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Football is over and Peyton Manning is the story: Does Eli pass the Matt Ryan test

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That was a hell of Super Bowl, wasn’t it? Opening with a safety, extended pushes of hard-nosed defensive football, that magnificent Mario Manningham catch, a rushing touchdown to take the lead with under a minute left in the 4th quarter that nearly left Ahmed Bradshaw looking like the biggest goat of all time, Patriots receivers dropping passes left and right… This was the fifth Super Bowl in a row that went down to the final minutes, and the days when the game was more significant for its commercials than the lopsided battle on the field may officially be done. That, alone, is something to celebrate — even if you’re a Patriots fan.

But Patriots fans won’t be doing much celebrating for the next few weeks. And, by Sunday, nobody outside of Giants fans will be focused on the glory of Super Bowl XLVI. The first Sunday since August without football is a depressing one. Hell, Hunter S. Thompson titled his suicide note Football Season Is Over.

Fortunately, the NFL these days is practically a year-round sport. Free agency opens in a month, the draft in two, and the drama of organized team activities and training camp will follow. Ask any Madden addict: Franchise mode is at its most fun when you’re doing the off-season activities. And, after the 2011 season, fueled by a lockout that changed the way everyone played the game, there are a number of new things to consider. Let’s review what the 2011 season has taught us about the NFL, the future of the league, and — what the hell? — even ourselves.

This is more of a quarterbacks’ league than ever — and that sucks for the AFC

The idea that the NFL is a passing league isn’t a new one, but the inequity between the two conferences has never been clearer. The three best passers in the NFL are all playing in the NFC, and the relative dearth of talent at the position in the AFC is the reason that Vegas has the conference as a 3-point underdog in next year’s Super Bowl already.

Here’s a way to determine whether a team has a decent quarterback in place or not — let’s call it The Matt Ryan Test. Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, is an above-average player whose best years are still ahead of him, but he’s unlikely to ever be confused with Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas — the very definition of “decent.” The Matt Ryan Test is this: If you’d trade your team’s quarterback for Matt Ryan in an even exchange, then your team doesn’t have a decent quarterback in place.

In the AFC, only a handful of team’s pass the Ryan Test — the Patriots, the Chargers, the Steelers, and the Texans are the only teams with a starter in place who’s at least as good as Matt Ryan. There’d be serious conversations in Oakland and Cincinnati about it, and regardless of what Broncos fans think, John Elway would have Tim Tebow stuffed in a suitcase before the Falcons hung up the phone.

In the NFC, meanwhile, you’ve got the Giants, Saints, and Packers holding the best arms in the league; and the Eagles, Cowboys, Panthers, Lions, Bears, and Rams — not to mention the Falcons themselves — are all armed with above-average players. In other words, 14 quality quarterbacks played in the NFL in 2011, and ten of them play in the NFC. If Peyton Manning lands in Washington, San Francisco, or Arizona, things will get awfully tight around the conference.

And, hey, about Peyton Manning…

Who the heck knows if the guy will ever play football again, or for whom. But one thing is clear: If you thought the Brett Favre circus from the past few seasons was a headline-clogging mess, and if the LeBron James Decision dominated too much of your sports coverage, the Peyton Manning newscycle will wear you the hell out. This was the biggest story of the past two weeks by a landslide, and there was actually a Super Bowl to play then. Now? Jesus, the boners at ESPN could knock a door down.

If Manning is healthy and a free agent, you’ve never seen anything like it. An all-time top ten player in the league at any position, available to sign with any team he wants in the country’s most popular sport? Pity the sportswriters in Arizona, Miami, DC, San Francisco, Baltimore — hell, any city that doesn’t pass the Matt Ryan Test — until Manning signs a deal somewhere. Pity everybody who gives a damn about basketball or baseball (or, god forbid, hockey) who can’t get away from football even when there are six months before the season starts.

Corollary: Will ESPN run a The Decision II special with Manning? If he decides to play for the Dolphins, will we all groan collectively as a nation if he actually utters the words “taking my talents to South Beach”? Would he even do that? Does Peyton Manning actually have a sense of humor or was it invented by copywriters for Visa and Best Buy? Why do we act like we know him?

Where will our metaphors about politics come from now?

Ours is a Super Bowl culture, in which we demand clear Winners and Losers. We love the single-elimination tournament that allows for any scrappy underdog to come from behind and assert itself with a dominant performance. We thrive on head-to-head competition.

This is kind of a bummer, at least for people who are frustrated to see our political system treated like the same sort of contest as the playoffs. For instance: It means that every contest between candidates in an election becomes a contest between two choices, The Favorite and The Underdog. It’s a coincidence that, as the playoffs winnowed the teams left in competition in the NFL to two, the GOP field went from eight candidates to two, but it’s not a coincidence that Ron Paul and Rick Santorum have been roundly dismissed even though they’re still in the race — the binary decision is built right into our culture, and viewing politics like sports means we are much more interested in a contest between two parties. We view Presidential elections like the Super Bowl of politics, which is maybe not the best way to do things.

But for the time being, there won’t be any football metaphors, or even any gridiron-related pandering from the candidates. The next six months will feature markedly fewer Tim Tebow references than the previous two.

Of course, the 2012 NFL season will kick off just as the protracted battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (or maybe Newt Gingrich) starts to heat up. And this time out, maybe one of them will seek to be known as the Eli Manning of the Presidential campaign. That is, after all, how weird this NFL season has been.

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