Because this is sports, and in sports – unlike life — anything is possible, John Elway probably believed what he said when he was recruiting Peyton Manning to come play for the Broncos.
You know the story. Elway told Manning that he’d do whatever he could to ensure that he’d end his storied career in the same way that Elway had ended his — with a Super Bowl victory. It would be a chance, Manning must have decided, at redemption, if that’s not too strong a word for it.
And so it has come to pass. In what will probably be Manning’s final season, the Broncos are back in the Super Bowl — for the second time in Manning’s four Broncos’ seasons — and Manning, at age 39, has the chance to do that ride-off-into-the-sunset thing.
But in sports — just as in life — nothing really goes the way you planned.
As the Broncos head off to Super Bowl 50, it comes at the end of a season Manning likes to call “unique,” if not in a good way. You saw it. He was hurt. He was benched. He was booed. He was asked to take a pay cut. He was given a new coach who brought with him a reworked offense that, yes, de-emphasized the quarterback. And that wasn’t even the worst of it: In an al-Jazeera report, Manning was accused of having used Human Growth Hormone.
For the ultimate quarterback with the stratospheric Q rating and the spotless reputation, it had all gone terribly wrong, and not just for having to spend the year humming that Nationwide Insurance jingle.
Two years ago, he broke nearly every NFL passing record in leading the Broncos to the Super Bowl, which they would go on to lose by 38 points. This year, he is a game manager who would come off the bench to help the Broncos clinch home-field advantage, which they used more than Manning’s beaten-up body to beat Tom Brady and the hated Patriots in the AFC championship game.
It was the 17th meeting between Manning and Brady, in what must be the NFL’s greatest quarterback rivalry. Manning is arguably the game’s best regular-season quarterback, but one who also holds the dubious record for most postseason losses. He is a flawed hero whose flaw would only grow with each year’s pass at greatness (although with one Super Bowl victory on his resume). Was it Manning’s fault or the teams that he carried or did it matter? It’s a narrative that won’t let him go. It’s a narrative that Elway understands as well as anyone — until those final two Super Bowls changed everything.
Brady, meanwhile, is the postseason poster boy who saw a return to the Super Bowl this year as redemption for Deflategate, in which he was accused of cheating, which is very much part of the Patriots’ narrative.
Manning and Brady are different in nearly every way, except that each, in his own way, has come to define what it means to be a quarterback, which, in the NFL, is to say everything.
And yet, in beating the Patriots, Manning was a safe-and-cautious 17 for 32 for 176 yards. He had to be cautious. He’s lost his arm. He’s got problematic feet. He’s also got a problematic offensive line. The 17 for 32 for 176 yards was considered a good Manning game, which explains a lot. It’s all about brains and grit and even if Manning threw two touchdown passes, his most memorable moment saw him trundling 12 yards for a first down. Two years ago in the AFC championship game, also against the Patriots, Manning threw for 400 yards.
Brady, at age 38, was not beaten by Manning so much as by the Broncos’ ferocious defense. Still, it was Brady who led the comeback that nearly sent the game into overtime. Manning had to settle for being just good enough to win, which is exactly how the Broncos’ season has gone and also exactly how they have somehow gotten themselves back to the Super Bowl.
Manning hasn’t said whether he’s going to retire after this season. I’m going to guess he will, but, then, he didn’t walk away after those four neck surgeries. And he played this year when he said he didn’t have any feeling in his fingertips. Who knows what he’ll do.
But still it comes down to this: In two weeks, if Manning is just good enough to win the Super Bowl against the Carolina Panthers — who are 3 1/2 point favorites behind their Dabbing star quarterback, Cam Newton — he can choose to go out the way Elway did, just the way Elway promised, if not the way anyone drew it up.
Photo credit: Brad Kornfeld