Peyton this, Peyton that.
It was clear who was supposed to win Super Bowl XLIV well before it started.
Maybe it was because the Indianapolis Colts were viewed across the board as the better team, or it might have been the two-week-and-beyond love affair with the Colts’ quarterback that had lulled the experts into believing that while the game might be close, the victor was pretty much all but decided.
Perhaps that’s because Peyton Manning, the four-time NFL MVP, is as good off the field as he is on it. Before he’s done between the white lines, Manning might be considered the greatest quarterback ever to play the game.
But that’s not the sole reason Manning is the face of the NFL. Far from it. He’s an ebullient television personality, moreso when the helmet and pads are off. His aw-shucks deprecating demeanor plays well in 30-second spots designed to make us chuckle, making him accessible to the masses — old and young, men and women, football fan and casual observer.
Drew Brees, however, is none of those things.
At least, not until Sunday night, when he cradled his 1-year-old son Baylen in his arms or lifted the boy into the rain of confetti. Confetti that Brees, not Manning, made descend down on the black and gold and fluer-de-lis.
A win for the Saints, a win for dedicated fans, and yes, a win for those who rallied around the team after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
But the win is also a vindication for Brees and his continuing — and until now, rather overshadowed — greatness. And in that sense, it may be something more.
Brees’ victory is a win for everyone who has been stepped on. For everyone who’s been told “No” too many times. For everyone who’s been left behind.
For everyone, who despite long odds and diminishing dreams, keeps grinding anyway, knowing that they are better than anything people may think of them.
For people like that, Manning and greats like him are untouchable. Unfathomable. No matter how commercials they are in playing the role of an everyday guy, they are unrelatable.
Brees was a high school star in Austin, Texas, a pretty good state to be a star gunslinger — or a bad one, with the considerable talent that comes out of the Texas prep systems every year.
Brees wanted a chance to quarterback the beloved Longhorns, but standing 6-feet and with an arm few have ever classified as strong, he had to settle for the Big Ten and Purdue.
Brees never let on his disappointment, and made Purdue into an offensive juggernaut. He set Big Ten records in passing yards, touchdown passes, total offensive yards, completions and attempts, leading the Boilermakers to the Rose Bowl in 2001, Purdue’s first appearance there since 1967. He had two straight top-4 finishes in Heisman balloting and earned the Maxwell Award for the nation’s outstanding player of 2000.
And then came the NFL, where potential rewards players as No. 1 selections (Michael Vick) while others considered a bit too small, too unathletic, too closely associated with a specific system, are selected in a far more economical position, like the second round.
With the San Diego Chargers, Brees went through the expected growing pains of any young quarterback, only to watch the team trade for Philip Rivers on draft day two years later.
And so he got to work, and while Rivers held out of training camp, the Chargers were forced to start Brees. He took advantage, was named Comeback Player of the Year in 2004 and was his best in ’05 — before suffering a shoulder injury in the last game of the year.
The Chargers, ready to move on and away from a broken quarterback, lowballed Brees when he became a free agent. He generated interest only from Miami and New Orleans before the Dolphins broke off negotiations in favor of Daunte Culpepper.
The rest, now, is history.
Still, it needs to be remembered, that every level he’s competed at, Brees has found himself in the shadow of someone perceived to be better. Just in these playoffs, he matched wits with the best of his era — Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and Manning — and outplayed them all.
In their Super Bowl run, the Saints had been lifted as a symbol for the long-awaited recovery of an entire region, a place many would claim had been left for dead.
It turns out they had the right guy leading them all along.