In the world of football, the name Manning is legendary. Peyton and Eli Manning are renowned for their combined four Super Bowl championships, individual accolades and big-game performances. But the 15-year NFL career of their father, Archie, was filled with hardships, failures and what-ifs with the New Orleans Saints, Houston Oilers and Minnesota Vikings.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way for the Drew, Mississippi-native, selected with the second overall pick in the 1971 NFL draft by the Saints.

Archie Manning had a stellar career at the University of Mississippi, where he was first-team All-American and fourth in the Heisman Trophy race in 1969. In a game that season against Alabama—the first broadcast on television in prime time—Manning threw for 436 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 104 yards. Mississippi lost, 33-32, but the high-profile performance put Manning on the map. Known for his toughness, he played the 1971 Gator Bowl with a broken left arm.

Archie Manning Earns Win in First NFL Start

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 30: Quarterback Archie Manning #8 of the New Orleans Saints drops back to pass during a game against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on November 30, 1975 in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland won 17-16. (Photo by Ron Kuntz Collection/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
Photo by Ron Kuntz Collection/Diamond Images via Getty Images
New Orleans Saints QB Archie Manning, scrambling against the Cleveland Browns in 1975, also played for the Houston Oilers and Minnesota Vikings. 

Manning’s rookie year with the Saints in 1971 started auspiciously enough. Although he said before the season that he “didn’t think a little internship” was out of line, Archie started in the opener, running for the winning score on the final play in a 24-20 victory over the perennial NFC powerhouse Los Angeles Rams. (Peyton started his first game as a rookie with the Indianapolis Colts in 1998; Eli didn’t start until Week 11 of his rookie season with the New York Giants in 2004.)

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The surprise victory stoked optimism for the Saints, who had 14 wins, 40 losses and two ties in their first four seasons in the NFL. “Too often writers use the word ‘great’ a bit carelessly,” wrote Bob Roesler of the Times-Picayune of New Orleans in 1971. “But when it is attached to Manning’s name it becomes, well, it is not strong enough.”

But there was to be only one other major highlight during Archie Manning’s rookie season. After two losses that bookended a tie against the Houston Oilers, Manning threw for a touchdown and ran for two more as New Orleans defeated eventual Super Bowl champion Dallas for the first time, 24-14.

“I’m sure the victory meant a lot more to the players who have been around longer than I have,” said Manning, known for his modesty.

That victory would be the last positive note in what was otherwise a dismal, painful rookie season—one that foreshadowed the rest of Manning’s Saints career.

Takes Punishment for Lowly New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning looks to pass in a 41-3 loss to the Washington Redskins on September 21, 1975 at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Nate Fine/Getty Images)
Nate Fine/Getty Images
Archie Manning, facing pressure during a loss to Washington in 1975, never had a winning season with the New Orleans Saints.

After the Dallas game, a Saints front office employee told an Alabama newspaper that to be great, Manning must stay healthy and in the pocket. By that point in the season, he had been sacked 26 times and hit countless other times. In his injury-riddled rookie season, he was sacked a league-high 40 times and finished with only three wins as starter.

Constant punishment were the main themes of Manning’s career, and while teammates and opponents lauded his toughness, the pounding took its toll. Manning was sacked 43 times in his second season, again a league-high mark, and he topped the league in that dubious category in 1975, with 49.

Manning was sacked 340 times during his Saints career—Brett Favre holds the NFL record with 525—and missed the entire 1976 season after having surgery on his right shoulder. Injuries weren’t the only major negative in Manning’s career. He was unsuccessful as a starter—New Orleans never had a winning record in any of his 11 seasons with the team. The Saints’ best finish with Manning was an 8-8 record in 1979.

Manning, who finished his NFL career in 1984 with the Vikings, had 35 wins, 101 losses and three ties as a starter. His .263 winning percentage remains the worst in league history for quarterbacks with at least 100 starts.

Surrounded by superior talent compared to their father, Peyton—a 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame class member—finished his 17-year career with a 186-79 record with the Colts and Denver Broncos; Eli, who played all 16 seasons in the NFL with the Giants, finished with a 117-117 record. Peyton (two) and Eli (seven), who also starred at Mississippi, had nine losing seasons in a combined 33 seasons in the league.

Unlike his sons, who played in a combined 39 playoff games, Archie Manning never played in the postseason. He was one of the few players to last a decade or more in the NFL without making a playoff appearance.

“I guess I could be over in Drew raising pigs,” Manning, reflecting on his career, told a Mississippi newspaper in 1984. “Really, a lot of good things have happened. It’s been a good trip, and I’ve enjoyed it.”

Just not as much as his sons enjoyed theirs.