|“Which way’s New Jersey, Russell?”|
When the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos take each other on next Sunday in New Jersey the two men under centre, Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson, will be crucial to the outcome. More often than not the Superbowl Most Valuable Player award has gone to the winning teams quarterback and that only serves to highlight the importance of the position in any game of football. When next week rolls around the two most important people on the field will find themselves in identical positions on opposite sidelines, however their paths to that point have been incredibly varied and their respective styles of play even more so.
Widely regarded as the best quarterback in the modern era, Peyton Manning grew up with his father already a household name in the NFL. Archie Manning had been a successful quarterback with the New Orleans Saints and much was expected of Peyton, who excelled at Tennessee University before being selected first overall by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1998 NFL draft. Manning had always been well known in football circles even before his NFL debut, and although his work ethic and determination to succeed was excellent he never had to battle too hard to earn a college scholarship. In fact Manning’s services were fiercely fought over once he left high school, and his decision to attend Tennessee surprised many who expected him to head to Ole Miss, as his father had done. Little brother Eli (and future two time Superbowl MVP) did however make the decision to attend Ole Miss. After a stellar college career Peyton was considered a shoo in to be drafted in the first two picks of the 1998 draft and while Indianapolis did consider taking Ryan Leaf number one overall they eventually settled on Manning, in the process giving him instant recognition as the top prospect in football and the keys to a franchise that had weapons such as Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James already in tow.
One of the primary reasons Manning was such a highly touted prospect, along with his throwing arm and intelligence, was his size. Standing tall at six feet five inches Manning had the ideal frame for a quarterback, tall enough to carry a large amount of muscle as well as see the field clearly over the line of scrimmage. Russell Wilson wasn’t afforded that luxury, however, and at just five feet eleven inches tall and a shade over 200 pounds the former Wisconsin QB was at a disadvantage immediately heading into the 2012 draft process.
Wilson’s college career had been decorated prior to the 2012 draft, however it also had it’s complications. One of the quarterback’s main strengths on the football field is his agility, speed and acceleration; all of which enable him to make plays that a lot of other QB’s simply cannot. This athleticism enabled Wilson to excel at baseball as well as football and in 2010 the Colorado Rockies selected him in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft, which prompted Wilson to attend spring training with the team the following year. In turn this decision encouraged Wilson’s college, North Carolina State, to cut ties with him after his third year as they were dissatisfied with his commitment to the schools football program. Following this unfortunate event Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, whereupon he posted excellent numbers including the FBS record for passing efficiency.
After his roundabout college journey Wilson was eventually picked in the third round (75th overall) by the Seattle Seahawks, a decision they wouldn’t regret. Heading into training camp that summer Wilson sat behind both Tavaris Jackson and free agent addition Matt Flynn on the depth chart and was only able to earn his spot on the field by performing admirably during pre-season contests that preceded the regular season. To his credit Seahawks coach Pete Carroll immediately saw that Wilson had what it took to be a star quarterback in the NFL and the franchise hasn’t looked back since, reaching the play-offs in the first year of his reign (something Manning didn’t do) and the Superbowl in year two, something that Manning wasn’t able to do until his ninth year in the NFL.
Of course that doesn’t mean to say that the Broncos gun slinger isn’t an exceptional player. His statistics and record speak for themselves and his breaking of the single season passing touchdowns mark attests to that. However at 37 years of age and having endured two neck surgeries Manning has had to adapt his game in recent seasons, in full knowledge that the clock is ticking if he’s to double his tally of Superbowl titles. His arm isn’t what it once was and Seattle corner Richard Sherman has even described his passes as “ducks” with regards to the tight spiral, or lack of it, that Manning is able to throw the ball with nowadays. Yet he makes up for this with pinpoint accuracy, an instantaneous release and nimble footwork in the pocket. Those last two skills enable him to avoid sacks and big hits, while the first attribute is what has helped Manning turn average receivers into good ones and good ones into greats for a decade and a half.
While Wilson shares many of Peyton’s abilities, including exceptional mechanics and a coolness under pressure, he also differs in many areas. While a deft sidestep is Manning’s main method of avoiding the rush Wilson is far more likely to spin out of trouble or even run around an approaching defensive end, extending plays and giving his receivers ample time to get open and make plays deep down field. He demonstrated this ability perfectly last week against San Francisco when he connected with Doug Baldwin for a 51 yard gain having avoided multiple 49ers defenders. Wilson also probably has more arm than the current version of Manning, although his lack of height often means that he’s unable to fire balls over lineman into the middle of the field in the same way Payton can.
Sunday night is about more than just these two men but if Seattle or Denver hopes to win the big one they’ll have to get good play from the quarterback position, that’s for sure. One is young and just embarking on a career in the NFL, while the other has already rewritten the league’s record books. One can run the 40 yard dash in 4.55 seconds; the other might struggle to run it in 45.5 seconds. Yet despite their differences both Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning have one thing in common during their short and long careers in the NFL, respectively: they both know how to win.