What Have You Done for Me Lately?

This column was originally published on WFAN.com on Feb. 9, 2010.

Peyton Manning didn’t play poorly in Super Bowl XLIV, he just didn’t play the way he was supposed to – the way we have all come to expect Peyton Manning to play. Now, his legacy is being questioned. Perhaps more importantly, his ability to perform in pressure situations and in the postseason is once again under scrutiny.

Throughout the 2009 season, right up until his interview with Dan Marino finished airing in the pregame show, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Peyton Manning would earn his second ring in four years. Peyton Manning: Two-time Super Bowl champion and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. That is how it was supposed to play out.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Peyton joining Joe and Johnny in the VIP room at the Hall of Fame. Sure, Peyton’s interception was untimely – and the final dagger in the Colts’ season – but it wasn’t that play or any one single play that lost the game for the Colts. A combination of safe play-calling by Jim Caldwell at the end of the first half, a devastating Pierre Garcon drop, Hank Baskett’s presence, and an unexplainable field-goal attempt ultimately lost the game for the Colts. Like any superstar, Peyton Manning takes the credit for a win and the blame for a loss, and Sunday’s loss to the Saints has fallen on the league MVP’s shoulders.

Since the clock ran out on the Colts, the hype around Peyton Manning has died down to the point that he is no longer the immortal, untouchable quarterback that sat down with Marino before the game. Peyton has returned to being the foot-tapping and unpredictable quarterback who was the whipping boy for the Patriots defense during their dynastic run. When you’re expected to win and you don’t, that will happen.

The debate following Super Bowl XLIV should have been about where exactly Peyton sits alongside Montana and Unitas. Instead the debate has been about how badly the loss impacts Peyton’s legacy, and whether or not the Colts will return to football supremacy in the near future.

The AFC Championship comeback against the Patriots in 2006 started a run for Peyton that helped erase his miserable big-game past. He discovered how to win in the postseason and earned the elusive ring some feared he never would. From his Super Bowl win up until the final knee taken by Drew Brees, the only type of attention Peyton had received was praise. He had erased any doubt that he was the best quarterback on the planet and left nothing about his game to be criticized.

One game greatly set back his legacy.

Peyton’s freefall from grace happened in a few hours with his image quickly reverting to what it was before he became a champion. With spring training around the corner, it’s hard not to think about a hometown athlete who undergoes the same superstar treatment.

In New York, Alex Rodriguez is held to the same standard as Peyton Manning. After last season’s success, A-Rod has the ability to build off his new winning image, or he could wind up in the same situation Peyton finds himself.

Like Peyton, A-Rod’s postseason past has been marred by first-round exits and one monster collapse. The Yankees’ postseason problems in A-Rod’s first five seasons with the team were far deeper than their third baseman being unable to hit his weight, but it was easy to pin the upsets on the superstar, and A-Rod took the blame.

It wasn’t A-Rod’s fault that the Yankees’ 1-2 punch in the 2004 ALCS was Mike Mussina and Jon Lieber, or that their best options after those two were an injured Javier Vazquez or head case in Kevin Brown. It wasn’t his fault that Randy Johnson failed to win pivotal Game 3s in 2005 and 2006, and it was Chien-Ming Wang, not A-Rod, who posted a 19.06 ERA against the Indians in 2007. But the Yankees’ pitching problems became A-Rod’s fault, and he took the heat for those losses.

Peyton Manning and Alex Rodriguez share eerily similar career resumes. Both players have experienced extraordinary regular season success (four MVPs for Peyton; three for A-Rod). They have had numerous postseason letdowns, and both spent the better part of their careers chasing their first championship. The only difference is Peyton came up short his second time on the big stage. A-Rod has yet to get his second chance.

A-Rod is coming off of a regular season in which he hit 30 home runs and drove in 100 runs despite missing a month due to hip surgery. He spent October and November making a mockery out of some of the game’s best arms, hitting six home runs with 18 RBIs in 15 games. He got the ring he came to New York for, shed his title of being unclutch and helped the Yankees return to the Canyon of Heroes. There is nothing left about his game to be criticized.

No one can ever take away the prefix “world champion” from Alex Rodriguez’s name, but that doesn’t mean people won’t forget about it.

It won’t take much for A-Rod to become A-Fraud again. A poor series to open the season at Fenway, or a four-game hitless streak at home would do the trick. If the over/under for when Yankee Stadium will turn on their 2009 hero for the first time in 2010 is set at the third home game of the season, would you feel comfortable taking the over? Probably not, considering the Angels are in town.

Prior to the Yankees’ 27th championship, it was unacceptable for A-Rod to make an out. It’s scary to try to fathom what the expectations will be now.

Over the last few seasons, Peyton has raised his personal bar for success to the point that only a championship would mean he and the Colts had a successful season. A-Rod had already been playing for a team with the bar set that high, and now with his remarkable postseason, the bar remains at the same place, just with added pressure.

“What have you done for me lately?” remains a common theme in professional sports, and in New York City, it’s a way of life. Peyton’s super loss was a reminder of how quickly someone can fall from greatness, and how short people’s memories are when it comes to winning. Around here memories are a lot shorter, but after six years, A-Rod is aware of that.