Greatest QB ever is Peyton’s place in history

col-tbuzz-2Many will remember Peyton Manning for his record-setting numbers and mind-blowing stats. But watching the five-time NFL MVP tearfully announce his retirement Monday, a couple of smaller figures came to mind that I will always remember him for, starting with the No. 16.

That’s the jersey number the scrawny, acne-plagued quarterback was wearing the first time I saw him in action. My beloved Tennessee Volunteers were opening the 1994 season in the Rose Bowl against UCLA, but the highly touted freshman was buried low on the depth chart. That is until the senior starter went down with a season-ending injury on the seventh play of the game, and backup Todd Helton – a projected instant millionaire in the upcoming Major League Baseball Draft – wisely opted not to risk his chance to become an instant millionaire by playing college football for free.

So onto the field charged the gung-ho Manning, addressing his team in the huddle and pretending not to be soiling his pants. “OK, guys, we’re going to drive this ball down the field and score!” Manning recalled years later. A 285-pound senior shit back “Shut up and call the (expletive) play, freshman.” It was the first play of an incredible college and pro career that will end in a place to both halls of fame, and a spot in my heart as the greatest QB to play the game.

What’s that you say? Joe Montana? Terry Bradshaw? Tom Brady? All three have more Super Bowl rings, if that’s the truest measure of greatness. But winning a championship depends so much on the other 44 guys on the team I’m not sure it’s the only factor. Does anyone doubt that Dan Marino was a greater quarterback than Trent Dilfer? I rest my case. Besides, Manning’s win with the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 gives him two rings, putting him in elite company with such legends as John Elway, Bart Starr and Roger Staubach.

If stats are what count in your book, you will be hard pressed to find a handful of meaningful records that Manning doesn’t own – 200 career wins, 539 touchdowns, 71,940 passing yards. All of those records may fall in the years to come, but that fact actually proves my point. The real reason I consider Manning the greatest to play the game is because he revolutionized the position of quarterback and changed the game forever, setting the stage for future QBs to pile up huge numbers. He became the first true offensive coordinator to manage the game from the field.

Manning is obviously not as physically talented as others who play the position in the modern era, but his dedication to studying the game and tireless preparation showed that hard work and smarts still account for something in a smash-mouth sport. He had total control of the offense, called and changed and re-changed plays at the line of scrimmage in a language only his teammates understood, and ran so many timing routes with his receivers over 18 seasons that he could run a 2-minute drive to perfection while blindfolded. Whether a pure pocket passer or a dual-threat, the modern QB’s success rides on his command of his offense the way Manning did, playing the position like a grand master of chess.

Which brings us to the other number I will always remember him for – No. 18. Manning chose to wear his father’s old number in the pros, a man who is still known as the greatest QB to play on the worst team. But Peyton learned his biggest lesson from Archie Manning’s brutal years with the New Orleans Saints, ensuring he didn’t suffer the same fate by inspiring his teammates to greatness. And just has his father handled losing with grace and dignity, Peyton showed the same class as a winner and proved that nice guys do not always finish last. In fact, at least one the greatest to ever play the game.

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