As most people know, Joe Namath delivered his famously tipsy Super Bowl guarantee more than four decades ago, in January 1969. Less well known was his concluding remark:
"I’m afraid it’s true," he said, "the name of the game is kill the quarterback." Forty-one years later, on the eve of another championship between the Jets and the Colts, there’s little reason to exploit the fable of Super Bowl III. The Jets who play in Jersey and the Colts of Indianapolis bear little resemblance to the franchises they once were.
Offenses have changed. Defenses have changed. But one component remains constant. Now as then, the name of the game is indeed kill the quarterback.
At present, these teams offer some interesting contrast: a clear favorite vs. an upstart and two very different rookie head coaches. One is brash and defensive-minded. The other is reserved, a longtime offensive assistant who majored in English literature. Still, the game itself isn’t hard to figure. It comes down to the best defense vs. the best quarterback, probably, before he’s done, the best ever.
Rex Ryan was taught by his father, Buddy, originator of a brutal blitzing defense known as the 46. The primary component of any Ryan game plan involves disorienting and disabling (in theory, not permanently) the opposing quarterback.
“It’s a big part of what we do,” the Jets coach said the other day. “That old saying, cut the head off and the body will fall. … Realistically, if you can get to the quarterback … it has an effect on your whole football team … a big hit will alter the course of a game more than anything else, more than a turnover, more than a touchdown.”
The question is, can Ryan devise a plan to hit Manning, who’s been sacked but 10 times this season?
I don’t think so. The Colts got by without any running game this year. Marvin Harrison, a future Hall of Famer who holds the single-season record for receptions, has been replaced by Pierre Garcon, a second-year player who showed up at training camp with all of four career catches. The role once played by Brandon Stokley, whom Manning once called “the best slot receiver in NFL history,” has been filled by Austin Collie, a rookie from BYU.
The only reason the Colts could go 15-2 is because Manning is like a player-coach, only better. No team depends on one guy the way Indianapolis depends on Manning.
But while he’s universally praised as a cerebral quarterback, his durability has gone largely unappreciated. NFL teams have been playing kill the quarterback with Peyton Manning for 12 years now — and he hasn’t missed so much as one start.
"I’ve had good fortune," he said Thursday morning on a conference call. "I’ve had good protection."
Manning mentions his longtime center, Jeff Saturday, and his longtime right tackle, Ryan Diem. Howard Mudd, now in his 12th season with the Colts, is the NFL’s longest-tenured offensive line coach, with 36 years on the job. But consistency is at best a partial explanation for Manning’s apparent indestructibility. The real reason is Manning, the league leader in corny commercials, also happens to be a very tough guy.
"You’ve got to have some want to be out there,” he said. “I’ve always felt a real accountability to be out there with my teammates every day, not just on game day, but to be there at practice, to be there in the offseason. I’ve been fortunate. But I take a lot of pride in being out there.”
So now you wonder: After 12 seasons and four MVP awards, why should the Jets be able to do what no one else has?
Ryan has a great defense, sure. But for purposes of this discussion, let’s agree to ignore Week 16, when Jim Caldwell rested his starters after half a game. (By the way, if Caldwell’s such an idiot, then why is he playing the Jets instead of the Chargers, who knocked the Colts out of the playoffs the last two years?). More relevant is Ryan’s experience coaching another great defense. In four games as the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator, Ryan is winless against Manning and Colts.
These include a playoff game a couple of years ago in which the Ravens kept the Colts out of the end zone and Ed Reed picked off Manning twice. Still, to do the math is to know just how lopsided these four contests really were. The Colts won by an average of more than 19 points. Manning completed 67 of 102 passes, almost 66 percent, and threw 11 touchdowns against two interceptions.
“You’ve got to be very careful,” Manning said of the comparison. “This is the 2009 New York Jets. They have their own players. They have their own identity.”
Rex Ryan better hope that’s the case. “It’s going to be a huge challenge,” said the outspoken coach. “I think we will be able to disrupt him some.”