Peyton Manning is the king of statistics, but he became the prince of NFL quarterbacks on Sunday. Manning lost his sixth playoff game and is beginning to look like his generation's Dan Marino: a feared passer from September to December, a flawed one in January.
And there are signs that the playoff frustrations have begun to take their toll.
Moments after a crushing 21-18 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday, someone asked Manning why the Steelers had been able to blitz his Colts out of the playoffs. On every big down, in every crucial situation, the Steelers were able to make Manning hurry, stumble or overthrow receivers. On five critical occasions, Pittsburgh sacked Manning.
Manning hesitated, then said something about how we news media guys were always asking him about other positions.
"I'm trying to be a good teammate here," he said in a stunning -- for him -- signal that the sacks weren't his fault, that somehow the sacks were caused by missed assignments by blockers who failed to provide the protection he needed to do his job in the pocket. On Sunday, the Steelers had Manning in their pockets.
Finally, Manning said: "Let's just say we had some problems in protection. I'll give Pittsburgh credit for their blitzes and their rush, but we did have some problems."
For the sixth time in his eight-year career, Manning's Colts were knocked out of the playoffs. Once again, his performance set the tone. As Manning himself said, these postseason "get 'em next year" speeches are becoming difficult to give and probably tiring to hear.
This is more to the point: The traditional drop-back passer so many know and love took a giant step toward extinction on Sunday. Look at the quarterbacks remaining in the playoffs. They all have the ability to escape and none are above rolling out to buy time, to save the offense from a yards-consuming sack.
A 21st-century quarterback must be able to get away, not merely get out of the way. He must be able to punish the defense for blitzing with abandon, which Manning did not do against Pittsburgh.
These NFL playoffs, coupled with Vince Young's performance for Texas in the Rose Bowl, signify the end of the lead-footed "classic quarterback" ideal that Manning represents so well.
That kind of quarterback can shred any secondary as long as he has maximum protection and a fast track. But faced with a constant barrage of well-disguised blitzes, he is disarmed. Manning is one of the greatest pocket passers in the NFL, but there is diminishing space for the pure passer who cannot run. Offensive coordinators love them, but so do opposing defenses.
The news media marvel at Manning's hand jive at the line of scrimmage: the flurry of signals, the motions, the waving and the gesturing. In the end, they were so many ineffective pump fakes.
You wonder, what else can the Colts do? They had the road all laid out: home-field advantage, no New England Patriots to contend with. Do they get a bigger offensive line? Better receivers? In the near future, this season may be as good as it gets. Manning is stuck with the Colts, the Colts are stuck with Manning. It's been a good union, though it may not be a Super Bowl one.
The Colts have the best offensive show on earth from September to December. Once again, the show has shut down in January. Once again, the prince of quarterbacks won't be good enough to be king.