Manning vs. Leaf: Dawn of a Mega Duel?

We have the spectacular dawning of a glorious new morn in the National Football League.

No, not just the beginning of another season but, rather, the initial stirrings of a huge confrontation between two mega-talented athletes - fresh-out-of-college quarterbacks Peyton Manning, No. 1 draft pick from Tennessee by the Indianapolis Colts, and Ryan Leaf, No. 2 draft pick from Washington State by the San Diego Chargers.

This is a perfect example of the sum being worth far more than its parts. Manning without Leaf or Leaf without Manning wouldn't arouse our anticipation - and our expectations - nearly as much as the two do together.

What will happen? There's a chance it will be a feast for our eyes for a decade. Dare we hope for even longer?

So it goes with twosomes. Mutt needed Jeff, Bogey needed Bacall, Lone Ranger needed Tonto, strawberries need cream, love needs marriage, yin needs yang.

In sports, it's even more dramatic. A great athlete can't prove it in a vacuum. He or she must have a contemporary someone to be measured against. It's necessary because the measuring against excellence is required for documented greatness. Without it, there are questions left in the minds of fans and an emptiness left in the heart of the athlete.

Example: If Michael Jordan lacks anything these days, it's competition. He has simply lapped the field which, as much as anything, is why he likely will just stop playing. What's the point of continuing?

Example: Olympic swimming superstar Mark Spitz, who swept the world in Munich in 1972, badly needed an alter ego.

Conversely, the sizzling battles between athletic greats that exploded across the world's landscape by day and dazzled in the skies by night have been riveting and defining.

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Even two stride-for-stride horses, Alydar and Affirmed.

Each one would have been diminished greatly without the other.

And there's one epic comparison battle just winding down: Bronco quarterback John Elway and Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino. Both were first-round draft picks in 1983. Elway, on the strength of finally getting a Super Bowl ring, probably has narrowly won the comparison derby. But Marino will forevermore be able to point to his statistical advantage in several areas.

What comparison does for us is give us higher appreciation. If you see but one mountain lake, you think it the most picturesque scene extant. But when you get to see hundreds of mountain lakes, including those where the snow in August still runs to water's edge, well, now you've got the proper basis for comparison.

And it looks as if we'll get it in spades with Manning and Leaf. It's ideal because their careers are exactly parallel and that makes for exquisitely delicious comparisons. When you have to jump eras in comparisons, it's less satisfying. Babe Ruth vs. Mark McGwire? Ty Cobb vs. Pete Rose? Joe Montana vs. Johnny Unitas?

And so, away go with Manning (who received a reported $48 million contract over six years) and Leaf (around $31 million for five years). This apparently is the new going rate for throwing spirals in generally intended directions on occasional Sunday afternoons in the fall.

Taking their entire NFL careers so far, which is to say one pre-season game, Leaf got out of the box fastest. He already has been named starter for the woeful Chargers (4-12 last season) and he says, "I hope it's not out of desperation." Well, it is. An organization is desperate by definition at 4-12. Charger general manager Bobby Beathard, arguably the best in the business, says of Leaf, "I think he's going to surprise some people." Yes, but as Wall Street knows, there are upside and downside surprises.

Leaf was poised and good in his team's 27-21 win over San Francisco - he actually played better than legendary Steve Young - as he led his team on two scoring drives.

All was not so cheery in Seattle where Peyton Manning debuted in his team's 24-21 loss to the Seahawks. Manning's first pro pass went for a touchdown, but then reality set in hard and fast as it usually does. "I need to play a little bit better," said Manning. Coach Jim Mora was an echo: "He didn't play good enough."

Leaf was 14-for-20, 116 yards. Manning was 8-for-15, 113 yards. Manning had one interception, Leaf none.

Let the comparisons continue.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail is: looneyd@csps.com

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