Peyton Manning is playing better than any other quarterback in the NFL in 2012, and there is a lot of evidence to prove it.
The problem is, after his year off, we might be too interested in monitoring how far "back" he is to realize it.
It could remind you a little of another triumphant return. Remember when Michael Jordan announced just how "back" he was after a self-imposed exile to Double-A baseball? It happened in Madison Square Garden on March 28, 1995, two weeks into his comeback. Jordan looked like the scorer of old as he torched the Knicks for 55 points, but the game was won when, with his team tied late, Jordan drove the lane and, instead of elevating over Patrick Ewing for the game-winning shot, dished the ball off to an open Bill Wennington for a game-winning layup.
While MJ proved he still had nearly every skill that had made him previously unstoppable, there also was at least the question of whether this was some new player, a cagier veteran who, while still brilliant, was more cognizant of some newly realized limitations. It had been two years. And even MJ hinted at it, saying after the game, "My first notion was to shoot it. I would be lying if I said I was going to pass the ball. I was going to make them stop me, but I was able to get the ball to the open man."
Self-aware MJ would have been a good storyline, but it didn't last because it couldn't. The days went on, and it was the same Jordan -- a me-first scorer at heart but also a win-at-all-costs competitor just resourceful enough to realize when that alpha status could be a tool for deception. It was the same player who, on his final play before that exile, had driven the lane late and dished the ball off, allowing John Paxson to seal a championship.
Now cut to Peyton.
While we busily debate what he has left, he is on pace to throw for more than 4,800 yards -- more than he has ever thrown in a season. While we monitor his progress, he also leads the NFL in Total QBR, and if you drop a six-minute stretch against Atlanta during which he tossed three of his four interceptions on the season, he'd be well ahead in passer rating, too (currently second).
Yes, it's early, but Manning is playing as well as he ever has, particularly in the context of how it's being done. But we're caught up in a different form of evaluation, just as we were ever so briefly with MJ, gauging his current performance against the past.
Just consider how we're judging Manning -- and what we're missing.