There’s not many people that respect Peyton Manning more than I do, so this is not said lightly: Walk away. After Sunday’s Super Bowl the debate over a potential return has grown into its own hot take. But it was only weeks ago – maybe days ago – that it was all too obvious there was nothing left to return for.
After his 2014 campaign you could argue Peyton was far from washed up (which I did). Despite a lethargic final month and a grisly playoff loss to the Colts, Manning threw for 4,700 yards and 39 TDs (second-most in the league). His passer rating was 101.5, one of the highest of his career. It didn’t look like the symphony he used to orchestrate in Indy, but he was still as effective as almost any quarterback out there. And Peyton was only a calendar year removed from one of the greatest seasons ever by a quarterback, his ever mind-boggling 5,500 yards and 55 touchdowns in ’13.
Critics howled he should walk away right there, drag his old ass out of the stadium, and stop embarrassing himself. But being a top three passer in the league was undignified? The playoff loss was ugly, but everyone on the Broncos looked lost in an Ambien haze. It’s why John Fox was canned ten minutes after the game. How could you pinpoint Peyton as the lone culprit?
This season though, left no doubts. The Sheriff (a conveniently-timed nickname that seemed to only spring to life in the two-week run-up to the Super Bowl) ran out of bullets. The zip wasn’t there, the ability to thread the seam had dissolved, the total control of the chessboard was gone. The Broncos offense in the playoffs looked like a 6-year-old smashing Tonka trucks together. C.J. Anderson into the line. Anderson into the line again. Bubble screen to Emmanuel Sanders. Punt.
Even when Peyton’s instinct told him to throw downfield he stopped trusting his arm. Corners were closing too fast, passes were too wobbly, every throw was a balloon about to get plucked. I picked the Broncos to beat the Panthers all last week. I knew that monstrously aggressive defense could frustrate Cam Newton just like it had Tom Brady and many other elite gunslingers this season. But I also knew that Peyton wouldn’t have a big game. He simply couldn’t. It wasn’t physically possible.
I connected the dots to John Elway’s first championship. He handed the ball off to Terrell Davis and got out of the way to beat the Packers in ’97. Peyton threw passes into the stands and got out of the way for Von Miller and co. to beat Carolina. They both had less than 150 passing yards in their Super Bowl wins. Elway actually came back for another title run in ’98, and earned the MVP trophy with a sublime performance against the Falcons. But that’s not realistic for Peyton in ’16.
The Broncos have already made up their mind, which is why Archie blurted out Sunday night this was it for his son in Denver. Elway wants to move into the Brock Osweiler Era, and he knows they squeezed every last drop of juice out of the Peyton orange. Magic Johnson is trying to woo Manning on late night talk shows to come play in L.A. The Rams would likely love the instant buzz of having a living legend putting on the horns and giving some Hollywood excitement to its new/old team. But there’s just no water left in the fish tank for Peyton. That experiment would end just like another icon finishing out his playing days in the bright SoCal sunlight.
In 1977 a bruised and battered Joe Namath left the Jets to become a Ram. He had no knees, no back, no anything left. Just hunched shoulders and a legacy. He played in four games for L.A., threw three touchdowns, five interceptions, and then hung ’em up. This would almost assuredly be Peyton next year. Health and medicine are better nowadays. Manning’s ’15 is far superior to Namath’s ’76 (1,090 yards, 4 scores, 1-7 record in 8 starts). But there would be no happy ending, nothing besides a little glitz on his way out, a few Sundays where we wondered if Peyton still had some magic. And the inevitable crummy answer every Monday morning.
I hate telling Hall of Fame athletes when it’s time to go since it’s their lives, not ours to decide. They’ve earned the right to make that decision, to hang on for a few more opportunities to feel the rush, the energy, the camaraderie, the competition before it’s gone for good. But Peyton’s ending is too perfect, too karmically symmetrical right now. This was the first time in his brilliant 18-year-career that his team picked him up, instead of the other way around. He rode it to a Super Bowl, now it’s time for the Sheriff to ride on out of town.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.