Yes, sports fans, Peyton Manning is about to hijack the buildup to the Ultimate Game, thanks to the impending divorce between the icon and the franchise that happens to be hosting the spectacle.
Don't even try to fight it: Even if Manning and Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay stop sniping at one other publicly for the next seven days, there's too much conspicuous chest-puffing, too much intrigue and too many media folk in need of stories to avoid the inevitable.
By all rights, we should be focusing our energies on Brady, who's trying to match Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana – one of his boyhood idols – by scoring a fourth Super Bowl ring. Or we should be obsessing about Peyton's kid brother, Eli, as he closes in on superstardom and a possible second championship in five seasons.
Hype knows no justice, however. While the two participating quarterbacks will be probed, and testaments to their triumphs proliferated, neither player is likely to feed us the red meat that we crave. Sure, some of their New England Patriots and New York Giants teammates may say something shocking, but no one else on the respective rosters can compete with the city's biggest star.
Indy is Peyton's Place, at least for the time being, and there's going to be a ruckus, with or without some sort of resolution.
Remember the so-called Summer of Favre three-and-a-half years ago, when Green Bay devolved into a circus as its legendary quarterback ended his abbreviated retirement and forced his way out of Titletown? I was there, and it was surreal. The scores of other journalists present likely have similar recollections.
Now imagine if there had been about 30 or 40 times that many reporters covering the saga. That's what it will be like if anything ramps up the increasingly salty stare down between Manning and Irsay.
Sometimes, Super Bowl weeks get sucked into a black hole of soap-opera-style melodrama. This was the case a decade-and-a-half ago in New Orleans, when the Patriots made their first Super Bowl appearance in the Robert Kraft era.
While the bulk of the attention should have been on the NFC champion Packers and Brett Favre, their prolific young quarterback, or Pats counterpart Drew Bledsoe, it was New England coach Bill Parcells who dominated the news coverage. With Parcells locked in a war of wills with Kraft, the Patriots' owner, and on the verge of bolting to coach the rival New York Jets, the story dwarfed all others leading up to the game.
Is this where we are with Manning and Irsay? I believe it is. Though the two men issued a joint statement late last week affirming their everlasting love and trust, all signs point to the team releasing the future Hall of Fame quarterback before March 8, when he'd be due a $28 million roster bonus.
At that point, if Manning has recovered sufficiently from neck surgery to resume his career – and that's a huge if – the struggle to secure his services will become the biggest story in football. Should Irsay decide that he really wants to co-opt most of the Super Bowl XLVI coverage, he could go ahead and make the move in the next few days. I doubt that will happen, but I certainly wouldn't complain.
If you're looking for a villain, don't bother – both men share the blame here.
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Manning, who is headstrong and prideful, lashed out to Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz after Irsay made sweeping changes in the organization, all of which were in response to the team crash-landing and finishing 2-14 in the wake of the quarterback's injury.
Irsay responded by firing back at Manning, telling Kravitz that the quarterback is "a politician."
(Note to Irsay: No, duh. Seriously, Manning is one of the most media-savvy athletes on earth, and you do not want to play this game with him, no matter how much money you're worth.)
Back in May 2008, when Indianapolis was awarded its first Super Bowl, Irsay had reason to be excited. His team, with Manning at the helm, was a perennial contender, and he had legitimate dreams of becoming the first NFL owner to host the game in his home stadium. Either way, it would be a chance to showcase the city and its sparkling new facility, Lucas Oil Stadium, with a retractable roof to keep fans warm in the heart of winter.
Now? The future home of Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III will play host to Media Day on Tuesday, and to the game on Super Sunday, and it suddenly seems like there's a huge hole in the stadium.
No one saw this meteorite coming. Two years ago in South Florida, Manning was closing in on what many believed would be a second Super Bowl ring in four seasons, and many were already ordaining him as the greatest quarterback in history. Then the Colts lost to the Saints and Manning, after one more stellar season, broke down physically – possibly for good. And you wonder why they say the NFL stands for Not For Long?
For Brady, Manning's greatest rival for supremacy during this era, and for Eli Manning, whose standout career has long been overshadowed by his older brother's, let that be a lesson in the need to embrace the present and take nothing for granted.
Brady knows this, having been involved in a highly stressful and surprisingly sticky contract dispute with Kraft before landing a lucrative extension in the summer of 2010. He also experienced a lost season, going down with a severe knee injury in the first game of 2008, when he was coming off his lone Super Bowl defeat (to Eli Manning and the Giants).
Even after his Super Bowl XLII heroics, Eli Manning continued to absorb criticism in the Big Apple until his most recent playoff run, which followed the best overall season of his pro career. A victory on Sunday would make him a decent bet to make the Hall of Fame and secure his status as the most accomplished quarterback in franchise history.
And yet, at some point in the future, it's very possible that he and the Giants will be headed for a not-so-pleasant breakup.
