World of Sport

Peyton Manning: The NFL’s greatest ever, or greatest choker?

Peyton Manning is the perhaps the greatest American Football player of his generation. Since he started out in the sport in 1998, he has been named the NFL's player of the season five times - the all-time record - been picked for the NFL's all-star team 13 times in 15 seasons, been crowned the USA's sportsman of the year, and been named the quarterback for the NFL's team of the decade for the 2000s.

In short, he's the American football equivalent of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs all wrapped up in one. And that's despite undergoing neck surgery three times in the last three years.

Yet for all that brilliance, he has only one Super Bowl victory to his name - and after Sunday night's defeat, has yet again flopped on the biggest stage of all. It's as if Messi only had one La Liga title to his name. As if Giggs had only collected a single Premier League medal. As if Ronaldo had missed a string of sitters in big matches, rather than rising to the occasion in his normally unstoppable fashion.

And in that context, it's easy to understand why the big question now burning in American sports is whether Manning can still be considered one of the NFL's all-time greats, given that he has failed to collect more Super Bowl wins.

With one Super Bowl win in three attempts and more NFL play-off defeats - twelve - than any other player in the sport's history, it's a fair question - even if the only thing on Manning's mind after the match was where it all went wrong.

"I think we played a great football team," the 37-year-old Manning said. "We needed to play really well in order to win and we didn't come anywhere close to that.

"We weren't sharp offensively from the get go."

It was hardly a Hall of Fame worthy first quarter for Manning, who watched the opening snap sail over his head for a safety to put Denver in an early hole.

Manning, who tossed for a record 5,477 yards during the regular season, completed just two passes for five yards and an interception that the Seahawks turned into a touchdown and a 15-0 first quarter lead.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) walks with teammate Louis Vasquez after a play against the Seattle Seahawks during the second quarter in the NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football gameDenver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) walks with teammate Louis Vasquez after a play against the Seattle …

"The turnover on the first play of the game to give them a safety is not the way you want to start a game," Manning added. "For whatever reason, we couldn't get much going after that.

"Give Seattle credit, they are an excellent football team and they caused a lot of our mistakes.

"At the same time we just didn't play well."

The Denver offense managed just 11 net yards in a miserable opening quarter but the misfiring continued into the second when Manning was picked off by Seattle's Malcolm Smith, who returned the ball for a 69-yard touchdown.

The half ended with the highest scoring offense of all-time held scoreless by Seattle's top ranked defense and in a shocking 22-0 hole.

The situation soon went from grave to terminal when Percy Harvin returned the second half kickoff for a touchdown, handing Manning an insurmountable 29-0 mountain to climb.

Manning tried, going to the air and completing 34-of-49 pass attempts for 280 yards, but it was not nearly enough to erase the deficit.

"We got behind early and never could make a run to catch up," he said. "We knew they were an excellent defense. They executed better than we did.

"Certainly to finish this way is very disappointing. It is not an easy pill to swallow, but eventually you have to."

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy next to newly elected Hall of Fame player Michael Strahan (L) after the Seahawks defeated the Denver Broncos (Reuters)Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy next to newly elected Hall of Fame …

Thirteen times Manning has taken teams to the playoffs but he has hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy just the once, a championship less than little brother Eli, who has twice led the New York Giants to NFL titles.

Two seasons on from missing a year due to neck surgeries, Manning produced a campaign for the ages, setting single season marks for touchdown passes (55) as well as yards.

With the Broncos tipped as Super Bowl favorites right from the start of season, Manning had been under mounting pressure to prove he can also get the job done when it counts and turn his record-smashing campaign into another Super Bowl title.

Manning continued to rewrite the record book at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, setting a Super Bowl record with 34 completions, but a second ring once again slipped through his fingers as Seattle's ferocious defense left the Broncos quarterback under pressure and flustered.

"He's disappointed like all of us but he had a tremendous year," Denver head coach John Fox added. "I told him he had a great season, a record-breaking season and he just came up a little short tonight."

Yet for all that, Manning remains one of the nicest, most considerate men in the sport - and the man who'll tell you that is one of the beer sellers at the stadium, Steve Lopez, who ran in to him while he clearing up at the end of the busiest day of his beer-selling life and asked for his autograph.

As Yahoo!'s Dan Wetzel reports, Lopez came face-to-face with the superstar onl after Manning had been mauled on the field, battered by a headline-hungry press trying to get him to admit to being "embarrassed" by his performance, patronised and consoled by everyone from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to former great John Elway. We'll let Wetzel take the story from there:

"Mr. Manning, could I please get an autograph?" the 25-year-old Lopez asked.

Manning's head turned and looked Lopez in the eye. These were the opposite ends of the NFL food chain – megastar multimillionaire and a guy hawking Bud Lights in the stands. The wave of the crowd was pushing Manning forward, but he locked in on Lopez.

"Not now," Manning said, "but when I come back this way I will."

At some level, what really matters about a man is how he treats people who hold no leverage over him, let alone how he treats those people in moments of tumult when it would be quite understandable if he just ignored the request.

How many times through the years had Peyton Manning signed for people, stopped for photos for people, been gracious to people. Now? Here? In the harried moments after this painful and thorough loss, after a chance at a championship was lost and might never come again, in the cramped walkways of a football stadium – not some charity meet-and-greet – isn't he allowed to be, well, selfishly human?

Manning didn't think so. He didn't ignore Steve Lopez. He didn't ignore, later after he did return from that locker room, others who made the same request. Here was Cheyenne Wiseman, asking if he could sign a T-shirt. Here was Michael Wiseman of Philadelphia, looking for an autograph for his 10-year-old son, Alex.

After everything that happened, Peyton Manning kept stopping in the MetLife hallway and honoring requests for his time, no matter how fresh the wound, no matter how pronounced the pressure, no matter how desperately he just wanted to get on the bus, assume his customary place up front and get the hell out of Jersey.

Eurosport / Reuters