SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The Super Bowl’s weeklong 50th birthday party has included a look back, an eye toward the next half-century and all sorts of chatter on everything from how hip Cam Newton is to how long before Peyton Manning needs a hip replacement.
Sunday, the Denver Broncos will play the favored Carolina Panthers in an actual game at Levi’s Stadium. The creaky 39-year-old Manning, a five-time MVP in possibly the final game of his 18-year career, will take on the seemingly indestructible 26-year-old Cam Newton, who won his first MVP on Saturday night and represents the latest prototype in the NFL’s never-ending evolution of the quarterback position.
“You know, it’s really cool,” Broncos tight end Owen Daniels said. “You got arguably the greatest drop-back quarterback of all time in Peyton, and then Cam is a guy who is changing football with everything he does.”
They are both No. 1 overall picks, but 13 years apart. Manning will be the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl. John Elway was 38 when he cemented his legacy by retiring after winning a second straight Super Bowl 17 years ago. Now, as Broncos general manager, Elway has built a top-ranked defense that gives Manning a better chance to also go out on top if he chooses.
“This is not a make-or-break game for Peyton,” Elway said. “His legacy is already set. All it would do is add to it.”
Considerably. Lose and Manning will be remembered for losing the last three of his four Super Bowls. Win and he will be 2-2 with four different head coaches and the only starting quarterback to win Super Bowls with two different teams.
Newton, meanwhile, has time on his side, not to mention the better offensive line, the league’s No. 2-ranked running game (142.6) and a defense that has posted a league-high 47 takeaways in 18 games.
“A lot of things that Peyton has done — is doing — I wish I could mimic,” Newton said. “But I can’t do it like Peyton can.”
Yet Manning — whom teammates call “the Sheriff,” says Newton, a k a “Superman” — is the link to the future of the position. A 6-5, 248-pound athlete who can throw from the pocket with accuracy over a deep safety, outrun a linebacker to the edge or run over a defensive lineman at the goal line.
“Anything that the Sheriff has to say, you can probably ink it in gold,” Newton said. “It’s just a tremendous honor to be even mentioned and affiliated with the face of the league. But I also think I have bigger fish to fry on Sunday. We’ll worry about the next eight to 10 years after that.”
Hating on Cam
Newton was asked before arriving in San Francisco for the Super Bowl why he thinks he’s a lightning rod for public criticism and why his now-famous on-field celebrations rub so many people the wrong way. He suggested race was a factor because he’s a black quarterback who can’t be compared to anyone who has played the position before.
Panthers No. 3 quarterback/special teamer Joe Webb, the former Viking, said last week that Newton obviously benefited from pioneering black quarterbacks who came before him. Guys like Doug Williams, who was the first black QB to win a Super Bowl, and Warren Moon, a longtime mentor to Newton and the first black quarterback to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
However, as Webb puts it, Newton also had to essentially reblaze the same trail after it became obstructed by the more recent failures of highly touted black quarterbacks, none more obvious than JaMarcus Russell. The No. 1 overall pick in 2007, Russell lacked the work ethic and desire to succeed, lasted only three years, won seven games and is widely regarded as the biggest draft bust in the modern era.
“What Cam is doing is what some of those other guys did years ago, showing that we can be great quarterbacks and great athletes,” said Webb, who is black. “You look at JaMarcus Russell and what happened, but Cam came after him and now Cam is the future of the quarterback position. He’s made it easy for guys down the road.”
Carolina coach Ron Rivera said Newton’s work ethic is unquestioned. That his energy and personality are infectious and beloved by all in the locker room. That his celebrations are heartfelt and contain genuine happiness for a successful team effort. That he’s a role model for kids and peers who want on-field success without police-blotter distractions.
But others see an unattractive cockiness. They see Newton hand a football to a kid in the stands and suggest an ulterior motive as the cameras follow his every move.
Newton doesn’t seem to care. Asked why he thinks some people dislike his celebrations, he shrugs.
“I don’t know,” he said, “but I guess you’ll have to get used to it, because I don’t plan on changing.”
He also knows people are going to criticize him for his flashy clothes, his color-coordinated chewing gum on gamedays, the fox tail that hangs from his belt, the decision to name his son “Chosen,” the … well, you get the idea.
