Super Bowl: Peyton's Place: Star QB pitches for victory
By BEN WALKER
AP National Writer
MIAMI — Peyton Manning was stuck in the back seat of the family car. His terrible T-ball team had lost again.
The coach, keenly aware of how important it was to pump up morale no matter what, always told his tender young charges their games ended in a tie.
"Dad," Archie Manning, sitting up front, heard his son say, "the coach must think we're pretty stupid."
By the time he was 6 or 7, young Manning fully appreciated the difference between winning, losing — and tying.
Eventually that drive and determination led him to win an NFL championship Super Bowl and become the league's best quarterback. On Sunday, the middle boy of football's First Family will try to win another and transform the Super Bowl into Peyton's Place.
He'll strap on his helmet, the one with the famed blue horseshoe, and lead the Indianapolis Colts against the New Orleans Saints. A victory would do more than cement a legacy that's been a lifetime in the making.
"If he wins the Super Bowl, you have to initiate a discussion of whether he's the greatest player to ever play the game," former star QB Joe Theismann said. "Not just the greatest quarterback, but the greatest player."
The who's-the-best question fires up fans in all sports. Babe Ruth or Willie Mays? Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus? Muhammad Ali or Rocky Marciano?
There are plenty of contenders for top quarterback.
Tom Brady, Joe Montana and John Elway won multiple Super Bowls. Johnny Unitas and Otto Graham were champs. Slingin' Sammy Baugh was so good in the 1930s and '40s, he was an ace passer, punter and defensive back. Throw Dan Marino and Brett Favre into that mix.
"I don't like to say greatest because it's too hard to compare eras," said Mike Ditka, a Hall of Fame player who later won a Super Bowl coaching Da Bears. "You can judge on a whole lot of categories, but I like leadership. Who do you want in that foxhole with you?
"That's what makes Manning stand out. He runs that whole offense. No other quarterback does that in this day and age," he said.
On 31 teams, a coach signals in the plays. On the Colts, Manning calls them. He sees it as "controlled chaos" — a no-huddle set where he decides run or pass, puts his teammates in position and makes adjustments at the line.
At 33, he is already a four-time Most Valuable Player. Famous for watching film of his opponents, Manning hardly views himself as a finished product.
"You are always learning different situations. Two-minute drills, third-and-1s, red zone," he said.
That doesn't only apply to football.
If you flipped on the TV this week, he was everywhere. Poking fun at his gawky side in ads, creating a national catch phrase with "Cut that meat!" Looking regal in pads, by far the biggest attraction in America's biggest game.
His talent in front of the TV camera came instantly. Somewhere Peyton the Passer morphed into Peyton the Pitchman.
About six years ago, Manning embraced the idea of making himself the butt of jokes in a series of MasterCard commercials. He cheered on a deli slicer, asked a grocery worker to sign a melon, gave a pep talk to piano movers.
Joyce King Thomas, chief creative officer for the McCann Erickson agency, helped produce the wildly popular "fan of the fans" campaign. "In the beginning, you're thinking, 'I hope this works,'" she said. "We learned quickly that, oh my goodness, he was amazing at this.
"He wanted to participate in it, he'd make suggestions. On some of the scripts, he'd say, 'I wouldn't say it quite like that,'" she said.
One spot closes with Manning, totally oblivious to the strange looks he's drawing, high-fiving an accountant and then blurting out, "Never gonna wash this hand!"
"That was his. He said it had happened to him," Thomas said.
A few months after he was MVP of the Colts' Super Bowl win in 2007, Manning hosted "Saturday Night Live." His mock United Way commercial is still a hit on YouTube. And word is he does wicked Elvis impersonation.
"Peyton's got a good sense of humor, but he also can be very serious. I think he's kind of surprised us a bit, too, in the commercials," said his dad, the longtime quarterback for the Saints. "Back when he did 'Saturday Night Live' and so forth, that was really fun to watch."
The Mannings will be in Miami on Sunday to cheer on Peyton. As for this Super Bowl elevating his spot in history, Peyton Manning said, "I certainly am not looking at the game that way."
But Colts receiver Reggie Wayne put it this way: "I'll let you all decide if he's the best and what his legacy is. But I guarantee you if we win Sunday, it would make it a lot easier for the critics to say who is."
Leave it to Eli Manning, the New York Giants' quarterback and MVP of the 2008 Super Bowl, to place his big bro at the top.
"Yeah, he's getting close. At this point, he's kind of considered an old-timer when it comes to age in the NFL, but he keeps getting better every year," he said. "I don't get jealous. He sets the standard for what I want to become, where I want to raise my level of play to."
The only real rub between them came when they were kids. Eli ended a particularly rugged game of 1-on-1 backyard basketball by dunking over Peyton, and the boys hardly spoke to each other for days. Archie played peacemaker; he took down the hoop at their New Orleans home.
"He's a good big brother," Eli said. "He's five years older than me, so he'd give you a wedgie or shake your pants down when you're in front of a bunch of friends, something like that. But not in a long time."
Associated Press Writer Sarah Larimer contributed to this report.