Well, Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy finally won the Super Bowl. Now there’s absolutely no reason for anyone to question whether they’ll ever “get over the hump”, “slay the dragon”, “get the monkey off their back”, “exorcise the demons”, “pass the kidney stone”, or whatever triumphal cliché you’d care to insert here. They are, at this moment in time, the kings of the metaphorical NFL hill, and their greatness shall be forever validated.
But thinking of Manning and Dungy’s respective careers—both before and after the Colts’ Super Bowl victory—necessitates a discussion about just how much emphasis should be placed on winning when evaluating a player or coach’s ultimate legacy. Manning and Dungy have now achieved all they’ll ever need to in the NFL. Every sports media outlet has been confirming this, and they’ve all been correct in doing so. Manning and Dungy could never set foot on a football field again for as long as they live, and there wouldn’t be so much of a whisper of what could have been. Manning is a lock for the Hall of Fame (if he wasn’t already), and it wouldn’t be shocking if Dungy is someday enshrined, as well. Clearly, winning the big game is immensely important.
But how important should it be? That debate cuts right to one of the primary reasons why football is such an overwhelmingly popular game: the seemingly perfect blend of team and individual components. Just compare this to the other major American sports. So many incalculable factors contribute to deciding the outcome of a baseball game, it’s scarcely mentioned that someone as statistically great as Ted Williams never won a World Series. Yet in basketball, the most individual of team sports, one can’t possibly be mentioned amongst the sport’s truly elite without having a title to their name.
But football falls right in the middle. Dan Marino will probably forever be the poster child for Super Bowl-less football greats. On one hand, there isn’t a soul out there who wouldn’t list him as one of the ten, maybe five, greatest quarterbacks ever. On the other hand, any praise of Marino’s career is promptly followed with a “but”. We’ll never know how to properly assess the value of winning a Super Bowl on an individual level, and that’s what makes the debate surrounding the players and coaches who haven’t won so great. Everyone has their own take on it; I certainly thought I knew my position but, leading up to the Super Bowl, I realized how hypocritical my own feelings were regarding Manning and Dungy.
Until February 4th, I was an ardent Tom Brady backer in the endless Manning vs. Brady debate. After all, football is a team game, and Brady had won three Super Bowls to Manning’s zero, not to mention all the head-to-head victories Brady had compiled. In my eyes, anyone who actually thought Manning was superior was a blatant stats-fiend who would be better off salivating over deified baseball hallmarks like Babe Ruth’s pre-integration home run totals. I always posed the following question to my Manning-Brady adversaries: Which quarterback would you rather have at the helm of your favorite team?
But at some point not too long ago—probably while smugly wiping off my hands after another victorious Manning-Brady argument—I realized that I felt completely the opposite about Tony Dungy. Admittedly, the football world has never been replete with Belichick-Dungy debates (which in a way proves how preposterous the Manning-Brady ones were), but placing Dungy’s success in a historical context was always of interest due to his spectacular regular season success at two different locales. I would defend Dungy passionately, citing how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of the textbook laughing-stocks of professional sports before he helped remake the franchise into a perennial winner. This to me remains more impressive than winning any one Super Bowl. Not only was it unfair that he was fired after his players failed to win it all, but it was unfair that the man who replaced him, Jon Gruden, was immediately vaulted into the rankings of great modern coaches by winning a Super Bowl with the parts that Dungy had assembled. And as of today, five years after axing Dungy, the Bucs (lead by Gruden—who now finds himself on an ever-shortening leash) are a lot closer to a laughing-stock than a playoff team, while the Colts seemingly go 12-4 every year.
Then I asked myself, didn’t Manning help engineer a strikingly similar turnaround with the Colts after being drafted by them? Before taking Manning in the 1998 draft, the team’s best regular season record in the previous two decades was 9-6—in the 1987 strike-shortened season. Since Manning’s second year, there has been only one major hiccup for the franchise, as they went 6-10 in 2001 with their defense giving up a staggering 486 points. Of course, Manning can hardly be blamed for that. Looking back on his career, it’s evident that he was a franchise savior on a par with Dungy in Tampa Bay.
