On the illustrious stage of Super Bowl 50, two premier quarterbacks are expected to shine: the Denver Broncos‘ Peyton Manning and the Carolina Panthers‘ Cam Newton, two signal-callers whose presence and playing styles stand as far apart as the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies and the captivating waters of North Carolina’s Linville Gorge. All they seem to have in common is being chosen first overall in the NFL Draft, and owning Heisman trophies; but each of their names bring to mind images of their greatness. Comparing them is like comparing the sunrise and sunset: both are incredible to behold, yet each represents different parts of a brilliant spectrum.
Peyton Manning is at the twilight of his career. Armed with years of big-game savvy, Manning hopes another silver oblong symbol of triumph awaits him in his near future. In a 20-18 AFC Championship win over the New England Patriots, Manning threw for 176 yards and 2 touchdowns in a game where the defenses set the tone. Both teams managed to score an aggregate 9 points in the second half, in which Manning was sacked 3 times, but Manning stood firm despite the Patriots’ assault. He protected the football, finishing the game without an interception. He was credited with a fumble lost, but this was due to Ronnie Hilman‘s negligence in retrieving an incomplete attempt at a backwards pass. In short, he managed the game well despite not playing spectacularly and at times looking vulnerable. Of course, he also managed to make a few big throws, including a perfectly placed toss to Owen Daniels for the tight end’s second score of the game. Manning clearly isn’t the Manning of old, but with a strong running attack and a modern version of the Broncos’ vaunted Orange Crush defense, he doesn’t have to be the Manning of old–and he knows it. He’s a Super Bowl champion and a walking record book, but in a season marred by injury (a torn plantar fascia sidelined him for six weeks), inconsistency and 17 interceptions he’s just happy to be there–and to be good enough to get the job done. It comes across in the grace and humility he’s exuded in post-game interviews all season.
While Manning is about to ride off into the sunset, Cam Newton is like a newly-risen sun. In his bid for Most Valuable Player honors, Newton passed for 3,837 yards, 35 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions this season; he also added 636 yards rushing to the league’s second-ranked ground game. This continued into the postseason, culminating in the Panthers’ 49-15 rout of the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship. While the lopsided score was a bit of a surprise considering the Cardinals’ 14-2 record, Newton’s performance was anything but. Newton threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for two more scores.
Both quarterbacks are generally humble off the field; their on-field demeanors are far less similar. When Manning shows emotion in a game, it’s often via flashes of moody intensity. Newton, on the other hand, is demonstrative, playful and dynamic. He’s a new breed of quarterback, whose boldness borders on brashness, and his ‘dabs,’ dances and post-first down pointing may upset a lot of “old school” people. It’s his fifth season in the NFL, but Cam Newton makes every snap look like you’re watching his first Pop Warner game–and while some find this annoying, I find it refreshing. His energy is infectious, namely because it seems like he’s trying to pick everyone on his team up up rather than put down the opposition.
Meanwhile, Cam’s versatility as a quarterback is almost unmatched. He can create plays from inside or outside the pocket. He can bide time to make a better throw, or make a mad dash that keeps defenses from feeling settled. His post-game game is also a bit of a departure from the norm: he conducts press conferences with confidence, candor and a smile, taking things seriously without letting things get too serious.
Peyton is a wily, battle-tested general. Newton is a giant sprite–or, if you will, a miniature colossus, whose stature and swagger give him an air of mastery. Both have changed the game in their own ways. On Super Sunday, it will be a pleasure to see which will shine brighter: the rising star of Newton, or the still luminescent setting sun of Manning.