Of Jim Irsay, Peyton Manning and playoff football

Kevin Vaughan is an investigative reporter for Fox Sports and a former colleague at the Rocky Mountain News. He’s also a lifelong Broncos fan who has done some number-crunching on the subject of Peyton Manning and the playoffs. We’ll get to that in a minute.

First, though, let’s stop and gawk at the roadside wreck that resulted when Colts owner Jim Irsay tried to pat himself on the back while pointing to his Super Bowl ring while giving an interview to USA Today while driving his team toward Sunday night’s game against Manning and the Broncos.

The son of one of the most reviled owners in the history of American sport, Irsay is perhaps best known for tweeting random song lyrics and his endearing, adolescent way of substituting numerals for like-sounding words.

Last night he tweeted this indignant response to those who thought the effort to pat himself on the back for newfound wisdom in that USA Today interview had the effect of throwing other, more accomplished people under the bus:

Those expressing negatIvity about the concept of building well rounded teams around great QBs 2 achieve Championships have negative agendas

Those expressing negativity would include John Fox, coach of the Broncos, who responded to Irsay’s comments yesterday. Fox is not normally thought of as a nabob of negativity. To see him and other critics of Irsay’s remarks that way, you must put yourself in Jim Irsay’s world, where Jim Irsay is the North Star.

This is the guy who mused during the NFL lockout that his old pal Gene Upshaw wouldn’t have approved of NFL Players Association president DeMaurice Smith’s handling of the dispute. Upshaw was Smith’s predecessor at the NFLPA. He was also dead. So that was classy.

Here’s a passage from the USA Today interview:

“We’ve changed our model a little bit, because we wanted more than one of these,” Irsay says, flicking up his right hand to show his Super Bowl XLI championship ring.

“(Tom) Brady never had consistent numbers, but he has three of these,” Irsay adds. “Pittsburgh had two, the Giants had two, Baltimore had two and we had one. That leaves you frustrated.

“You make the playoffs 11 times, and you’re out in the first round seven out of 11 times. You love to have the Star Wars numbers from Peyton and Marvin (Harrison) and Reggie (Wayne). Mostly, you love this.”

Then Irsay flicks up his right hand again.

Here’s how Fox responded on SiriusXM NFL radio:

“I saw the comments. And to be honest with you, I thought it was a bit of a cheap shot. To me, in my opinion, they were disappointing and inappropriate. Peyton would never say anything. He’s too classy to do that. They sounded a little ungrateful and unappreciative to me. For a guy who has set a standard, won a Super Bowl, won four MVP awards … be thankful of that one Super Bowl ring, because a lot of people don’t have one.”

Irsay’s apologists in the Indianapolis media insist he was actually throwing former general manager Bill Polian under the bus. Everybody seems to agree he left tire tracks on somebody.

Former Colts coach Tony Dungy, formerly considered a paragon of positivity,  apparently has a negative agenda, too, because he not only thinks Irsay’s remarks were directed at Manning, he thinks they were part of an effort to make him angry and distract him from the task at hand.

“Jim is making this personal,” Dungy said in a text message to ESPN. “I’m surprised . . . Without Peyton, there would be no Lucas Oil Stadium. This team would be playing in L.A. right now. I don’t understand Jim saying this.”

Dungy’s attempt to cast Irsay as Machiavelli relies on a rather higher opinion of Irsay’s intellect than is commonly held, but it seems to be the only one he can think of.

“I think that’s what he’s trying to do,” Dungy said. “Have him make it such a big game he doesn’t perform well. I can’t figure any other reason to go this way.”

I am inclined to believe that Irsay was so busy extolling his current, sublime level of football understanding that he was oblivious to other implications. In any case, by this morning, he was in full Twitter back-pedal:

My comments meant if we gave Peyton better SP Teams n Def,we would have won more than 1 Sup/Bowl,instead of asking Peyton 2do too much

Give him this: There is no 54-year-old on Earth who tweets more like a teenager.

So the Colts winning one Super Bowl during Manning’s 14 seasons and 11 playoff appearances was somebody’s fault, he’s not saying whose, but Irsay and his new pals, GM Ryan Grigson and quarterback Andrew Luck, won’t make the same mistake. So good for them, Godspeed, whatever.

