That’s got to be it for Peyton Manning, doesn’t it?
There is nothing left to prove, nothing to add to one of the greatest resumes in NFL history, no reason to step back onto the football field and subject his body to the rigors and the pain that come with playing his chosen sport. He’s got his second Super Bowl title. He’s got his 200th victory, bypassing Brett Favre as the winningest quarterback in history. He’s got virtually every passing record in the book.
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What else is there to do?
Just retire, relax and move toward his next career, which will probably involve partial ownership of an NFL team.
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This way, he leaves the way only one other Hall of Fame quarterback, his boss John Elway, has ever left the game. On top, with the confetti falling, with the music blaring, with the shimmering Vince Lombardi Trophy in his steady hands. Why mess with perfection? Was there a sequel to “Hoosiers’’? No, there wasn’t. There didn’t need to be. The story was told and the ending was perfectly, beautifully scripted, a fairy tale come to life.
After the game, sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson asked the question and play-by-play man Jim Nantz asked the question again on the stage: “Peyton, is this your last game?’’
Manning did exactly what I knew he would. He talked about having higher priorities, like kissing and hugging his wife and kids, then drinking a copious amount of Budweiser (the official beer of the NFL, of course), and then he would take the time to reflect and make a decision. Beyond that, there was no way Manning was going to steal this moment from his teammates, who – let’s be honest about this – carried him to his second Super Bowl victory, a 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
But we know what’s next. We know what the decision is going to be. I mean, don’t we? What possible reason would Manning have for returning to the game he’s graced for all these years? So he can play one last year for the Los Angeles Rams and sell a couple of tickets while losing games and taking a beating?
Manning is a student of football history. He knows where he stands now, and he’s got to be overjoyed about where he stands now, especially after the toughest season of his professional life. All year, he was dogged by injuries, then was benched and forced to watch while young Brock Osweiler started. But he got a second chance late in a game against the San Diego Chargers, then hung tough the rest of the way as the Broncos’ truly special defense led his team to a world championship.
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Manning didn’t do anything special this season or this post-season, but for the first time in his legendary career, he didn’t have to do anything special. The statistics are not the statistics of a Super Bowl champion: 13-for-23 for 141 yards and one interception. But he is blessed by one of the great defenses this league has known in a long time. All he had to do was play it safe. There was one mistake, an awful decision and throw that was intercepted with the Broncos driving, but that was it. Even after that pick, the Denver defense stiffened and stopped Carolina. All those years, Manning had to be great to win these kinds of games. This year in Denver, he did not. He was a background singer. He was one of the Pips. And he seemed to accept that and ultimately revel in that.
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True, Carolina was awful. The turnovers, the penalties, the sacks they gave up and the dropped passes. But Denver forced a lot of that. Especially those pre-snap penalties, where the tackles continually moved early for fear of getting whipped by MVP Von Miller or Demarcus Ware.
Defense was preeminent Sunday night, and it usually is on Super Bowl Sunday. Twelve times, the No. 1 defense has played in a Super Bowl. Ten times, the team with the No. 1 defense won the Super Bowl. This Denver defense didn’t just stop any other team; they stopped the most explosive offensive team in the league, completely obliterated everything they tried to do. Just as they did to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round. Just as they did to New England in the AFC Championship Game.
As disappointing as the game was for Carolina, it was even more disappointing to watch Cam Newton, who’s been such a great face for his franchise and his league, act so churlishly in the post-game press conference. He is ordinarily fun and expansive, and while we all understand he was hugely disappointed after such a miserable game, a player who is your star and the voice of the team cannot act that way on such a big stage. Dismissive one- and two-word answers will not suffice for your star quarterback and the league’s MVP. Hopefully, he learns from this experience; I’m guessing he will.
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In the end, I’m happy for Pat Bowlen, one of the game’s great owners, who is now suffering with advanced Alzheimer’s and could not attend the game. I’m happy for head coach Gary Kubiak, who I got to know in Denver when he was Elway’s backup quarterback. I’m happy for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, another long-time Denver hand who used to be the Broncos’ head coach, who was unemployed last year and led the best defense in the league to a Super Bowl title this year.
Mostly, though, I’m happy – and most of Central Indiana is happy – for the old man, Peyton Manning. Sometime soon, and we don’t know when exactly, he will tell the world what we are all expecting, that his career is done. And so many fond memories will come flooding back, including that final memory of Manning walking off the field in Santa Clara as something we’ve always known him to be: A champion.