“The question that he frames in all but words,” Robert Frost writes in his “Ovenbird” sonnet, “is what to make of a diminished thing.” This poem has always had a special place in my heart. The ovenbird is not a bird that sings when June is bustin’ out all over. Rather, it is a “mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,”
singing in the dog days of August when “highway dust is over all.” On a scale of one to 10, spring is a 10, a glorious time when “pear and cherry bloom [go] down in showers.” The “other fall we name the fall”—well, that’s a 1.
So why does this poem come to mind when I think of Peyton Manning’s recent outings?
Before I answer the question, here’s the poem:
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
For those not in the know, Manning is the fabled quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. Up until this year, he has unquestionably been a 10. In fact many consider him one of the greatest quarterbacks, if not one of the greatest football players, ever to have played. His game intelligence is through the roof—he calls his own plays (no other quarterback does this), recognizing and figuring out how to overcome virtually any defense that one throws against him. Many predict that, by the end of his career, he will hold every meaningful passing record.
In recent years, Peyton with the ball and at least 90 seconds has shown the ability to erase almost any lead of seven points or less. He has made comebacks look routine. Among other skills, he has mastered the “stick throw,” a pass to a receiver who is so tightly covered that the ball must be “stuck” into a small space with only inches to spare.
This year, however, many of those stick throws have ended up in the hands of the enemy, and Peyton has seemed diminished—or as some commentators have put it, he has looked human. In the three games before Thursday night’s win over the Titans where he righted the ship, he threw 11 interceptions, with four being returned for opposition touchdowns. The last quarterback to throw two “pick-sixes” in consecutive games was Joe Namath in 1968.
So Peyton fans (and they are legion) are having nervous breakdowns. The question they are framing in all but words—actually, that’s not right as there are thousands of words pouring out of every media outlet and sports blog on the subject—is what to make of a diminished Peyton.
Of course, diminishing occurs all the time in sports. Players, like leaves, grow old, losing their athleticism. In Peyton’s case, however, the decline seems spectacular given that he was the Most Valuable Player in the league each of the past two years.
But not to worry, say those who follow the Colts most closely. (Here is one such article.) There’s nothing in Peyton’s recent performance that can’t be explained away by a rash of injuries to teammates and one of the worst protective lines in the league. Peyton was having another MVP season until he lost three of his top four receivers and his top running back. At that point the offense stopped running like a well-oiled machine, and Peyton, pressing, began turning the ball over. Phenomenal quarterback though he may be, even Manning can’t both throw and catch his passes.
When Frost talks of the fall, he is referring to Adam and Eve’s fall from innocence as well as the seasonal fall. Legend has it that the two brought aging and death into the world, and there will come a time when Indianapolis fans find themselves experiencing a fall from the paradise in which they have dwelt for over a decade. The serpent hasn’t struck yet, however. When Manning’s injured teammates return, we should see him blooming once again. The time has not yet arrived when we must resort to the bittersweet consolations of the ovenbird .