By Danny O’Neil
NEW YORK – There’s more than just a generation gap separating this year’s Super Bowl quarterbacks.
Peyton Manning is the prototypical pocket passer, a veteran at the helm of the Broncos’ record-setting passing game, a former No. 1 overall pick nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career in which he redefined the way his position is measured.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and his Seahawks counterpart, Russell Wilson, took opposite paths to the Super Bowl. (AP)
Russell Wilson is in his second season in Seattle, a quarterback who’s better than anyone in the league at throwing outside the pocket and showing that passing yards aren’t the ultimate measurement of effectiveness at his position.
And maybe it’s fitting that in this Super Bowl that is a clash of styles, it’s the differences that are the most intriguing thing in the comparison of the quarterbacks. They may share a mutual appreciation and a shared work ethic, but they ultimately embody two very different ways for a quarterback to succeed in this league right down to the way in which they were acquired.
Manning is the lottery ticket a team waits for. He was picked No. 1 coming out of college, and no matter how many people recast the 1999 draft as a tough choice between Manning and Ryan Leaf, there was no doubt about who was going first.
The Colts counted themselves fortunate just to be in position to pick Manning, and Denver didn’t sign him nearly so much as he picked the Broncos two years ago.
Wilson’s path to the pros wasn’t nearly so certain. Not when he was in college and balancing two sports, signing with the Colorado Rockies after his junior season at North Carolina State and not even when he was drafted by the Seahawks, chosen in the third round in a decision that was criticized because Seattle took a quarterback who was 5 feet 10 5/8 inches.
That perseverance is something Wilson reflected on as the final seconds ticked off the clock in the Seahawks’ victory over the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
“I thought, ‘I could have been playing baseball,’ ” Wilson said after the game.
That reflected the reality that all of the people who told him that as proficient a college quarterback as he was, he simply wasn’t big enough to succeed at that position in the NFL and with all his athletic gifts, baseball was the best route to a professional payday.
Twenty-seven victories later, Wilson is one win away from becoming the youngest quarterback since Ben Roethlisberger to win a Super Bowl.
That’s not the only significance, though. Wilson would be the lowest-drafted quarterback to win a Super Bowl since Tom Brady won his third title with the 2004 Patriots.
Back then, it wasn’t such an anomaly. Brad Johnson won a Super Bowl with the 2002 Buccaneers 10 years after he was chosen in the ninth round, so deep that rung no longer even exists in the draft. Kurt Warner was undrafted and he led the 1999 Rams to the Super Bowl. In fact, he started a six-season stretch in which only one quarterback chosen in the first round started for a Super Bowl champ and that was Trent Dilfer, who was on his second team when he “led” the Ravens to a title.
But starting with Roethlisberger in 2005, only one of the past eight quarterbacks to start for a Super Bowl winner was chosen outside the privileged niche of the first round and that was New Orleans’ Drew Brees, who was chosen with the second pick of the second round by the Chargers.
Wilson doesn’t face the same burden as Manning on Sunday. Not in terms of workload. Not in terms of history.
Manning is the engine for Denver’s offense as well as its rudder. He provides all the horsepower and determines the direction, and the Broncos’ success is going to depend on his ability to navigate a defense that allowed the fewest points and yards in the league while forcing the most turnovers.
Wilson is more like the keel in Seattle’s run-oriented offense. It’s his job to stabilize everything and to keep the offense from capsizing if things get rough.
The two quarterbacks share a position but occupy vastly different roles. Just one more thing separating these two quarterbacks who are at different ends of their respective careers but chasing the very same goal.