By the time we, the media, are done milking Peyton Manning’s departure from Indianapolis, the bounty on the quarterback’s head may rival the $250,000 Sean Payton surrendered to acquire the services of defrocked defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
“The Departure” is shaping up to be “The Decision” on steroids, only this time it would be unfair to single out ESPN as the executive producer. We’re all suffering from Manning Mania. Eighteen months after unanimously killing the Worldwide Leader’s overhype of LeBron’s Cleveland exit, the rest of us have fallen in line and discovered the beauty of guerrilla saturation marketing of a single star athlete.
“The Decision” begat Tebowmania which begat Linsanity which begat the universal resolve to squeeze every page view, Nielsen-ratings point and Twitter follower out of Peyton’s New Place.
As likable and classy as Manning is, he’s going to pay the same price as King James, Touchdown Timmy and Jeremy “Big Pun” Lin. If Manning touches the field again, the price for a knockout shot will be at an all-time high. We, the media, are expanding the target on Manning’s back. It’s what we do.
King James went through it last NBA season. Every opponent and every team threw its hardest punch at James and the Heat. Tebow is as polarizing an athlete as we’ve seen since Muhammad Ali. Point guards are frothing across the league to get their shot at Lin.
Overhype breeds contempt, fuels jealousy and evokes a focused response.
Roger Goodell’s impending crackdown on financially incentivized, injury-producing violence won’t provide Manning protection from bounty hunters. Jealousy is a currency older and more powerful than gold.
Modern-day NFL players, with their million-dollar contracts, weren’t motivated by the handful of $100 bills Gregg Williams passed out in his meeting room. The cash was symbolic, a trophy. The motivation was the adulation and respect showered on them by their peers.
Football is not a gentleman’s game. It’s three hours of supervised savagery, a three-hour safari hunt. The NFL and its television partners have established the quarterback as the most coveted prey in the jungle. In its quest for bigger ratings and more advertising dollars, the league has manipulated the rules so that Manning and Brady and Big Ben and Eli and Vick can be small-screen leading men the equal of Tony Soprano and Don Draper.
Defense has been curtailed. The running game has been marginalized. In a quest for survival, a defensive player’s best weapon is a kill shot on the quarterback. OK, this was always true. But it’s even truer now. A top-flight quarterback used to complete 55 percent of his passes. Drew Brees connects on 70 percent of his throws. The only way to slow him down is to ring his bell, make him see stars, force him to lower his eyes in anticipation of the rush, bruise his shoulder so that it’s painful for him to follow through with his throw, ding his knee so that his footwork suffers.
If Goodell is sincerely interested in protecting the quarterback, he should instruct the rules committee to give defensive coordinators another weapon or two. Let defensive backs jam receivers for 10 yards rather than five. Yes, this might cause quarterbacks to hold the ball longer and risk getting sacked, but it also might cause offensive coordinators to call a few more running plays. There was a time when running backs were nearly as big of stars as quarterbacks. Jim Brown walked away from the NFL in his prime to pursue a career in Hollywood.
There was a time when football wasn’t singularly defined by one position. The fact that the NFL is so dominated by the QB position is one of the main driving forces that promotes the bounty culture in an era when the players are highly compensated.
Defensive players are jealous. Their jealousy isn’t a sign of weakness or immaturity. It’s a sign of their humanity. Humans are jealous by nature. Athletes, particularly ones good enough to play at the highest level, are competitive by nature. The NFL and its TV partners have placed Manning, Brady and all the other QB golden boys on pedestals.
Humans crave adulation and respect. The more you get, the more you want. The current NFL denies defensive players from reaching their full potential.
On Wednesday, Peyton Manning was hailed on television as the “greatest free agent ever.”
What? Wasn’t Deion Sanders a free agent? Wasn’t Reggie White a free agent? Sanders and White were free agents in the prime of their careers. Manning is 35 and coming off a season he missed because of a neck injury.
Peyton Manning is a wonderful football player and a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he doesn’t compare to Reggie White. I don’t care about Manning’s four MVP trophies in a league that favors his position.
There’s only been one Reggie White in the history of the NFL. One. First, God doesn’t create 300-pound defensive ends. Reggie White was an accident. Second, Reggie rushed the passer and played the run at an all-world level. White recorded 21 sacks in a strike-shortened 12-game season.
So let’s say two to four people are conducting a fantasy draft to build the greatest NFL team of all-time. Who do you take first, Manning or White?
There’s only one Reggie White in the draft. Bruce Smith and Deacon Jones are not as good as Reggie. Don’t get fooled by Deacon’s big personality. He’s not on the same planet as Reggie. In the second, third or fourth rounds, you can grab Dan Marino, Joe Montana, John Elway, Johnny Unitas, Steve Young, Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Otto Graham, Tom Brady or Brett Favre.
There’s only one Lawrence Taylor. There’s one Deion Sanders, one Jim Brown, one Jerry Rice. (And, for my money, there’s only one John Elway, the greatest NFL player of all time.)
Peyton Manning is the most hyped free agent in NFL history. The prize for that is a bull’s-eye on his neck.