If only an NCAA championship game or a Super Bowl qualifies as "the big one," then Manning is guilty as charged. Personally, I've never bought into the premise that a guy has to win a national title or a Super Bowl title to be an elite quarterback.
My philosophy is pretty simple: Great quarterbacks don't win titles. Great TEAMS do. Obviously, a quality quarterback is essential to success but 23 other guys (counting the punter and kicker) must do their jobs, as well.
The perception that Manning chokes in big games traces to his days at Tennessee. He was 39-5 in 3½ seasons as the Vols' starting quarterback but went 0-3 against Steve Spurrier's Florida Gators. Apparently, there were a bunch of chokers playing quarterback for SEC schools in those days because Spurrier's league record for 1995-1997 was 22-2.
Spurrier's defensive coordinator during Manning's junior and senior seasons was Bob Stoops, who has gone on to become one of the most respected (and highest-paid) head coaches in college football. In retrospect, it's amazing that a team which had Spurrier directing the offense, Stoops overseeing the defense and a host of All-Americans executing the plays ever lost to ANYBODY.
Still, there is a perception that Manning choked against the Gators, so let's look at his numbers:
- As a sophomore in 1995 he completed 23 of 36 passes for 326 yards in Gainesville with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. A defensive melt-down by Tennessee enabled Florida to win 62-37, yet Manning continues to be blamed for that setback.
- As a junior in 1996 he completed 37 of 65 passes for a school-record 492 yards and four TDs in Knoxville. Faced with a 35-0 second-quarter deficit, he also threw four interceptions that helped seal a 35-29 Gator victory.
- As a senior in 1997 he completed 29 of 51 for 353 yards and three touchdowns at The Swamp. He threw two interceptions, however, one of which was returned for a first-quarter TD. The "choke" tag originated and snide jokes followed. One of them went as follows:
"Did you know Phillip Fulmer's will specifies that Peyton Manning serve as one of his pall-bearers? Yeah, that way Peyton can let his coach down one last time."
Critics believe Exhibit B in the case against Manning is the fact the Vols beat Florida and won a national title the year after he left.
Tee Martin, Manning's successor, did a masterful job in 1998 and deserves tremendous credit for guiding Tennessee to a 13-0 record. Like Manning, though, Martin struggled with Florida's defense. He completed just 7 of 20 throws against the '98 Gators and finished with a mere 64 passing yards. In three games against Florida, Manning averaged 97.6 passing yards PER QUARTER.
Exhibit C in the case against Manning is his playoff record since turning professional. There is no denying that he has not played his best football in the post-season. He entered last Sunday's game against the Patriots with a 5-6 record in playoff games. Conversely, New England QB Tom Brady brought a 12-1 record into the fray.
Moreover, Manning's first two playoff performances of 2007 were awful. He threw just one touchdown pass and five interceptions against Kansas City and Baltimore. His passer rating for the two games was a putrid 58.9.
When Manning threw a second-quarter interception that was returned for a TD, giving the Patriots a 21-3 lead last Sunday, his detractors no doubt nodded their heads and mumbled, "Same old Manning. Chokes in the clutch."
Manning didn't choke, however. He led the biggest rally in playoff history, guiding the Colts to a dramatic last-drive touchdown that produced a 38-34 triumph and a Super Bowl bid.
"It probably won't shut anybody up until we win one," Colts head coach Tony Dungy said, "but Peyton Manning is a great player. Anybody who doesn't know that doesn't know much about football."
It's hard to say it any better than that.