— Call it Second Team Syndrome. It afflicts millions of Americans every year. OK, maybe just two or three a decade. But there’s no known cure. Now Peyton Manning has a case of it.
Won’t you help?
I am speaking, of course, about that rare condition that involves star quarterbacks who spend most of their careers with one team, then change uniforms in their golden years. Alas, the survival rate is alarmingly low.
Manning probably has a better chance than most of beating it. He turns 36 on Saturday, he’s smart, he’s in relatively good health — except for the possible after-effects of major neck surgeries, that is — and he had the good sense to sign on with the Denver Broncos, a team formidable enough to both protect him and provide him with the talent to succeed.
Yet, he’s a quarterback and he’s attempting to recapture the glory of his youthful years spent with his first franchise. Those criteria alone suggest he is predisposed to stumble.
Just consider his ancestors.
Among the most famous in this dubious category is Johnny Unitas. Although he had a brief stint as a Pittsburgh Steeler, he made his reputation through many marvelous years as a Baltimore Colt. His teams won NFL championships in 1958 and 1959, and he was a member of the squad that won Super Bowl V. Unitas was one of the greatest players who ever donned a uniform — but you wouldn’t have known it by seeing him struggle in San Diego Chargers’ togs during the 1973 season. Bad idea.
There must be something about the sun and beaches of California that lure aging signal-callers with their alleged recuperative powers, because Joe Namath joined the Los Angeles Rams for the 1977 campaign, which turned out to be his last. His knees were already wobbly, but he played for the Rams as if someone had stolen them altogether.
Joe Montana, who led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl titles, was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993 and led them to their first AFC Championship Game. But obviously he couldn’t work the same magic he produced in the Bay Area, and he only lasted in K.C. for two seasons.
And the most recent example is Brett Favre. He was a legend as a Green Bay Packer. Technically he started out as an Atlanta Falcon, but didn’t make a mark in his very short time there. Traded to Green Bay, he became a star, taking the Pack to two Super Bowls and winning one.
But he spent one strange and confusing year in 2008 as a New York Jet, and two more controversy-plagued seasons with in Minnesota. In his first year with the Vikings, he led the team to the NFC Championship Game. Bravo. But the second was just a study in elder abuse, as Favre suffered a shoulder injury and a concussion, and his dignity was carried off on a gurney. He also butted noggins with coach Brad Childress in a rather public spat.
There have been other such quarterbacks of lesser note, of course. It’s a hazard of the trade. Quitting ordinarily isn’t associated with honor, except when it applies to star quarterbacks who don’t know when to jog off the gridiron for the last time. In such cases, it’s a capital idea.
That isn’t to say Manning will necessarily flop. On the contrary, he might be the one candidate who defies the second-team destiny laid out for him. Still, there’s that neck.
If he were completely in the pink, there probably would be little doubt as to his prospects for leading the Broncos to a successful season and postseason, maybe even a Super Bowl. But of course, if he didn’t have multiple neck surgeries, he wouldn’t have missed last season, the Colts wouldn’t have the top pick in the draft, and Manning would still be with his original team. His neck is the monkey wrench in this scenario.
The reason QBs with their second teams tend to disappoint is primarily because of age and infirmity, combined with absurd expectations. When Namath went to the Rams, he brought his name, the same one that guaranteed — and then won — Super Bowl III. But that’s all he brought. How exactly was Montana ever supposed to leave an imprint in Kansas City that was big enough to equal four Super Bowl victories?
Manning has a capable team around him, and it figures to be even more impressive when a few key free agents sign on. He’s playing in the AFC West, which is there for the taking.
Yet there is also the issue of comfort. In Indianapolis, he was in a system he knew better than those who devised it. He played inside a dome, on artificial turf. He had grown into incumbency and was all powerful.
In Denver, as much as coach John Fox tries to tailor his offense to Manning, it will take some adjustment. Psychologically, Manning should make the leap and play with the same level of confidence in Denver that he established in Indy. But there is no guarantee of that, being human and all.
Different linemen, different receivers, different backs, different coaches. The possibility exists all that might yield different results than Manning is used to.
If anyone can rise above Second Team Syndrome and go on to lead a full and productive football life, it’s Peyton Manning. It’s just important that he and those around him have a frank discussion about what lies ahead.
A positive attitude is always key. If Peyton watches clips of Namath in a Rams uniform, sitting dejectedly on the pine, and declares to himself, “That won’t be me,” then that’s half the battle right there.