So Peyton Manning did it, setting the career touchdown record last Sunday against San Francisco and then, for extra measure, adding three more touchdowns in a Thursday night win against San Diego. As he is a master at solving opposition defenses, in today’s post I compare him to Edgar Allen Poe’s legendary detective in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.”
Both Dupin and Manning are renowned for their genius IQs. The Phi Beta Kappa quarterback can recall tiny details from football games played decades ago and use them to his advantage. He also studies game films obsessively and is remarkable for his ability to anticipate blitzes and other surprises that opponents throw at him. Against all probability, he won his fifth Most Valuable Player award last year. He is 38 and only three years removed from four neck surgeries, which most people thought would end his career.
Dupin describes his own thinking process as “ratiocination.” In “The Purloined Letter,” he figures out how to outthink the devious Minister D– in a very Manningesque way. Or should I say that Manning is Dupinian?
Dupin explains his method by describing a children’s guessing game he witnessed. One boy stood out:
I knew one about eight years of age, whose success at guessing in the game of ‘even and odd’ attracted universal admiration. This game is simple, and is played with marbles. One player holds in his hand a number of these toys, and demands of another whether that number is even or odd. If the guess is right, the guesser wins one; if wrong, he loses one. The boy to whom I allude won all the marbles of the school. Of course he had some principle of guessing; and this lay in mere observation and admeasurement of the astuteness of his opponents. For example, an arrant simpleton is his opponent, and, holding up his closed hand, asks, ‘are they even or odd?’ Our schoolboy replies, ‘odd,’ and loses; but upon the second trial he wins, for he then says to himself, the simpleton had them even upon the first trial, and his amount of cunning is just sufficient to make him have them odd upon the second; I will therefore guess odd'; –he guesses odd, and wins. Now, with a simpleton a degree above the first, he would have reasoned thus: ‘This fellow finds that in the first instance I guessed odd, and, in the second, he will propose to himself upon the first impulse, a simple variation from even to odd, as did the first simpleton; but then a second thought will suggest that this is too simple a variation, and finally he will decide upon putting it even as before. I will therefore guess even’ guesses even, and wins. Now this mode of reasoning in the schoolboy, whom his fellows termed “lucky,” –what, in its last analysis, is it?”
“It is merely,” I said, “an identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent.”
Dupin uses a version of this game to retrieve a stolen letter that eludes the meticulous searches of the police. Knowing that the authorities will search his apartment with a fine toothed comb, Minister D– has hidden his letter in plain sight, changing the exterior and placing it in his letter rack. He has identified the police’s intellect but Dupin identifies his.
Manning employed a similar process in setting up the record-tying 508th touchdown. The Broncos have a very effective screen pass that takes advantage of the speed and elusiveness of Demaryius Thomas, their top wide receiver. With Thomas and the great slot receiver Wes Welker lined up to his left, Manning throws a quick pass to Thomas while he is still behind the line of scrimmage. Welker, meanwhile, takes off and blocks for him. The play has led to some long and spectacular touchdowns.
On Sunday Manning anticipated that the San Francisco defense would be anticipating this play. He therefore faked the ball to Thomas as Wes Welker took off as if to block one of the two players defending the play. Both defenders charged towards Thomas, at which point Welker, who almost never goes long, simply turned down the sideline and caught Manning’s pass in stride for a 39 yard touchdown. As announcer Chris Collingsworth observed, sometimes studying tapes of Peyton Manning will actually get you into trouble because he knows you are studying them.
Of course, Manning still needs to figure out how his opponents plan to play him. Here again Poe’s story helps us appreciate the intricacy of Manning’s mind. The eight-year-old prodigy explains his success to Dupin:
[U]pon inquiring of the boy by what means he effected the thorough identification in which his success consisted, I received answer as follows: “When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.”
I don’t know whether Manning employs facial expressions, but somehow he is able to identify his “reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent.” He anticipates how wisely or how stupidly opposing teams will anticipate his moves.
There is another way in which Manning resembles Dupin. In “The Mysteries of the Rue Morgue,” Dupin is faced with a crime of unimaginable violence, but there seems no way that the killer could have entered the locked room. Dupin concludes that the killer could not have been human and then figures out that an escaped orangutan did the deed.
The stark contrast between extreme intellect and brute force shows up in many of Poe’s stories, signaling his mixed feelings about the Enlightenment. Even as he revels in the power of reason, he is also keenly aware of its limitations. The same author who created one of the great literary detectives also is famous for depicting madness and horrific cruelty. Sometimes he combines rationality and brutality in a single story: the narrator of “The Telltale Heart” is very rational in the way that he kills his neighbor and cuts him up.
Do you see how I am setting the stage for Manning’s accomplishments? Football is a bone-crunching, brain damaging sport in which men who are freakishly large, fast, and athletic hurl their bodies against each other for play after play. It is a savage game when long injury lists week after week. Yet Manning, like Dupin, seems to rise above the carnage, analyzing each situation and figuring out an optimal response.
Of course, if he weren’t also an accomplished athlete, Manning wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But it is his cerebral approach to the game that distinguishes him from other players. He represents the triumph of raciocination.