Peyton Manning can't seem to win the big games. Too bad that isn't his only fault.
Did you ever dislike a person and were never quite sure why? Maybe something he said rubbed you the wrong way, maybe you don't like the way he blows his nose or slurps his Coke at lunch?
Well, I really dislike Peyton Manning, even though I have no real concrete reason for hating him. I'm an ambivalent fan of the NFL, so his Colts haven't broken my heart — not that he's ever won a game big enough to do so. I'm not a degenerate gambler who lost my kid's college fund after one of Manning's innumerable choke jobs.
There's just something about the guy that rubs me the wrong way. From his giant helmet that makes him look like Marvin the Martian to his O.C.D.-like audibles before every snap, Manning is probably the most annoying "great" quarterback to ever live.
Yes, Manning is a great quarterback. In the regular season. In games that don't mean that much. Put the guy in a Week 9 game against the Patriots and he's lights out. Manning against the Patriots in the postseason? Forget it.
All of this is stating the obvious. Just about every single sports columnist has piled on Manning the past couple of days for his horrible game against the Steelers. Which isn't surprising, considering Manning's abysmal playoff record is always an easy target.
What is surprising is the level of contempt that has been leveled against him, which is pretty extraordinary, considering Manning has never been arrested, never beat up his girlfriend, and doesn't have a grill full of gold teeth.
There is more to the Manning unrest than just wins and losses. There has always been something vaguely unsettling about Manning, something that suggests his "Aw-shucks" routine is too good to be true. Something that seems kinda ... creepy.
Manning has two slits for eyes that are dark, cold, and somewhat menacing. While Manning is known for his charity work, you don't exactly get a warm and fuzzy feeling hearing him speak. I don't think I've ever seen him crack a legitimate smile once.
The first tear in Manning's carefully constructed public image appeared all the way back in 1996 when Manning, then the quarterback for the University of Tennessee, was accused of pulling down his pants and shoving his ass in the face of Jamie Ann Naughright, then an assistant athletic trainer. According to court documents, Manning re-enacted the incident on a couple of occasions and called her a "bitch."
Naughright received a settlement from the University of Tennessee and let the matter drop, until Manning's book, Manning: A Father, His Sons and a Football Legacy accused her of having a "vulgar mouth." Naughright was subsequently fired from her job at Florida Southern College and filed a defamation lawsuit in 2002, which was subsequently settled for an undisclosed amount of money.
Putting aside Manning's (alleged) repulsive actions, his recollection of Naughright is also pretty disconcerting. "I thought she had a vulgar mouth," Manning said of Naughright. Who, besides a Dickensian-era orphanage director, actually talks like that?
Apparently, Manning does. One can only imagine how often Manning blanches in the Colts' locker room, although it's highly doubtful that he moons Edgerrin James every time he lets an F-Bomb fly.
Manning's gentility, at least when vulgarity is concerned, certainly seems misplaced in NFL locker rooms. With his stiff demeanor, Manning certainly does not give off the "just one of the guys" vibe. Because Manning's image is so carefully constructed, no doubt in part because of the Naughright incident, it is extremely difficult to get a read into his true personality.
To understand Manning, you have to piece tidbits of information together to try and understand what makes the guy tick. One of the most interesting glimpses into his personality that I've seen occurred on a NFL Network Inside Training Camp special that filmed the inner-workings of the Colts' 2005 training camp.
Standing around with a couple of players after practice, Manning asks his teammates what they plan on doing with their free time. One says he's going to play some Xbox, another is going to catch some Zs. No lollygagging for Peyton, though: "I'm going back to my room to study my playbook!"
Such a strong work ethic can help inspire and motivate teammates. If they see the top dog working hard, they better work hard too. The trick, though, is to set a positive example without seeming like a condescending ass, which Manning is apparently unable to do. Even in his humorous MasterCard commercial where he cheers on everyday workers as they go about their mind-numbing jobs, there is a subtext of condescension, a "yeah, right, like I would really cheer for you, you big loser" attitude that makes the commercial hard to stomach.
You wonder how far that attitude carries over to his feelings about his teammates. Manning, while a tireless worker, often seems to be more concerned about protecting Peyton than bettering and protecting his teammates. Manning graciously threw his offensive line and coaching staff under the bus after the Pittsburgh loss when he said "I'm trying to be a good teammate here. Let's just say we had some problems in protection.''
Aside from blaming protection problems, Manning gave no other explanation for his numerous lame-duck passes, high overthrown floaters, or his complete inability to avoid the rush.
Perhaps Manning was embarrassed by yet another playoff failure and simply was trying to deflect blame. The fact that Manning couldn't stand up for his team, no matter how poorly the Colts played, showed a fundamental lack of leadership that will hinder him for the rest of his career. It will be hard for Manning to rally the troops for another go-around, especially since this was by far the best team Manning will probably ever play for. Perhaps the Colts' best bet is to dump Manning and bring in a less talented, less expensive quarterback. Heck, if it worked for the University of Tennessee, who finally won a national championship the year after he left with the unheralded Tee Martin at the helm, it might work for the Colts.
The chances of that happening are about the same as Manning buying Mike Vanderjagt, "that idiot kicker," a round of beers at the local watering hole. The Colts will most likely lose Edgerrin James and Reggie Wayne to free agency — a direct by-product of Manning's cap-busting contract. A true test of Manning's "team first" commitment will come when he is asked to restructure his contract in order to re-sign James and Wayne. Somehow I get the feeling that Manning will elect to pass the hat on that one.
Peyton Manning for all I know could be a fine, upstanding guy who is just stiff on camera and has a tendency to choke in crucial moments. And sexually harass women. And blame everyone but himself for his failures. All this doesn't make him an inherently bad human being, of course. Just a very phony one.