By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, February 5, 2007 1:31 AM
DAVIE, Fla. -- It was steady rainy morning, noon and night here in soggy South Florida on Super Bowl Sunday. "Purple Rain" from Prince at halftime and tears of joy raining down the cheeks of many Indianapolis Colts and their adoring fans late Sunday evening at Dolphin Stadium.
In the wettest and one of the wackiest and wildest title games in history, Peyton Manning's legacy as one of the game's premier quarterbacks was given an emphatic stamp of approval after so many past title game failures going back to his days as a Tennessee icon who never could win a national collegiate championship, or even beat Steve Spurrier.
Now, after the Colts' 29-17 come-from-behind victory over the bumbling Chicago Bears, if Manning never plays another down of professional football, he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. That is unless some of the fools who keep denying Art Monk a place in Canton are still voting five years after Manning decides to retire, likely in another seven or eight years and probably with almost every passing record in the books.
And Tony Dungy, a man forced to give up his own dream of professional quarterback glory because of his race, will go down in history as the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl title and it couldn't happen to a more deserving fellow.
"I have to dedicate this to the guys who came before me," Dungy said after the game. "Jimmy Ray, Sherman Lewis, Lionel Taylor were great coaches in this league who could have done this if they'd been given the opportunity. Lovie Smith and I weren't the best, but we were given the opportunity. I feel so good about representing guys who paved the way for us."
No man deserved that distinction as the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl more than this soft-spoken leader, who also went a long way himself to securing his own place in the Hall of Fame as a pioneering head coach who has always taken a kinder, gentler approach than most of his preening, pretentious peers. Yes, Virginia, decent human beings and truly exceptionally good guys really can finish first.
"He never raises his voice," CBS broadcaster and former Super Bowl winner Phil Simms said of Dungy, the anti-Bill Parcells. "Most guys do it with fear.
His players respect him so much, they fear letting him down."
None of the Colts let Dungy down Sunday night, particularly after Bears return man Devin Hester took the opening kickoff 92 yards for a stunning touchdown before Manning had ever touched the ball, save for the two-hour pre-game warm-up.
Manning showed a somewhat rare fit of sideline pique when he jumped off the bench and threw his cap down in frustration after that special teams breakdown. But Dungy kept his cool and his calm on the sideline, the better to show his players it was only one score, only seven points, and hadn't the Colts two weeks ago rallied from 18 down to beat the New England Patriots in the AFC title game?
"No one was shocked or upset after the opening kickoff," Dungy said afterward. "It was just seven points we could get back, and we did. More than anything (the victory) was our team fighting together."
There were other critical factors. The Colts running defense, which gave up a league worst 175 yards per game rushing in the regular season, somehow managed to figure out what was so horribly wrong. And they did it on the fly in the crucible of the playoffs, when that sort of monumental deficiency usually translates into a quick exit from the postseason.
But over four playoff games, the Colts mostly fixed what had ailed them all year. On Sunday night, they allowed the Bears a far more palatable 111 yards rushing overall and only 265 yards of total offense. They also forced four turnovers, including two fourth quarter interceptions that sealed the deal.
Bears quarterback Rex Grossman helped the Colts cause, as well. In the first half, he had a gaudy quarterback rating of 120.8, once again demonstrating that statistic can often be thoroughly deceiving. Far more significant was the Colts running 46 first half plays to the Bears 19, and when Indianapolis got the lead in the fourth quarter, sexy Rexy turned into the classic Train Wreck Rex, heaving the wet and heavy ball up field into double coverage and paying the ultimate two-interception price.
Manning, on the other hand, was more than content for most of the game to play it a tad more conservative. He saw a busted Bears coverage in the first quarter that led to his longest completion of the night, a 53-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Reggie Wayne. But his leading receiver this wet night was running back Joseph Addai, who had ten catches for 66 yards. Addai and running mate Dominic Rhodes combined for 190 of the Colts 191 rushing yards, as Manning constantly put the ball into their capable hands and watched the Bears bounce off or miss tackles that eventually sealed their fate.
When it was over, Manning and Dungy shared a hug at midfield and beamed on the podium during the trophy presentation. The two men share a genuinely mutual admiration, and it seemed so obvious that each seemed more delighted to win it for the other than they were to win it for themselves.
"Peyton Manning is a tremendous leader," Dungy said. "He prepares, he works, he does everything he can do. If people think he needed to win a Super Bowl to validate what he's done, the only thing I can say is that this guy is a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest who ever played this game."
Manning was asked repeatedly if he thought this victory removed any stigma on his professional record or certified his legacy and mostly he smiled and said, "I'm not going to play that card, I don't play that game."
Instead, he kept repeating what a wonderful victory it was for his team and that "I wanted to be on a team that won the Super Bowl. To me that's what it's all about. We found a way to learn from some of those disappointing losses in the past. It was tough losing to Pittsburgh last year (in the playoffs). But I thought we were a better team for it."
And what about his coach?
"I'm proud to play for him," he said. "He's had some good speeches after some tough playoff losses. But he always stayed positive. He said 'we'll be better for this.' It's been hard to see other teams hoist that trophy. But you have to learn from it and see how badly you want to be up there next year. It's just great to have him as our leader."
Spoken like a champion, don't you think?
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.