As I mentioned, Vaughan did some research on Manning’s postseason numbers, how they came about, and what they could still be by the time he’s finished:

A few random thoughts that I thought you might find interesting.

First, John Elway’s playoff record was 14-7. I’m guessing most people would say that a quarterback who wins twice as many as he loses in the playoffs is pretty special. And yet . . . how many people remember that following the Jacksonville loss at the end of the ’96 season that record was 7-7? It took those two playoff runs to put it where it ended up.

Manning is 9-11 right now, I believe. Let’s say he puts together two Super Bowl wins the next couple years (not a given, certainly, but not out of the realm of possibility, either). That would give him at least 6 postseason wins and as many as 8. So let’s say it’s 7 (he said dreamily), and he retires with a playoff record of 16-11; I’m guessing that, like Elway, no one really remembers the early struggles.

In ’99 (a year in which Manning took the Colts to 13-3 following two seasons of 3-13 and two playoff wins in the previous 28 years), the Colts got beat by the Titans, who, if memory serves, came within a yard of tying the Super Bowl and sending it into overtime.

In ’03, ’04 and ’05, the Colts got beat by the eventual Super Bowl champs (New England, New England, Pittsburgh).

In 2009, he lost in the Super Bowl.

In 2012, the Broncos got beat by the eventual Super Bowl champs (Baltimore).

That means 6 of his 11 playoff losses were to the team that eventually represented his conference in the Super Bowl or won the Super Bowl. Maybe the truth is that in those six years he lost to better teams.

While it is critical to have a very good or great quarterback to win a Super Bowl, it’s equally true that you need a lot more than that. How did John Elway do in the playoffs before Terrell Davis arrived? (Answer: .500.)

So, some “ifs” that could have changed everything for Manning.

What if Mike Vanderjagt doesn’t miss a 46-yard field goal by about 30 yards that would have tied the game at the end against the Steelers in 2005?

What if the Broncos defense doesn’t give up a conversion to Baltimore last year on a third-and-13 from its own 3-yard line in overtime?

What if the Colts had been a more balanced team all those years (rushing yardage in Manning’s 11 losses — 78, 99, 52, 98, 46, 58, 44, 64, 99, 93, 152; rushing yardage in Manning’s 9 wins — 85, 142, 76, 188, 100, 125, 191, 101, 42)?

What if Tony Dungy’s son hadn’t taken his own life near the end of the 2005 season? I can’t imagine how that affected Dungy, and how that, in turn, affected the team.

What if the Colts’ special teams aren’t asleep when the Saints open the second half of the Super Bowl with an onside kick — and recover, and go on to score a touchdown (swinging the momentum, in my humble opinion)?

And, finally, I looked at some stats from those 11 losses. Did Manning have some bad games? Yes — three stinkers where his completion percentage was in the mid- and high-40s. But also eight games in which the lowest completion percentage was 53 percent — and the others were 69, 69, 60, 69, 58, 64 and 65. I’d take those numbers all day long.

Overall in the playoffs, in games he lost — 257 of 436 (59 percent) for 2,833 yards, 12 TDs and 12 interceptions. If there’s a knock there, I’d say it’s the TD-to-INT ratio, though 10 of his 12 interceptions came in four of the games.

Total playoff numbers: 481 of 761 (63 percent) for 5,679 yards, 32 touchdowns, 21 picks.

John Elway’s total playoff numbers (22 games, including mop-up in Seattle in 1983): 355 of 651 (55 percent) for 4,964 yards, 27 touchdowns, 21 picks.

OK, that’s lots of stats, and, in the end, there’s only one stat that matters — the numbers up on the scoreboard. The current debate seems to me lacking in nuance and understanding of the fact that the quarterback is just one player and little things that have nothing to do with him change games.

Even without Vaughan’s research, Broncos fans old enough to use words rather than numbers to express words remember the long-time indictment of Elway: Can’t win the big one. Years later, Elway would grin and reflect on the fact that after the back-to-back championships to close his career, memories were seemingly wiped clean of the earlier stuff, as if zapped by Will Smith’s Neuralizer.

Manning has the same opportunity. In the end, it will depend upon the Broncos’ ability to do a better job than the Colts did building a team around him. But give Irsay credit: He may have given Manning more motivation as a Bronco than he ever did as a Colt.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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