In last Wednesday's column, I gave former Cowboys wideout Michael Irvin a hard time for suggesting that Eli might go down as the best quarterback in his family. Yet Irvin and I do agree on one thing: Eli is unlikely to surpass his brother in terms of pre-Super Bowl XLVI intrigue, given the loaded situation playing out in Naptown.
"Everybody keeps searching for the end well," Irvin said Sunday evening as we flew from Dallas/Ft. Worth to Indy. "There is no end well. Is that really surprising? When does it ever end well in these types of situations?"
The Hall of Famer and I talked about Montana's ugly departure from San Francisco and Favre's figurative middle-finger salute to the Packers, culminating in his signing with the rival Vikings in 2009. We recalled that Troy Aikman (Irvin's quarterback in Dallas) and Dan Marino were told by the men running the Cowboys and Dolphins, respectively, that their services would no longer be required, and neither was happy about it.
Some situations play out in less-messy fashion than others, but it's never painless. The same gnawing, semi-irrational competitive drive that propels these leaders to greatness keeps them from accepting the notion that they might be unwanted by the organizations for which they accomplished so much.
"Think about Peyton Manning and his competitive fire," Irvin said. "He's saying, 'You're going to choose a rookie? Over me?' He wants nothing more than to go somewhere else, swell up and show them how wrong that is – you know that."
If it's medically feasible, Manning may well take his talents to another NFL city in the very near future. In the meantime, he's the elephant in Lucas Oil Stadium, even if he's not actually present.
Matt Cassel may not be as good a quarterback as Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli thinks (or many K.C. fans would like him to be), but he is a very good neighbor – and he definitely has great perspective. After alerting a woman who lives on his street that her house was on fire late Thursday night, he refused to milk the situation for publicity, instead issuing a statement saying, "I wasn't heroic at all … the real heroes are the firefighters." Amen. … The lockout that wiped out the 2011 offseason was a tumultuous time, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell took a lot of body punches in the process. However, everyone kissed and made up, business is booming (the league just signed massive, 10-year extensions with most of their broadcast partners) and Goodell – deservedly, in my opinion – just scored a five-year extension of his own. Sure, I criticize Goodell from time to time, but I love the fact that he's an engaged, passionate commissioner who's not afraid to give his opinion and who sincerely cares about the game. … I'll now stick up for another popular punching bag, Rex Ryan, who on Saturday admitted that he didn't do a good enough job recognizing the "issues" in the Jets' locker room. Sure, Ryan talks a lot of smack, and that makes him a target when his team falls short of expectations (basically, anytime the Jets don't win the Super Bowl, given his bravado). Yet players love accountability, and Ryan's willingness to own up to his shortcomings and take as much heat as he can (even when he's not the one who necessarily deserves the bulk of it) resonates with the men who play for him – and with free agents who may choose to join the team. Then again, I like coaches with swagger more than most. … Speaking of swag, I hope the people who like to dump on wideout Chad Ochocinco have been paying attention to the way he has handled himself during the 2011 season. Having been a vast disappointment after signing with the Patriots, with only 15 receptions to his credit, Ochocinco has nonetheless refrained from generating any off-the-field drama. He also made sure he sent his Pats teammates off to the Super Bowl in style, springing for Beats By Dre headphones for everyone on the roster. Ochocinco likely won't be back with the Pats in 2012, and I'm not even sure he'll be active for Sunday's game, but I hope he is – and I pray he gets in the end zone and busts out the most creative touchdown celebration in Super Bowl history.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The youth basketball coach I saw awhile back who rocked a Bluetooth headset while patrolling the sidelines during a fifth-grade AAU game. Not only is that an aggressive style statement, but it also brings up some practical perplexities: Was he waiting for an important call? Would texting have been more appropriate for that particular context? If he fielded said call during the game, how would the conversation have gone? Yo, wassup Holmes? … Hey, box out! … Yeah, yeah, just kicking it at the gym … Wait, you hooked up with WHO? You must be BLIND!!! … No, ref, not talking to you, sorry … Wait, her little sister too? … Yo, watch the double-team! … How old is she, anyway? 23? … Hey, kids, 2-3! 2-3! Not man! Zone up! … Dude, you must be TRIPPIN' … No, ref, not you! What do you mean you're giving me a 'T'? … No, bro, I'm not at Starbucks, I'm at the gym. And I drink coffee anyway …
2. How pathetically the people who run The Plain Dealer seem to be cow-towing to the Cleveland Browns in reassigning longtime beat writer Tony Grossi and offering tough-to-reconcile explanations for the move. Either Browns owner Randy Lerner and team president Mike Holmgren were passive-aggressive proponents of the decision to get rid of Grossi following his tweet (not meant for public consumption) calling Lerner "pathetic" and "the world's most irrelevant billionaire," or they flat-out asked for him to be kicked off the beat. Either way, any real news-gathering organization would have dug in and told the Browns' brass to butt out and mind their own business – and kept Grossi on the beat, if only out of principle. I've certainly ripped Lerner in the past, and while my role as a national columnist is different than that of Grossi's, hey, it's still a free country. Here are some more opinions: Perhaps the people running the Browns should start worrying more about building a respectable organization, beginning with the product on the football field. Not taking Grossi's call attempting to offer an apology was, in my opinion, pathetic. The truth hurts.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Fifteen years ago, a few hours before the start of Super Bowl XXXI, I got a call in my New Orleans hotel room from New England Patriots linebacker Chris Slade. The two of us had bonded at the House of Blues and other locales during a festive week in the Crescent City, and now – shortly before playing the biggest game of his life – Slade had something important on his mind. "Man, I saw you picked us to lose big in USA Today," he said, referring to a chart in the newspaper providing the predictions of various national football writers. "That's cold. I thought you were my boy." I paused for a couple of seconds before I shot back, "Hey Chris – what the [expletive] does me making a prediction have to do with you winning a [expletive] football game?" He laughed – which was the proper response.
