Can you tell the true greatness of a player in his absence? That's most certainly what NFL Films and the NFL players who voted believed when it came time to tally the votes for the NFL Network's Top 100 rankings shows this year. These shows always create controversy, which makes sense -- you can have the shows in which players are ranked, and then have a panel of people (usually Jamie Dukes most of all) yelling about who got ranked where.
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This year, one ranking piqued more interest than most others -- Peyton Manning was selected as the NFL's 50th best player (down from No. 2 in 2011), despite the fact that he didn't play a single down last season. Obviously, the ranking wasn't a Lifetime Achievement Award for his 13 years with the Indianapolis Colts, and had nothing to do with what he might accomplish with the Denver Broncos this season. So, was that ranking about just how far the Colts fell in Manning's absence? From a perennial playoff entrant to the Worst Damn Team in Football?
"He's a guy who because he didn't play [last year], it took a team who perennially wins their division and who is always hosting a playoff game, and [now] they're going to be picking first [in the NFL draft]," Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark told the NFL Network. "If we're talking about the impact that a certain player had on the success or failure of his team, Peyton Manning may need to be number one."
Tennessee Titans safety Jordan Babineaux agreed. "I've never seen one player in particular have this kind of an impact on a franchise when he doesn't play."
There's no question that the Colts fell completely apart without Manning under center and running the offense in 2011, and the fact that Indy's drafts and free-agent moves over the last half-decade were less than spectacular brings Manning's value into sharper relief. Despite playing on teams that were starting to atrophy in positions of importance (offensive line, running back, receiver), Manning held it all together and was brilliant enough to make the Colts look like what they once had been.
That said, the 2008 New England Patriots went 11-5 without Tom Brady, who was put out of the season with a knee injury in the first quarter of the first game, and that wasn't because Matt Cassel was 100 times better than Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky -- it was because by that time, Bill Belichick was a lot better at team-building than former Colts team president Bill Polian.
The Colts won at least 10 games in every season from 2002 through 2010 with Manning, and then, they fell through the basement to 2-14 without him. That's as clear an indicator of player value as you'll ever see. Tight end Owen Daniels of the Houston Texans, who were able to win the AFC South for the first time in 2011, may have put it best.
"We should keep the Top 100 to people who actually play, but I don't think we really knew his impact until he wasn't there playing."
That's why Peyton Manning is a special case, and why he should be on the list of Top 100 players ... even though he didn't play last season.