And this is how I came to realize that winning championships doesn’t measurably alter a coach or player’s place in history so much as it does the perceptions of all the schlubs out there like me. Truly, I was just another armchair quarterback who was so busy spouting out my opinions that I didn’t even bother to make them coherent. If I was willing to defend Dungy for resurrecting a franchise, absolving him of factors out of his control in the process, then I should have done the same for Manning. Admittedly, these parallels only became clear to me after the Colts did, in fact, win it all. So was my revelation really all that, er, revelatory? No, but rarely has a player-coach union so notorious for their failure overcome those past shortcomings so prominently.
From the beginning of the Manning-Dungy union until this year’s playoffs, a crippling Colts playoff loss had become something of an annual tradition. Often it was precisely how they lost that mattered, more than the outcome itself. In 2004, Manning was at his statistical apex and the Colts had one of the finest offensive regular seasons in NFL history, yet they couldn’t scrape together more than three points against the Patriots in their rematch of the previous year’s AFC Championship. The following year, when the Colts made a legitimate run at perfection during the regular season, Manning, playing at home where the Colts were supposed to be unbeatable, looked out of sorts the entire game against the eventual champion Steelers. The game ended when Mike Vanderjagt missed a game-tying field goal attempt as time expired—the most devastating of the Colts’ playoff losses.
Such painful failures for Manning and Dungy obscured the truth about what really happened in each of the Colts’ playoff losses. The Super Bowl XXXIX champion Patriots were legitimately one of the best teams in NFL history. And while the Steelers were the AFC’s sixth seed, they had gone 15-1 the previous season and their relatively poor record was primarily a result of mid-season injuries to key players. Of course, all the external factors seem so clear when evaluating a team’s victory but, right after a loss all anyone wants is an easy scapegoat.
This is why Manning and Dungy were destined to shoulder the blame. Manning could have played the best football of his life over the last month, but none of it would have mattered if the Colts’ defense decided to give up 375 rushing yards like they did against Jacksonville in week fourteen. And even though Tony Dungy’s level-headed coaching was able to drastically turn that very defense around to the point where the Colts only gave up six points on the road against Baltimore, had Adam Viniateri not coolly made five difficult field goals that day, the defense’s terrific performance would have been all for naught—literally, as Viniateri’s scoring represented the Colts’ only points. (Above all, none of us might be praising Manning and Dungy right now were someone other than Rex Grossman in place as Chicago’s quarterback..)
In light of their victory, though, it’s been remarkable, but not surprising, to take note of how rapidly the mainstream sports media’s perception of Dungy and Manning has changed. Though all of it has been justified, this newfound praise is conspicuous. Of late, Dungy has been showered with praise for “doing it the right way”, but the fact is that he’s been doing it the right way all along.
Most notable has been the current assessments doled out by analysts of the Colts’ near future. For years now, the Colts’ quest for the Lombardi trophy has had an overwhelming “now or never” feel. I distinctly remember ESPN’s Tom Jackson picking the Colts to beat the Patriots in the 2005 playoffs with an exasperated, “If not now, when?”. As time has progressed, the football world has been waiting for the window to slam shut on the Colts’ run. Given the NFL’s hard salary cap, it eventually becomes impossible for a team as talented as the Colts to keep all the pieces in place forever—evidenced by star running back Edgerrin James’ defection to Arizona during the last off-season. But because the Colts actually did win the Super Bowl this year, all anyone can say about them, particularly in reference to Manning, is something along the lines of, “This could be the first of many.” Never mind that, as Don Banks outlined on SI.com, virtually every player on the team besides Manning and Marvin Harrison is an unrestricted free agent this spring. Now, because he accepted a call of congratulation from President Bush at this season’s conclusion instead of one of consolation from his mother, Manning seems like an unstoppable football dynamo. Every bit of logic involved in evaluating his team’s future has been thrown out the window, just as every bit of logic when evaluating his past failures was discarded when he seemed to be an over-hyped underachiever merely one month ago.
In the end, it wasn’t Manning or Dungy that changed. Rather, it was everyone on the outside (myself included) who couldn’t resist conveniently penciling them in to what seemed like the predetermined role of lifetime chokers. Next season, every team will begin anew and new stories will be written as fans and the media search desperately to slap some other coach or quarterback with the “can’t win the big one” label. Until then, it’s up to the rest of us to wake up: Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning are winners. There’s nothing else that needs to be said.