February 4th, 2016

Reed: Super Bowl QBs couldn't be less alike

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor


Reed: Super Bowl QBs couldn't be less alike
Old School quarterback Peyton Manning has schooled younger players while getting the Broncos to the Super Bowl at age 39 / photo and cover photo from Peyton Manning’s Facebook page

Borrowing again from military terminology, football has happily designated quarterbacks as its “field generals,” the guys with stars on their helmet who command from the battlefield instead of a command post far behind the lines.

Field generals are supposed to conduct themselves with a certain decorum and maturity that set them apart from their teammates. Let the wide receivers, running backs and defensive backs act silly when they make a routine play. The quarterback is the adult in the room.

Rarely do you see football field generals engage in conduct unbecoming. After a touchdown pass, while everyone else is strutting and posturing in the end zone, the quarterback trudges to the bench, puts on headphones and begins planning for the next possession.

So it has been since the 1940s, the early days of the league when quarterbacks like Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears, Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins and Otto Graham of the Cleveland Browns were defining the position for future generations.

So you see the problem that purists have with Cam Newton, the quarterback who will lead the Carolina Panthers against the Denver Broncos Sunday in the 50th edition of the bacchanalian orgy more commonly known as the Super Bowl. This would be Super Bowl L had the NFL maintained the usage of Roman numerals, but the league has decided to use 50 and you can bet commerce is at the root of it.

Newton does not just run the show for the Panthers; he IS the show.  When he runs for a TD, he does a dance dubbed “The Dad.” His fans call him “Superman,” able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and Newton does not discourage such chatter. It’s all about Cam, all the time.

On the other side of the ball, Peyton Manning, 39, is the epitome of a classic field general. He brings to mind Johnny Unitas, still the most iconic of NFL quarterbacks, at the end of his career. His best days long gone, he must rely on guile and guts. Yet he’s such a competitor that it would be a mistake to dismiss him lightly. Any moment, he could reach back into 2005 and come up with a play that can win a game.

How smart is Manning?

Well, when asked about Newton’s style, Peyton evaded the media’s rush for controversy with a nifty bit of broken-field running.

“I promise if I run for a touchdown on Sunday, I will celebrate,” he said. “I think his passion, his enthusiasm for the game, I think it’s great. I think it’s good for football.”

Now that’s funny. Where Newton is easily the best running quarterback in the league, an awe-inspiring combination of power and speed, Manning is as mobile and nimble as your old Aunt Minnie. Even in his youth, he scrambled only when necessary. But now the entire nation will be rooting for him to run for a TD just to see what he comes up with.

It’s important to remember that while Peyton is old as NFL quarterbacks go, he’s hardly a stuffed shirt. To the contrary, he has a wonderful self-deprecating sense of humor, as anyone knows who has ever seen his TV commercials or appearances on “Saturday Night Live”.

Still, Manning wears Old School like a robe of honor. He’s humble in victory, gracious in defeat. He respects his opponents. He never does anything to draw attention to himself except make great plays. He treats the media and the public with respect. He never brags. He gives credit to his teammates and takes responsibility for mistakes.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from the presidential debates, those qualities aren’t valued in America nearly as much as they were in 1950, when the modern NFL was more or less founded by the absorption of teams from the All-American Football Conference. We have come to like anti-heroes more than heroes. We let all sorts of miscreants off the hook just because they play football.

I’m not ready to say that Manning is the last of a breed because most NFL quarterbacks still act more like him than Newton. I also dispute that Newton is the first wave of a new trend. He is unique. Period. As the saying goes, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.”

So far he has backed it up with breathtaking effect. The Panthers lost only one game this season. Generally, Newton ran and passed and dabbed his way to a point where he’s the only candidate for the league’s MVP award. But now he faces a Denver defense that administered a historic beating to New England quarterback Tom Brady two weeks ago.

Time and again, the Broncos got to Brady. They knocked him down, stepped in his face, did everything but step on his blue suede shoes. But like Unitas and Graham and the other immortals, he just kept getting up and doing his job. He was every bit as admirable in defeat as in any victory.

But, of course, Newton poses a different challenge. He’s sort of like a football version of Michael Jordan in that he does things nobody has seen before. Never mind what you think about the dabbing and other stuff. All that matters is what he does between the lines.

My head tells me to pick the Panthers, but my heart is with the Broncos for one simple reason: I knew Peyton’s parents, Archie and Olivia, before Peyton did. I met them in the spring of 1970, when I went to the Ole Miss campus to do a cover story on Archie, then the folk-hero quarterback for the Rebels, for Sports Illustrated.

All these years later, I still hold Archie and Olivia in the highest regard. They are two of the finest people I’ve met in sports. I also admire the way they’ve raised their three sons – Peyton, Cooper and Eli. Even when they were young, they were learning to be Old School.

The perfect feel-good story would be for Peyton to go out a winner and announced his retirement. But the Super Bowl gods have no more respect for feel-good stories than they do for selections that are driven more by my heart than my head.

But that’s OK. Denver 28, Carolina 24. The field general executes one more winning battle plan. Maybe he’ll go to Disney World and maybe he won’t. Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.

 

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