Down and Distance
Next Man Up: The NFL, Game Of Thrones, and Peyton Manning's head on a spike
So we’re just about done with the first week of the NFL season. Things were, as ever, unpredictable—who saw the Bengals, Bills, or Bears emerging with definitive offensive and defensive statements in Week One? That’s life in the NFL, of course – one week, you’re expecting the same sort of consistency you’ve received from the quarterback you’ve had for the past fourteen years; the next, you’re watching as a 92-year old Kerry Collins gets strip-sacked while wearing the uniform of the Indianapolis Colts.
That Manning thing is nuts, huh?
Watching the Colts play without Peyton Manning isn’t just a bummer for people in Indianapolis. It’s not even just awesome for Texans fans who’ve hated that motherfucker since their team came into existence. It’s weird in ways that stories—like the one the NFL becomes every season—are rarely weird. The NFL without Manning is a fundamentally different viewing experience for everybody. It’d be like if they’d killed off Jack between seasons four and five of Lost, or if Jon Hamm refused to return to Mad Men next year because of a Charlie Sheen-like breakdown (IT COULD HAPPEN!).
Part of the reason that NFL football is America’s most popular sport is the way we’re able to watch it like it’s a story. That happens in other games, too, but the narrative unfolds in football differently. Basketball, with 82 regular season games, and baseball, with twice that many, play out their drama in short bursts, nine innings or 48 minutes at a time – a single game, at least until the playoffs, doesn't mean much. The NFL watches like serialized storytelling, though, and that’s what we love best these days.
And one of the things that makes this story so compelling is its cast of characters, and Manning – along with Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Terrell Owens, and maybe James Harrison and Bart Scott—have been the leads in that narrative for most of the past decade. We were ready for Owens to fade out of it, and we’re still not completely convinced that Favre is done. But without Manning, we’re watching something like Game Of Thrones after—spoiler alert— Jofrey hangs Ned Stark’s head on a spike for all Westeros to see.
Yeah, but Game Of Thrones gets really good after that happens
It’s not necessarily a tragedy for the NFL that Manning is out, at least for a long time and maybe the year, or even longer. Not for people who watch it for the narrative drama that the league offers (Colts fans: sorry, y'all). It’s just interesting. Because he was the story for so long—the most capable quarterback ever who somehow failed to live up to his potential just because of how unbelievably vast that potential was—and now there are real doubts that he’ll ever be that guy again. In his place in Indianapolis, we get a story about an elderly journeyman who, at best, will shoulder the blame for the rest of the team being crappy.
But that’s not where the story is going to live for anybody outside of Indianapolis. Without Manning, the story in the NFL moves on to some other guys.
The question for the NFL is whether it plays out like Game Of Thrones, where the point of ditching the lead is to free up room for the young cast, or if it’s more like The Office or Two And A Half Men, where they’re scouring for replacements. For the Colts, the answer’s obviously the latter. But for the story that the league unfolds each year, there’s reason to believe that it’ll be the former—and that’s good news.
And not just because we won’t have to see Ashton Kutcher under center anywhere
However it plays out, one thing that the Manning-, Favre-, Owens-, and Moss-free NFL makes clear is that there’s a time coming fairly soon when the narrative of the NFL is going to flip. Even if Manning recovers perfectly, he’s 35 years old; Vick, Brees, Brady, Harrison, Scott, and most of the other stars of the story are on the wrong side of thirty.
But that’s cool, because a picture is starting to emerge of what the next story is going to be in the NFL. For so many years, the debates have centered around whether Manning, Brees, or Brady was the best quarterback in the league. Aaron Rodgers is in that debate now, and maybe five years from now, when those guys are retired or aged has-beens who hung on just a little too long, the conversation will involve Rodgers, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, and Josh Freeman – or insert-your-QB-here (Jay Cutler!). Scott and Harrison are prominent because they fulfill the TV trope of the trash-talking tough guy, first perfected by Dick Butkus and sustained by vicious defenders through the decades – when they’re gone, we’ve got Ndamakong Suh, and whoever emerges along with him, to fill those shoes.
Football sustains its popularity because it’s keen to devour its own history. Baseball is too often crushed under the weight of it, where every shattered record makes lovers of the game mopey, since at least the debate around whether Roger Maris' name should come with an asterisk, on to gripes about how Barry Bonds is no Hank Aaron.
In basketball, that scene in Bad Teacher where Jason Segal berates a middle schooler who wants to argue LeBron versus Michael Jordan exemplifies something that keeps younger generations from feeling like they can truly own the game. It’s been almost a decade since that guy laced up his sneakers, yet basketball shoes are still called “Jordans.” And, geez, look at boxing, which slides further and further into irrelevance because it insists that the sport’s legends can never be replaced, making it impossible to believe that what’s happening now even matters.
But football? The all-time greats are just part of the last generation’s drama, and the game changes so quickly that you can’t even compare from one era to the next. In football, the history informs the present, it doesn’t oppress it. The last generation's heroes are this generation's in-studio commentators, big-upping the guys on the field today.
Your kids will wonder why that weird old guy in a #18 jersey is still in all those commercials
Even if everything aligns perfectly for the Colts, and they end up bad enough to draft Andrew Luck at the top of next year’s draft, while Manning returns to win another championship and tutor the kid for two or three years before he emerges as Dick Sargent to Peyton’s Dick York, the die looks cast – the NFL doesn’t go out like The Office or Two And A Half Men, desperately searching for a replacement to sustain audience interest before it farts out, with fans mostly remembering the glory days.
No, the league is set up a lot more like Game Of Thrones, where the departure of the current stars looks planned by design. And, hell, at least nobody will have to stick Peyton Manning’s head on a spike when his run is over.