Can you be MVP without playing? In Manning's case, maybe

Nobody took the debate seriously, not at the start, anyway. The last letter of MVP, after all, stands for "Player," as in someone who actually takes part in the game.

But go ahead, try to name someone -- anyone -- more valuable to his team than Peyton Manning. He's already the league's only four-time MVP.

"Look, we all know who would win if we took a poll right now. Aaron Rodgers would absolutely kill it," said Mike Dunphy, publisher and editor-in-chief of NFL Magazine, "But if the Colts end up going the way they're headed, the more it proves that Peyton really is the franchise."

While the topic began simmering in chat rooms and on blogs shortly after the Indianapolis Colts staggered out of the gate to begin the regular season, the premiere issue of the league's magazine, which hits newsstands Tuesday, jumps in with both feet.

Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who's at the center of a different quarterback controversy, is featured on the cover. But the story that's likely to kick up the biggest fuss is inside, titled: "Our Man Manning. Without even playing a down, Peyton's proven he's the NFL MVP."

In it, writer Thomas George calls Manning "the ghost of the entire NFL season. The league misses him but has marched on without him. The Colts, however, minus him, have hobbled to agonizing, toe-curling places."

Few would quibble with that. With Manning calling the shots on offense, the Colts ranked first in points, passing yards and total yards per game; this year, in those same categories, they rank 29th, 29th and tied for 26th, respectively, and are 0-12.

Opponents know the changes in those stats aren't a coincidence.

"Those people that were arguing that he should be the MVP probably have a good argument," San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "When he's in there, they're so good on offense, and obviously when you get the lead, their defense is built for speed and pass rush. When they have the lead, that defense is real hard to deal with."

On the other hand, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, a former Super Bowl-winning QB, are among a growing chorus arguing that Rodgers might be orchestrating the best season ever. The Green Bay Packers quarterback's performance ultimately could be the strongest argument against Manning being named on any ballots, although there are no guidelines for what constitutes an MVP, and voters are free to choose the Colts QB.

"Is he really the MVP? Everybody has an opinion on that, and this is ours," Dunphy said. "We expect to hear about it from fans, so I guess you could say the bottom line is, bring it on."

One of Manning's teammates, Dwight Freeney, did just that Wednesday.

"It is disrespectful and it's ridiculous across the board, to all of the guys who are actually playing the game," the six-time Pro Bowl defensive end said. "To the guys who are playing hard, it's unfortunate that they're doing something like that. They will and they do look ridiculous doing that."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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