JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- One is so new that his curly hairstyle has elicited attention this week. The other is so familiar that he is asked incessantly about his exit plan, as if there is a rush to send him to his creeping retirement. Before the final game of the NFL season, endings and beginnings have drawn the truest line between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos.
There is no starker way to view Super Bowl XLVIII than through the prism of the starting quarterbacks' career arcs, Peyton Manning's bending toward the light he says he sees at the end of the tunnel, Russell Wilson's still so close to the start that the dirt is being dusted off his decision to forsake baseball for football. This game will be a clash of cultures, with the Broncos relying on a historically explosive passing offense and the Seahawks propelled by a throwback stew of running and defense. But it is also about quarterbacks who have arrived at their shared moment through paths and forms so dissimilar they have barely converged, quarterbacks who are strikingly different in style but not in substance.
Their nearly 13-year age difference is the largest between Super Bowl quarterbacks in history, and they personify the shift in the ideal mold for signal-callers of their eras. Manning, as a classic pocket passer mostly uncomfortable on the run, had the best season by a quarterback in NFL history. He set the single-season record for touchdowns and passing yards, completing 68.3 of his passes and averaging 342.3 yards per contest in an offense that has been constructed, in the two years since his arrival in Denver, to exploit his extraordinary knowledge and command of the game. Wilson is more mobile, able to make plays outside the pocket with ease. He completed 63.1 percent of his passes while averaging just 209.8 passing yards per game on a team that emphasized the run. He also threw just 26 touchdown passes, though he did rush for 539 yards, which, should the Seahawks prevail Sunday, would be the highest regular-season rushing total recorded by a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in history.
Consider this telling detail about their different styles: Wilson, to compensate for his short stature, throws down the middle of the field just 14.57 percent of the time, the lowest percentage among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts this season. Manning, six inches taller, throws down the middle of the field 21 percent of the time.
Manning and Wilson have intersected before this game, albeit briefly, their memories of the episode reflecting its relative resonance in their lives. Less than two years ago, Manning was watching tape when Wilson, making his final team visit before the 2012 NFL Draft, came in. For a moment this week, Manning struggled to remember when that short meeting took place.
"Let me think about this -- I believe it was after I signed with the Broncos," Manning said. "It was an exciting time in his life, getting ready for the draft. So I wished him luck and told him I enjoyed watching his college career."
Wilson remembered it clearly.
"He said, 'Do I know you from somewhere?' " Wilson recalled, before offering his response from that day: " 'You coached me when I was in 10th grade at your passing academy.' "
Not long after that Denver encounter, Wilson did something that was unusual for him. Wilson believes in visualization -- he said this week that, after the Seahawks played the Broncos in the preseason, he visualized the teams meeting again in the Super Bowl -- but two weeks before the draft, he decided to play a game of chance, putting the names of the teams he had visited in a hat. Whichever team he pulled out, he figured, would be the one that would draft him. He pulled out the Seattle Seahawks.
That Wilson was even in a position to be drafted says something about a personality that matches Manning far more closely than his physical gifts do. In college, Wilson was also a standout baseball player; his desire to play two sports is believed to have led to the souring of his relationship with (and eventual transfer from) North Carolina State. Selected in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Colorado Rockies in 2010, Wilson played in the minors, traveling the backroads of the game while he tried to figure out what to do about football.
Some thought his future would have been brighter on the diamond than the gridiron, and for one reason: He is listed at just 5-foot-11. Though he had success at the collegiate level, that figure gave NFL talent evaluators pause, as most successful pro quarterbacks are nearly a half-foot taller -- Manning, for example, is 6-5. Bill Polian, the Colts' former president, said his only reservation when he evaluated Wilson then was about his height.
"I kind of wanted to go against the odds," Wilson said. "I was a 5-11 quarterback, I had big hands, I could run. I was not going to let being a 5-11 quarterback stop me. My height doesn't define my skill set and my intelligence for the game."
Wilson ultimately transferred to Wisconsin in 2011 -- the year that Manning missed because of his neck surgeries -- and was elected a captain within weeks of starting his first offseason workouts with his new team. It was with the Badgers that Wilson solidified the skills that have allowed him to thrive despite his height. He is able to run to avoid pressure so well that Polian said it is as if the Seahawks have a sixth offensive lineman. And he keeps his eyes downfield so that, with his arm strength, he is still able to make deep throws, even when the play breaks down. Polian compares him to Aaron Rodgers in that sense.
And Wilson is a gym rat in cleats, a student of the game in the mold of Manning. His brother, Harrison, remembers that even as a child, Wilson's doodles would be of plays. Since around seventh grade, he has been preternaturally mature, going on to become high school class president; "an old soul," as his brother calls him.
When Russell was about to transfer to Wisconsin, he and Harrison made a visit there. They arrived late at night and sat in the office of offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who is now the head coach at Pitt. They began to watch film, and Russell grabbed a marker and started drawing up plays, explaining how N.C. State's offense looked different from Wisconsin's. Harrison dozed off during the session, which lasted until 2 a.m. Not surprisingly, Doug Baldwin, Russell's Seattle teammate, said it is sometimes difficult to pull him away from film.
That, of course, sounds strikingly like Manning, who was famously photographed submerging his sprained ankle in a tub while following the team's practice with a helmet on his head and an iPad in hand. His preparation and demanding nature have been well-documented since he left Tennessee and arrived at a pre-draft meeting with the Colts with a list of questions for team executives. The renaissance he has crafted in the two seasons since his neck injury has boosted his already lofty legend, but the meticulousness of his preparation has remained intact. In Indianapolis, he would text or email teammates and coaches with ideas of what would work for the upcoming opponent, and their responsibility was to find plays that might counter Manning's suppositions. (One of those coaches described it as being part of Manning's research and development team.) Manning's habits have elevated the Broncos the way they once elevated the Colts.
"Just Peyton's attention to detail, that's probably what separates him from other guys and other people that have played this game," tight end Julius Thomas said. "Every day, I see how much he prepares, I see the little things that he does to make sure he's on top of his game. I try to recreate that in my preparation. I always say if anybody can have the attention to detail that Peyton has in whatever they do in life, you're going to have a great chance to be successful."
Last week, Wilson said that what stuck with him from his days as a prep star at Manning's passing camp was what a perfectionist Manning was, how many notes Manning took, how much detail he talked about. Wilson said he tries to use that in his own game, to do all the little things.
"If you can find the guy that, once he makes his big score, is going to work harder than even before then, you'll be OK," said Gil Brandt, who scouted both Manning and Wilson before they were drafted. "That's what Manning has done; it's what (Tom) Brady has done. That's what this guy has done."