If Peyton Manning employs his revered football mind to perfection this year, upgrading the Broncos beyond all reason, it still won’t protect him from one of the most disparaging labels applied to quarterbacks who are not Ryan Leaf or JaMarcus Russell. Manning will need vintage arm strength, or a close replica, to fend off the silly epithet: game manager.
The term is a compliment served with a side dish of eye rolls. It makes leadership sound like bean-counting.
Brett Favre heard it early in his time as a Viking, when he won by uncharacteristically acquiring football real estate in small parcels. All of a sudden, the swashbuckler had turned sensible, wielding a scalpel instead of a sword.
In Favre’s case, the label carried a touch of respect, because no one imagined that he could shelve his gambler’s DNA. Still, a lot of people acted as if Brad Childress had dressed Favre in khakis and oxford cloth, then handed him actuarial tables instead of a playbook.
The disdain for NFL game managers has grown in proportion to the cliché “This is a quarterback’s league’’ and the rise of 4,000-yard passing seasons. It all adds up to an orthodoxy that thoroughly discounts the possibility of another Trent Dilfer or, more aptly, Brad Johnson winning a Super Bowl.
Since Tampa Bay won 10 years ago with an incendiary defense and the relatively tepid Johnson under center, big arms have ruled the game -- Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, twice apiece, plus the elder Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
Most of them, it should be noted, had strong defenses backing them up if not leading the way (see Eli and the 2007 Giants, and Roethlisberger in 2005 and, to a lesser extent, 2008). Nevertheless, the last nine winners each had a definitive franchise quarterback or better -- a franchise-defining quarterback.
It’s not clear that the trend is all that new. From the 1991 season through 1999, the champion quarterbacks were Troy Aikman (three times), John Elway (twice), Favre, Steve Young and Kurt Warner -- three Hall of Famers and two more headed to Canton as soon as they're eligible. Then two of the next three titles went to the teams managed by Dilfer and Johnson.
A year after Johnson and the Bucs won, the Patriots shamelessly mugged Manning's receivers in the AFC title game, forcing the league to re-emphasize its 1994 rule against chucking receivers more than five yards downfield. This "now, we really mean it'' position has been widely credited with turning the sport over to the quarterbacks. But common sense says it should have benefited the less-gifted athletes at the position equally, if not more.
In theory, when a receiver gets open faster, the modest arm can throw deeper. Likewise, the less agile pocket-dweller can release a pass sooner and duck some consequences of not being able to duck a rush.
So it is possible for the next Brad Johnson to surface in this era, just as the original appeared in the Super Bowl eight years after the initial crackdown on chucking.
The biggest obstacle might be the proliferation of spread offenses in colleges, which has generated less fresh talent for the positions that support a pure game-manager quarterback. But the flip side is also true: Many young defenders have limited experience against offenses employing multiple tight ends. And a fullback … what’s that?
Smart offensive coaches will try to exploit that deficiency, substituting their creativity for impossible dreams about spotting the next Warner stocking shelves at the local grocery. But few will even consider such a deviation from the norm.
The craving for a great quarterback has never been so profound, so desperate. The Raiders and Redskins treated high draft picks like Confederate cash when they went after Carson Palmer and Robert Griffin III. Arizona and Seattle landed Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn, backups with slivers of performance samples, at great expense, as if retroactively making them top-five draft picks.
At his most reckless, Favre never gambled like that.
The obsession makes some sense. Filling the job with a star has all the obvious merits plus endless ripple effects, some barely visible. There is, for example, incalculable intimidation in having a quarterback who infiltrates opponents’ minds and cues a haunting tune. Peyton Manning has long evoked the theme from “Jaws.’’
But in San Francisco last year, the sound of a pencil constantly tapping on a desk proved remarkably effective. Alex Smith didn’t scare anyone. Most of his career, if it had any rhythm, would have played out to the soundtrack from “Ghostbusters.’’
Still, in 2012, Smith became a relentless irritant, chafing opponents while his defense battered them. He recently explained to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle what transformed him when he was almost six years into an error-prone career: Smith embraced his inner game manager.
He didn’t put it that way, because like most football players, he interprets the term as an insult. Smith simply said that in the last half of 2010, before the head-coaching job passed from Mike Singletary to Jim Harbaugh, he stopped heeding coaches who kept telling him to be a playmaker. He took checkdowns, operated methodically.
That approach, with Harbaugh’s support, carried over to 2011 and a 13-3 record.
“I felt like I was just the distributor,’’ Smith said. “I went back and distributed. And I enjoyed playing that way; it was just football. … There wasn’t any extra anxiety I had that I had to go out there and do something crazy.’’
A “distributor”? Doesn’t that sound more insulting than “game manager”?
I watched Smith for all those fruitless seasons, and thought one thing would prevent him from succeeding. It had nothing to do with his arm strength or his agility -- I didn’t think he could manage a game.
He didn’t convey confidence in the huddle. He didn’t set aside disappointment quickly enough. He let emotion swamp preparation. Instead of persuading 10 men to follow him on Sunday, he tried to make everyone happy all the time.
On a purely technical level, Smith’s play-action fakes lacked artistry. It was a telling detail. When he finally executed a truly deceptive fake early last season, it didn’t match the drama of the fourth-down pass he squeezed into a receiver’s hands at the goal line in Detroit or the dagger he delivered to Vernon Davis to beat the Saints in the playoffs. But it foreshadowed those plays. Mastery of detail makes bigger things possible.
Manning knows that. So did Aikman and Young and Elway. Management skill separated them from lesser quarterbacks. Everyone wears it a little differently.
Joe Montana famously spotted comedian John Candy in the 1989 Super Bowl crowd and pointed him out in the middle of the 49ers’ winning drive. Was he managing teammates’ nerves, or just staying calm and having fun in a situation that would preclude most people from recognizing relatives at close range? Is there a difference?
Montana’s sang-froid does not fit the latest, snidest definition of a game manager. But that definition is a distortion. If a quarterback can’t make big plays, let’s keep it simple and say he’s not a playmaker. Say he has a weak arm, or plays too cautiously.
But let’s stop diluting the value of running a football offense well enough to win, even if that means incessant handoffs and passes dumped into the flat. The term “game manager’’ should be used as an insult only among fantasy players.
The sensible Favre of early 2009 eventually gave way to the old gunslinger. On his last play ever in a postseason game, he threw across his body, eschewing caution even though the Vikings did not absolutely need to gain yardage. The pass landed in a Saint’s hands and sent New Orleans to its first Super Bowl.
In that moment, Favre needed to be a game manager. If it weren’t so shameful, maybe he would have been.