SAN FRANCISCO — Nobody rises to the moment during the build-up to the Super Bowl like Peyton Manning.
On Thursday, near the end of his fourth press conference of the week — in the fourth Super Bowl of his career — Manning was asked to specify what he has learned from each of the head coaches he has played for.
And he did it — thoroughly, specifically and with good humor. From Jim Mora (“he taught us all about discipline”) to Tony Dungy (“he had a unique way of leading and coaching — ‘no excuses, no explanations’ ”) to Jim Caldwell (“attention to detail”) to John Fox (“You really wanted to play well for him”) to Gary Kubiak (“I have enjoyed learning about his philosophies”) — and even to Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer (“loyal, tough, stuck with me.”) and right on down to his old high school coach, Tony Reginelli of Isidore Newman School in New Orleans (“truly one of a kind and a special man”).
He spoke for nearly three minutes in a command performance featuring a classic Peyton Manning move — turning a moment of self-deprecation into a good-natured shot at his brother, Eli. “[Jim Mora] stuck with me [as a rookie in 1998] all season. We went 3-13, I led the league in interceptions and still hold the rookie record for interceptions, which I really pray maybe this kid [Jared] Goff who gets drafted this year breaks it. I wish [Andrew] Luck would have broken it. Eli would have broken it, but you have to be a 16-game starter. He only started 10 games.”
The Panthers’ Cam Newton didn’t embrace the moment nearly as well in his first Super Bowl. By the third day of press conferences he was moaning about having to answer the same question over and over. On Thursday he approached the podium at the San Jose Convention Center with a look of annoyance that all but said, “Do I have to do this again?” When a reporter asked what his relationship with Greg Olsen means to him, he blew it off. “It means a lot,” he said, turning to look for the next question.
The difference between the two quarterbacks in Super Bowl 50 couldn’t have been much more stark. But now it’s game time and the roles are almost reversed, with Newton having the advantage. Newton never has played in a Super Bowl, but rising to the moment of the big game is a Cam Newton specialty — he has won national championships at Blinn junior college and Auburn.
“He lives for playing under the lights on Sundays,” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “It’s good to have that type of guy leading the charge.”
But for Manning, rising to the moment of the Big Game has been a challenge. The most prolific quarterback in NFL history (71,940 yards, 539 touchdowns), Manning never has had a dominant Super Bowl performance, or a particularly efficient one. Even in his lone victory — over the Bears in 2007 — his passer rating was 81.8 (247 yards, one touchdown, one interception). The others were 88.5 vs. the Saints (333 yards, one touchdown, one interception — including a pick-6) and 73.5 vs. the Seahawks (280 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions — including a pick-6).
So in three Super Bowl appearances, Manning has thrown for three touchdowns and allowed two — a net of plus-one. Manning’s preparation — his ability to win the chess match against the defense — is so strong, you’d think the two-week break before the Super Bowl would be an advantage. But it hasn’t been.
“I think there are times when you can over-prepare,” said NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, who like Manning has played in three Super Bowls and won one. “There are times when you can overcomplicate things you do, especially a guy like Peyton, who so much of it is before the snap and getting into the right play and signaling this and going that. You can get overwhelmed by the process sometimes, especially with everythign else that is the Super Bowl.
“I feel there have been times when he’s placed too much expectation on himself and not just gone out and played his game.”
The difference this time, as Warner noted, is that nobody is expecting Manning to throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns in Super Bowl 50. He’s not that Peyton Maning. And that gives Manning a chance to have his best Super Bowl yet.
“To this point in his career, the expectations was: ‘Peyton needs to be at his best if his team has any chance to win,’” said Warner, who had passer ratings of 99.7, 78.3 and 112.3 (six touchdowns, three interceptions) in his three Super Bowl appearances. “That’s a hard place to be. It’s hard every week to live up to everybody’s expectation.
“[Now] he’s in a different realm. I’m hoping he can settle in and go, ‘I just need to play. I don’t need to do anything extra for this team to win. I hope he can just settle in and play his game — and at the end of the day, that that game is good enough.”
The challenge is different for Peyton Manning this time. But it’s still a challenge. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he knows what’s at stake.
“There is no question it’s important to me, it’s very personal to me,” Manning said.
But he also knows exactly what he’s dealing with. He knows he’s not the player he was prior to his neck surgery. He knows it’s not all on him. Cam Newton’s youth is expected to win out. But at this stage of Manning’s career, don’t discount the importance of his experience.
“I think it is important to use all of your experience to your advantage,” he said. “You can always refer back to prior situations and two-minute drives or a fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line.
“Certainly I have some physical differences with the years I have played, certainly since my major injury four years ago. I think it is about learning to adjust, learning to adapt. Using the baseball analogy — the guy that used to throw 95-plus as he gets older, maybe he can’t still throw that same fastball, but he can work the corners of the plate and still strike a guy out. I feel like I can still move the chains. Maybe in different ways. That is being flexible and being able to adjust. I think that has served me well.”