much later, after XLIV had been put away, I sat on my hotel balcony and stared over at the darkened property next door. It was a high-rise beach condo, nearly abandoned by the crumpled economy. Most units were vacant, just traces of financial survivors who were able to hang on to their mortgages. Scars of disrepair had invaded the place — weeds, rust, a cracking, emptied pool and such.

And outside stood a lone figure in a pressed white shirt and pants, dutifully pacing the grounds. It was the night watchman — awaiting intruders who never come. Sometimes he'd twist a water valve, or pace the decking. But most often he just gazed into the night, thinking, reliving, other times just letting the mind fall away.

Hours later I woke up and looked out to see if he'd given up. But there he was, still holding his long stare out over the black water. A man faithful to his post.

I'll bet Manning feels more like that poor watchman than a general these days. I'll bet he's thinking a lot. Another grand expedition has shut down, the never-ending waves there in front of him, crashing away, with no foes on the horizon. The triumphs … the upsets … the pins and the medals of honor … all wrapped inside the loneliness of command.