He never quite looked like a quarterback. Not as a rookie, when he came into the league like some create-a-player in Madden, too much neck and forehead and too-short arms and legs. Not at his peak, when he dissected secondaries with the relentless, soulless efficiency of an assembly-line robot. And not in his last playing days, when his pocket movement had all the grace of a garbage truck trying to parallel park.
No, Peyton Manning, who turns 44 today, never really looked the part of a quarterback. But all that shows is our failure of imagination, assuming a quarterback has to fit a pre-stamped mold. Because as it turned out, Manning transformed himself into the ultimate quarterback, smarter and harder working than any other player. He didn’t just see the chessboard three moves ahead; he could look three games ahead.
Like Tiger Woods and LeBron James, Manning is one of those players who’s been around for so long, who arrived in the national consciousness fully formed, that it became easy to take his routine genius for granted. He didn’t win as many rings as Tom Brady, didn’t leap off cliffs like Brett Favre. What he did have was an unquenchable work ethic, a willingness to sacrifice anything and everything for the game of football, and a belief in his own ability that bordered on religious.
The stories of Manning’s dedication are universal, only varying based on who’s doing the telling. One of the good ones is the classic line he dropped on then-Colts general manager Bill Polian, who refused to give any hint to anyone, even Manning, of what the Colts would do with the No. 1 pick in the 1998 NFL draft. This incensed Manning, who finally laid it out in a possibly apocryphal, possibly true line:
“If you draft me,” he said, “I promise we’ll win a championship. If you don’t, I promise to come back and kick your ass.”
Spoiler: The Colts did draft Manning, and he did win them a championship. He set the stage for Denver to pick up another, too. Sure, he “only” won two Super Bowls, and he was the sandbag that Denver’s defense threw across the finish line in 2015. So what? A crash-test dummy Peyton Manning was still more valuable to a franchise than half the guys tabbed for starting jobs this fall.
You know that Manning has those two rings. You probably also remember that he threw an astounding 55 touchdowns in 2013. Beyond that, though, the accolades all kind of blur together. If you can remember how many MVPs he won, or how many regular-season yards he threw for in his career, or how many Pro Bowls he reached, congrats: You’re almost as obsessive as he is. (Five; 71,940; and 14, for the record.)
The numbers paint one hell of a picture with Manning. Take a look at his season-by-season stats on his Pro Football Reference page. Let your eyes relax a bit, and note just how many bold numbers there are. Those are times he led the league in one category or another, and there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of four dozen of those. Pay particular attention to how many times he led the league in, say, completions or game-winning drives (many), versus how many times he led the league in interceptions (after his rookie year: zero).
But numbers alone don’t tell the full story. Team records aren’t an entirely fair way to judge a quarterback, but they have their uses. It’s worth pointing out, for instance, that in years where he started all 16 games — which would be 16 of the 17 seasons he was in uniform — Manning’s teams won double-digit games in 14 of those 16 seasons. Over an 18-year career, he missed all of 2011, six games in 2015 … and that was it. Every other game day, he was on the field.
More than almost any player before or certainly since, Manning transcended the NFL. He got out from under the shield and carved his own identity. Such was the power of his presence that he even got a measure of “credit,” in some strange way, for the NFL’s ratings declines of a couple years back. He was such a Gibraltar that some analysts figured fans had tuned out because Manning had stepped aside. (It wasn’t true, of course, but you can’t imagine any other player getting that kind of respect, not even Brady.)
In what might be his most notable skill set, Manning is also actually, honestly, legitimately funny. The laughs he gets aren’t the typical please-like-us chuckles most athletes do. Manning has crafted a unique space among ex-jocks, able to laugh at his own intensity (the immortal Saturday Night Live “United Way” ad is an all-time classic) and the inherent goofiness of his Nationwide and Eli ads. He’s one of the few people in sports in on the fact that this is all a joke — a profitable joke, yes, but a joke all the same.
That personality and near-universal favorability ratings — seriously, he’s in Tom Hanks/puppies territory — combined with the accumulated mass of four decades’ worth of football knowledge, has made Manning the Great White Whale for TV broadcasters. They believe he’ll transform NFL commentary, and they’re probably right. Although he’s stiff-armed ESPN for the moment, Manning’s too good on TV to stay off it for long, and he’ll probably celebrate his next birthday getting ready to go behind the mic.
So, hap-py birth-day Pey-ton M. We’d throw you a party, but you’ve probably schemed out a much better one already.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at email@example.com.