DENVER -- Greatness comes in many forms, and in 2013, when every waking moment is a de facto photo op, we recently were treated to an unlikely glimpse of an all-time great in quite an unusual position.
It is often said in NFL circles that "you can't make the club in the tub," but you can make the club better -- and Peyton Manning seldom misses an opportunity to try to do that.
So there he was a few weeks ago in the Denver Broncos' training room, while being held out of a Wednesday afternoon practice to rest his sprained right ankle, soaking the leg in the cold tub with an iPad in his hand and a helmet on his head.
No, the 37-year-old quarterback wasn't taking the NFL's new consciousness surrounding head trauma to an amusing extreme, or paying homage to the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" by crawling off to sleep in the bath.
Rather, he was using the helmet's built-in communications technology to hear the play calls he was missing and following along by viewing game film on his tablet. In essence, he was taking mental reps. And proving, for the 100 billionth time, that preparation, drive, focus and attention to detail are the preeminent triggers for his sustained and transcendent success.
It was nearly four years ago that Manning, as he closed in on what most people believed would be a second Super Bowl championship, was being touted by many media members and fans (prematurely, in my view) as the greatest quarterback of all time.
He has been through so much since then, including a gut-wrenching Super Bowl XLIV defeat, a lost season in the wake of four career-threatening neck surgeries and a relocation from Indy to the Rockies that, he later admitted, had him feeling "like a rookie in some ways."
And as he prepares for a "Thursday Night Football" appearance against the San Diego Chargers that could push the Broncos (11-2) closer to wrapping up the AFC's top playoff seed for the second consecutive year -- and finishes out a regular season that almost certainly will increase his record total of MVP trophies to five -- Manning is on the verge of making us revisit that greatest of all time discussion.
Before we go there, let's get a couple of things out of the way:
First, I'm a (Joe) Montana guy, and that's unlikely to change in this lifetime. I watched him in awe as a teenager as he uplifted the San Francisco 49ers from pathetic to preeminent, and then I got to cover the man on a daily basis, and I was mesmerized by the magic on countless levels -- and my defense of this position is an entire column to be framed later.
Secondly, while this is a fun debate, there is no right answer. That Manning and his rival for the best of his era, Tom Brady, have injected themselves into The Conversation is obvious; where each ranks in relation to the likes of Montana, Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino and John Elway is far from the realm of absolute.
I do know this: While Manning has suffered a pair of stinging setbacks in 2013 -- losing to the Colts and successor Andrew Luck in his celebrated return to Indy and falling to Brady and the Pats after an unconscionable special-teams gaffe late in overtime -- he is perfectly positioned to bolster his case.
Statistically, he's on another level, directing one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history and putting up what even by his standards are eye-popping numbers. He already has thrown 45 touchdown passes and, barring injury, will have little trouble surpassing Brady's single-season record (50, in 2007) by month's end.
As for the stat that he values most -- and that which is perpetually used as a dark mark against him -- Manning is also poised to improve his 9-11 postseason record.
Yes, I know, we said that last year, and Manning had a mediocre effort on a chilly afternoon in a divisional-round defeat to the Baltimore Ravens (though, in fairness, he'd have gotten away with it if not for Rahim Moore's failure to prevent a 70-yard Joe Flacco touchdown pass with 31 seconds remaining).
It could happen again, certainly, though that whole can't play in the cold theory took a Ray Lewis-style hit last Sunday at Mile High, when Manning completed 39 of 59 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns, put up a 51-spot on the Tennessee Titans and talked smack postgame ("Whoever wrote that narrative can shove that one where the sun don't shine"). Just as the fact that Marino never won a Super Bowl is inevitably used against him in these types of debates, Manning's multitude of postseason disappointments is like crack for his critics.
Conversely, if and when Manning returns to the Super Bowl, brace yourself for a new wave of euphoric hero worship from everyone else. And with Brady's Patriots dealing with a slew of significant injuries (Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Rob Gronkowski) and neophytes at key positions, and no other AFC team having stamped itself as championship-caliber, it sure looks like the conference title is the Broncos' to lose.
Another Super Bowl would mean two weeks of incessant Is Peyton The Greatest? chatter, and it would mark the third time in five seasons that he was the prime topic of discussion at America's highest-profile sporting event. Remember, two years ago in Indy, the uncertainty over Peyton's future hijacked the hype machine until his kid brother, Eli, put up a second Super Bowl MVP performance and became the family leader in Lombardi-hoisting.
Less than two months from now, might Peyton come rolling into MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. -- Eli's home field -- and even the score? And if he does, when his body of work is assessed, how much more difficult will it be to dismiss the unrivaled numbers and uncanny consistency?
The reality is that the respect Manning enjoys from people inside the NFL -- players, coaches and talent evaluators -- is already massive and reverential, and with good reason. The ridiculous amount of responsibility he embraces and seizes, from game planning to on-the-field adjustments to getting his claws into virtually every aspect of the operation, sets him apart from all of his peers.
Realistically, the last player who carried so much clout within an organization was Elway, who had many, many compelling reasons to make a play for Manning when the Colts cut him loose and has been rewarded handsomely.
When Elway looks at the mess going on at Redskins Park, where his former coach, Mike Shanahan, seems perilously close to a Nixonian Final Days flameout, how fervently is the Hall of Fame quarterback giving thanks that he has a leader in his building who would never allow such agenda-driven dysfunction to exist?
Yeah, Manning is that powerful, and that's yet another layered testament to his all-consuming greatness, in addition to the obvious excellence we see on game days.
Soon, he'll light a fire. Isn't it good, Norwegian wood?
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.