I never enjoyed the Mannings while they were quarterbacks. Everyone was always too eager to bow in front of Peyton’s throne just for breathing, and it was frustrating to watch Eli play some of the worst football you’ve ever seen, before bumbling his way into a Super Bowl. Their post-football transition into media darlings has felt forced and desperate, particularly through their association with ESPN, which wants to glom onto any famous athlete’s celebrity while they cut corners on hiring actual talent. And yet, on Monday night, I found myself once again absolutely delighted to be watching the Mannningcast, a show that feels like watching a friend’s uninteresting father accidentally make avant-garde comedy out of recapping a football game.
Last night was the best example of what makes the Manningcast work. After months of hype leading up to Aaron Rodgers’s big debut for the Jets, Peyton Manning could barely contain his excitement at seeing Rodgers on the field. After one errant throw, Rodgers took a sack and immediately went down, and you could see the life drain from Peyton’s face, half in confusion and half out of concern for how he was going to fill out an entire broadcast without being able to talk about Aaron Rodgers. He couldn’t even remember that Zach Wilson was still on the Jets, and like everyone else in in the stadium, hoped he’d only be around for a series.
Peyton’s panic was understandable, as it usually falls to him to bring most of the the analysis to the broadcast while Eli just kind of sits there, dopey-faced and slack-jawed, making as many snide remarks at Peyton’s expense as he can. While Peyton was stuck over seeing Rodgers go down, trying to fill airtime with his real-time reactions, Eli was almost stone-faced in shock, surmising what went wrong on the play and then laughing at Peyton for not knowing who the Jets’ backup was. Where Peyton really lost it, though, was upon seeing Rodgers get on the cart, at which point he realized that he was stuck watching Wilson for the rest of the night.
And boy, did Peyton Manning not enjoy watching Zach Wilson. His beef with Wilson didn’t feel personal, but it was impossible not to notice. The guy just can’t help but be disgusted by bad quarterback play.
The Mannings were similarly annoyed with each Josh Allen interception and bad decision, and it was clear that they were taking their frustration at not being able to watch Rodgers out on the players who were still on the field. Without Rodgers, the Mannings and their guests were forced to awkwardly vamp, which makes for objectively bad TV, but to such a degree in this case that it was undeniably amusing to watch. The inherently unprofessional nature of the broadcast, the Mannings’s often wooden delivery, and their attempts to do bits and relive their own highlights in ways that feel completely unrehearsed or workshopped all made for the perfect companion to a shocking and chaotic game like what we saw on Monday night. The anguished faces, the panicked dead air, the merciless roasting of Zach Wilson—all of it was entertaining and precisely what this game called for. It was the best kind of sports television.