There is nothing rational about treating predictions as some sort of declaration of allegiance, and it's even more nonsensical to assign them superstitious value. Yet that's what legions of Giants and Patriots fans have done in recent days, asserting that because I have picked against the respective Super Bowl entrants in previous playoff games, it has conjured some sort of reverse jinx. I realize that some of you are joking – or half-joking, or pretending to joke – but still, the emails and tweets keep flooding in, with fans of each team imploring me to pick the other one. Let me throw a few emails at you: "HA HA HA Sliver … keep betting against the pats week after week you LOSER! WE WONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN HATER!!!!!!!!!!" (Valerie Miles-Graves, Baltimore, Md.); "Mike, Congratulations on being 0-3 this year with you Giants playoff picks! Please pick NE in the SB. Go G-Men!" (Don, Warren, R.I.); "Your postseason predictions have been abysmal. I expect you will pick the Giants to win this year's Super Bowl, which will virtually guarantee a win for my Patriots. Go Pats!" (Scott Smith, Barnstead, N.H.); "Love watching you go '0' for the playoffs yet again, betting against the Giants, just like 2007. No doubt you'll pick the Patriots in the Superbowl and complete the quinella again. Not sure what your problem with the Giants is, but keeping picking against us!!" (Wayne Person, location unknown).
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OK, this is a message to the four of you, and the many others who've expressed similar sentiments (you know who you are): You're a hot mess. All of you. And you need help. Seriously, can we even have an adult conversation when you sign your name to something so ridiculous? My youngest kid is a 9-year-old, and he cried when the Packers lost (it started as a Cal/Aaron Rodgers thing and grew from there), and I totally felt his pain. But even at the height of misery, if he'd tried to float the idea that my picking a certain team to win a football game had any meaning or implication, I'd seriously shudder at his sudden deficit in logical reasoning. Look, I know what it's like to be a fan, and though I no longer root for any NFL franchise (32 babies, love 'em equally), I still am a fan – of all Cal's teams, and all the teams on which my kids play. Yet based on the constant stream of feedback I get, there seems to be an increasingly fine line between being a devoted fan and a zombified, hyper-aggressive hooligan wannabe, and it's kind of a bummer. When you hear about people like the Lions fan named Shawn Payton who called in a bomb threat to the Superdome during Detroit's playoff defeat there earlier this month, doesn't it kind of remind you that some people tend to take their fandom a tad too far? Anyway, even though I view this Super Bowl matchup as a pretty even one, my job required that I make a prediction, so I made one. I don't care if it's right or wrong; I don't care if the Giants or Patriots win; I don't care if you think my pick has an effect on the game; and I don't practice Santeria.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"The pro bowl is more of a joke every year. Changed the channel to cops. More physical."
– Text Sunday night from my discerning friend Dan Pedone.
"You would've been proud of 'em today … we have a lot to work on but the swag is there. No one was scared of the #4 team in the country. Not at all"
– Text Saturday evening from Cal women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb, after the Bears rallied from a 14-point deficit at Stanford before falling short in overtime.
"How long does it take to hike diamondhead?"
– Text Friday evening from NFL.com writer Jeff Darlington, aka The Jerk Who Got To 'Cover' The Pro Bowl.
"Do you know anything fun about marvin jones? I'm googling players, but you're like Cal google"
– Text Wednesday afternoon from The Florida Times Union's Tania Ganguli, taking time from her Jaguars beat duties to cover the Senior Bowl (Jones would score the game's first touchdown) .
"It would appear that I may be in Indy, a week from Friday …"
– Text Tuesday afternoon from "Good Morning America" news reader – and former Sports Illustrated colleague and Super Bowl shadow – Josh Elliott. (And it would appear that I will get even less sleep than I envisioned …)
"This is Byron Guidry. You know, the man that got Archie Manning's old cell number. What are the chances of you getting an all out post to the entire sports world that Archie Manning has a new cell number? You have no idea what it's like having this number. I know I could simply change it, but why?"
– Text Monday afternoon from Byron (Don't Call Me Archie) Guidry.
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