“It doesn’t bother me because I’m living the dream that I’ve always envisioned myself living when I was 8, 9, 10 years old,” Newton said. “I would always write down on career days, ‘I want to be a football player.’
“But yet my teacher used to always say, ‘Yeah, but you can’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ I remember coming to tears, telling her, ‘No, I really want to be a football player. I’m going to be a football player.’ So all this is for the people that dream and believe, no matter what another person may say.”
60 minutes, one legacy
No quarterback will ever be remembered for studying the position harder than Manning has for nearly two decades.
“I remember before I got to Denver, I never really took notes,” receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “But Peyton has made me a better player because I sit right behind him. I used to watch him, and he would take notes about everything the coach said. So I’m like, ‘I got to pull out my notebook.’ … I started having success because I started studying. And I know he knows everything in those notes because he tells [coach Gary] Kubiak something and the next thing you know, we’re running it.”
But all the passing records and the unprecedented five MVPs won’t stay as shiny through history if Manning loses Sunday. If he loses, he will join Jim Kelly (0-4), Fran Tarkenton (0-3) and Elway (2-3) as the only quarterbacks to lose at least three Super Bowls. If he wins, he will become the eighth quarterback with two Super Bowl victories, joining the likes of Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Roger Staubach, Elway and younger brother Eli.
“You’d have to ask him about his legacy,” said Ryan Harris, Denver’s left tackle and a former Cretin-Derham Hall standout. “But I can only imagine when your little brother is sitting across from you at Thanksgiving and he’s got two Super Bowl rings and you only have one, that can’t be a good feeling.”
Manning said he hasn’t decided his future yet. But unlike two years ago, when he posted a record-setting regular season on his way to the Super Bowl, this year has been a physical struggle. Injuries got him benched, caused him to miss the last seven starts of the regular season and contributed to his 17 interceptions in 10 games.
He is healthy again and hasn’t thrown a pick in 69 playoff passes. But instead of driving the bus, he’s riding shotgun to a defense that’s mainly responsible for the record 11 wins by seven or fewer points.
Manning admits his throwing arm needed the long rest as much as his foot needed to recover from plantar fasciitis.
“My arm has not been the same since I got injured four years ago,” said Manning, referring to his fourth neck surgery. “It just simply hasn’t been. I had a strange injury. I had a neck injury that caused some nerve problems in my right arm. I’ve worked hard to sort of manage the physical limitations. 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.”
Who will have the last dance?
Manning also said he was 37 when his doctor told him he likely would need a hip replacement in his early 50s. “I didn’t need to know that, but thanks for sharing,” Manning said he told the doc.
Manning also joked about his newfound mobility, suggesting the Panthers probably would use a defender to “spy” on him since his 12-yard run in the AFC title game makes him a threat to take off. Sort of à la Newton, the only quarterback in NFL history with at least 30 touchdown passes (35) and 10 touchdown runs (10) in a season.
And if he scores, Manning said he might channel his inner Cam rather than go with the more reserved fist pump he uses when throwing for touchdowns.
“I promise you if I run for a touchdown on Sunday, I will celebrate,” Manning said. “As for Cam, I think his passion, his enthusiasm for the game is great. I think it’s good for football.”
Newton reached those statistical heights despite losing his No. 1 receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, before the season. His Panthers are the seventh team to go 15-1 or better since the 16-game schedule began in 1978. But only two of those teams — the 1984 49ers and the 1985 Bears — went on to win the Super Bowl.
Rivera was a linebacker on that 1985 Bears team, which was known for having its share of brash characters who weren’t afraid to celebrate. Or make a Super Bowl video before they crushed the Patriots 46-10. So, naturally, Rivera encourages his players to show off their personalities and, yes, dance and celebrate all they want.
That doesn’t seem to bother the Broncos one bit.
“What is my take on celebrations?” asked Denver outside linebacker Von Miller. “I love it. I love it. I like to dance. I like to show emotion and celebrate with my teammates. Cam is the same way.
“It is great for the game. You have a younger generation that pays close attention to that, and that is what they follow. That is the future of the sport. I think it is great. Whoever is dancing the most on Sunday will likely win the game.”