Of all Peyton Manning’s many remarkable career statistics, this one may be the most remarkable of them all:
When Manning inevitably announces his retirement sometime over the next few days or weeks, he will become only the second Hall-of-Fame-caliber quarterback in NFL history to have gone out on top, with a Super Bowl victory in his last game, with the storied sunset beckoning, with no more worlds to conquer.
John Elway was, of course, the other one. And the fact that it was Elway who recruited Manning here, with just that promise, makes it a storybook ending on top of a storybook ending on top of, yes, a storybook ending.
Elway had to agonize before deciding to retire. You may remember his Hamlet-in-a-helmet tour. But Manning, who’s at the end of his contract, won’t have that problem. The Broncos have already said they’re moving in, you know, another direction. And no other team will pay a then-40-year-old-with-no-feeling-in-his-fingertips the kind of money that superstar quarterbacks who sing Nationwide jingles routinely earn.
Manning has no choice but to retire. In a Super Bowl that was supposed to match Manning, in his fading glory, with Cam Newton, in his nascent brilliance, we saw instead the NFL reveal itself in a sack-filled, quarterback-stripping tribute to ferocious defense. It was a violent reminder of the NFL’s problem with violent collisions, probably the last thing the league needed. In any case, Manning completed just 13 of 23 passes for 141 yards — not even a good half by Manning standards — to go with an interception, a fumble and five sacks. Newton fared little better.
But certainly Manning understands, as few understand, the way in which he now gets to frame the moment — how he won his second Super Bowl on guts, while dragging his famous right arm with him all the way to glory. What better ending?
When Elway was hired to become the Broncos’s general manager, some wise guy — OK, it was me — wrote of the great potential for small-t tragedy. No one, I wrote, gets two happy endings in life, not even born-to-be quarterbacks like Elway. There are limits, I said, and life, if you’re not careful, will make you pay for hubris.
I was wrong, of course. Very wrong. In four years, Elway has guided his Broncos to two Super Bowls, winning one, and now he not only has (sports-style) heroics to his resume, but also claims to being a (sports-style) genius. And Elway got there by making two incredibly risky decisions. The first was in winning the war to get Manning, who was set free by the Indianapolis Colts after those four neck surgeries, allowing Elway his one chance to dump the much-loved, if much-overrated-by-his-fans, Tim Tebow. And the second was in reducing Manning’s role when Elway saw, after the 43-8 Super Bowl loss to Seattle, that he needed more than the record-setting gunslinger to win another Super Bowl.
And so he fired a coach who had just won 13 games, hired a defensive coordinator who had been out of a job for a year, spent every dime he could find (including a few he forced Manning to return to him) on defensive talent and built a more balanced offense and, more importantly, the best defense in the league. The defense owned the game, while making a claim as one of the best defensive teams in memory.
And there you have it: Manning, maybe the greatest quarterback of them all, who revolutionized the game, goes out top as a complementary player, as masterminded by one of the league’s other great quarterbacks, one who lost three Super Bowls before winning his last two.
Elway was also injured in his last season, but he never lost his job. If Manning did briefly lose his, it was only to make the story better once he got it back. He was booed, too, and maybe for the same reason. As we got to Super Sunday, though, no one with any respect for how storybook narrative works could have thought that Manning would go out any other way than with a victory (meaning you had to take the points).
You saw it play out in the awards ceremony. The MVP was either Von Miller or Beyoncé — both had stolen their part of the show – and Miller got his on-the-podium interview, as did Elway, but, in the end, it was Manning, after his night of often unsightly struggle, getting the final word.
That’s because Manning was the story — his life and his times and his ending. He can thank Elway and the defense for that. He can hope that he’s walking away without the game having done him any permanent damage. He can know that he’s walking away with two Super Bowl rings.
But even though Manning said he needs time to reflect on his future, we can be sure he has already made up his mind. Because in spite of his promise to drink a lot of Budweiser after the game, Peyton Manning knows, as some would say, exactly what he’s doing.