The Colts' Peyton Manning (pictured above) won his third NFL MVP award. Believe it or not, back in 2005, Slate's Robert Weintraub compared Manning invidiously to the Falcons' Michael Vick ("Michael Vick: no passing fancy"). Below are a few excerpts from Weintraub's essay.
Vick's credentials hardly need enumerating here—he's probably the most exciting player in all of pro sports. What separates him from even the best running backs is his acceleration when he sees a fissure in the defense. Watch when he eludes the rush and decides to take off—there is a split second of hesitation, as Vick computes pursuit angles, then whoooossshhhhh, and defenders are pawing helplessly at his jet wash.
The elephant in the room, of course, is race. Trent Dilfer leads his team to the Super Bowl by "managing the game" (code for not screwing up worse than his opponent). Vick wins by playing "PlayStation football" (code for coasting on his natural athletic ability) and gets derided for not being Peyton Manning.
I'll pause to note that Weintraub's generalization here is inaccurate. There are, and have been, pocket-passer African American quarterbacks -- Doug Williams1, for example, the Redskins quarterback who was the MVP of Super Bowl XXII, was a pocket passer. Similarly, there have been white quarterbacks known for their athletic ability as well as their passing ability (e.g., Steve Young). Back to Weintraub's essay:
Manning works hard to foster the image that he works hard. Good luck finding a story that doesn't mention Peyton's love affair with game film. No one is better versed in defensive wrinkles, no one exploits matchups with such aplomb, no one sees the field so clearly. At the line of scrimmage, Manning looks like a man with Tourette's syndrome—arms akimbo, patting his guards on the keister, pointing at every defender, bouncing around to every teammate to make sure they are on the same page. He's essentially the first Hall of Fame dork.
Manning reminds me of that old Jon Lovitz character from Saturday Night Live, the Master Thespian ("Acting!!"). Manning spends a lot of time Quarterbacking!! He wants you to forget that his path to the Pro Bowl was greatly eased by natural athletic ability (check out the gene pool he swims in). It's the same 99th-percentile athleticism that Vick possesses, just expressed in a different way. Manning makes it seem like every quarterback could throw the perfect deep ball if they only studied harder and gesticulated more wildly.
Imagine that the Kansas Board of Education ran the NFL, and offenses never evolved past the single wing. Quarterbacks still took direct snaps and ran the ball on virtually every play. In this alternate universe, Vick would be the state-of-the-art QB, Manning the one dissected at length for his unusual approach to winning. Or, let's just dispense with allegory, like Falcons coach Jim Mora recently did: "When are we going to start talking about when Peyton Manning is going to start doing what Mike Vick does?"
Weintraub wrote that in November of 2005. Flash forward to today, and Peyton Manning has his third MVP, and Michael Vick is in the pokey for convictions relating to his dog fighting ring.
1Williams was quoted in a recent New York Times article, "Race Fades as a Way to Define a Passer". Excerpt:
More than the performance or fate of any single individual, the most glaring development has been the dissolution of the notion that Vick and Young were in the process of ushering in a radically altered era of the rangy, running quarterback. It would appear that we have seen the N.F.L.’s future and it fairly resembles the past — quarterbacks, hopefully of all colors and creeds, dropping back and throwing spirals downfield.
“If you come up here with the running mentality, it’s going to be tough to survive because the defenses are too complicated and fast,” Doug Williams said by telephone from the Tampa Bay front office, where the formerBuccaneers and Redskins quarterback and the first African-American to start (and win) the Super Bowl serves as a personnel executive. “You’ve got to be able to throw the ball downfield. At the same time, a quarterback has got to be agile and make plays, not depend on playmakers all the time. They have to be elusive. Drew Brees is the epitome of the guy who is not a runner but who is elusive.”