When Peyton Manning was first grappling with the neck injury that would send his career on a stunning detour, he had a secret throwing session with his former college teammate, Todd Helton. Helton was playing for Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies and, in a bit of irony that would become apparent only much later, he offered the team’s training facilities in Denver for Manning to use during the NFL’s 2011 lockout.
Those passes, thrown at the Rockies’ indoor batting cages — the better to be out of sight, the way Manning wanted it — nosedived so dramatically that Helton thought Manning was playing a joke. He was not, Manning told him. The injury had sapped his arm strength, withered his triceps, sent his football future into very real doubt. The spinal fusion surgery would follow just a few months later and, not long after that, Manning’s excruciating divorce from the Indianapolis Colts.
Manning was already in his mid-30s by then, a respectable retirement age for anybody who had endured brutal NFL Sundays, and certainly for one of the greatest quarterbacks in history. Even Manning and those closest to him were not sure then if he would ever be able to play again, if the strength and sensation in his prized right arm would regenerate enough to return to him the touch and accuracy that fashioned so many masterpiece games, that made him one of the most dominant players in all of football.
There had always been a storybook quality, not always happy but unfailingly compelling, to Manning’s career. We have watched Manning — born to football royalty, growing up as the heir apparent — since he was a high schooler in New Orleans. The soaring successes of one breathtaking game after another, the dramatic failures in the playoffs, the first championship, the debilitating injury, the recovery, the magnificent 2013 season (when Manning gave football one last glimpse of his dominance), the late-career yearning for a second title, the physical breakdowns that shadowed him near the end.
And then, in his final season, maybe the most stirring and captivating turn in all those years. The change of coach, the forced pay cut, the adjustment to a new, unfamiliar offense that did not center around him, the injury that sent him to the bench, the thought that the last of his passes had already been witnessed without anyone even realizing it, the stunning return to the lineup. The stretch run, when Manning — who had carried so many teams, with so many players, for nearly two decades — was carried across the finish line by a smothering defense.
Just before Super Bowl 50 kicked off, Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who would be the game’s Most Valuable Player, told Manning he was glad he was his quarterback. Manning, though, might have been even happier that Miller was his pass rusher.
Four years after his return from the injury, the day that Manning and his inner circle feared might have come more immediately, accompanied by that faint scar on the back of his neck, has arrived — an exit from the NFL forced upon Manning by an accumulation of physical maladies, by a waning of his effectiveness, by a team already in the throes of moving on and away from him but triumphant nonetheless. With another Lombardi Trophy in his grasp, Manning has a departure befitting the extraordinariness of his career and his long-lasting impact on the game, sprinkled with confetti, riding off in a parade cheered by millions. It is fitting that his final pass was for a score — a two-point conversion in the Super Bowl.
After 18 professional seasons, after four Super Bowl appearances with four different coaches, Manning finally announced what had seemed inevitable for months and what seemed certain by the time he held his 4-year-old twins in his arms on the Levi’s Stadium field — that he would retire with the rarest gift sports gives even its greatest superstars.
Manning was the center of attention, including the kind he surely did not want, until the very end. His final weeks in the NFL were shadowed by an Al Jazeera America report that HGH had been sent to Manning’s wife. Manning has strongly denied the suggestion that he might have taken a performance enhancing drug — he called the story “garbage” — but the NFL said it was investigating. Then, days after his final game, a 20-year-old incident from the University of Tennessee — in which Manning was accused by a former athletic trainer of sexually assaulting her — resurfaced as part of a sweeping lawsuit recently filed that alleges the school’s athletic department has condoned a “hostile sexual environment” stretching back to the mid-1990s. At the time of the alleged incident, Manning denied the sexual assault allegation and described the event as mooning a teammate. The incident was settled by the university, although the athletic trainer later sued Manning when he described her, in a book, as having a “vulgar mouth.” That suit was settled. Manning has not commented on the lawsuit against the University of Tennessee.
As for his on-field legacy, Manning retires with a record 200 victories — the last one, the one that gave him the record for quarterbacks, came in the Super Bowl. He spent his prime years in Indianapolis and his final four seasons in Denver, but he won championships for both teams, one as the unquestioned fulcrum of the franchise, the other as a complementary, if still compelling, part.
Until his neck injury cost him the entire 2011 season, Manning had missed just one snap because of injury — a broken jaw — in his career. But the triumphant departure crafted by the Broncos — and meticulously constructed by John Elway and Gary Kubiak — could not obscure the obvious: that Manning’s body could no longer withstand the beating the game imposes. And that even his brilliance at manipulating defenses at the line of scrimmage could not make up for the physical vulnerabilities that were apparent to everyone. Manning himself acknowledged it at the Super Bowl: that he might not have been what he once was, but that he could still move the chains, a diminution in responsibility that was in stark contrast to the reliance on him his teams had always had.
His final season began forgettably, and only through a too-unexpected-to-script series of turns did it ultimately become memorable. Manning threw seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in the first six games. That was surely, in part, because Denver was transitioning to a new offense under Kubiak — his hiring last offseason and his desire to implement an offense at odds with Manning’s skill set was a clear sign that the Broncos already were preparing for life without Manning — and Manning would later say that his notable early inaccuracy was the product of his indecision. But others thought they detected a significant decrease in arm strength that, because of Manning’s own uncertainty about what he was seeing, could no longer be concealed by Manning’s formidable mental mastery of the game.
Manning’s brain had always been his greatest weapon, and it is what will define his impact on the game. He changed the way quarterback was played, taking complete command of the offense from the shotgun position, changing plays, directing traffic, dissecting defenses — an approach that others like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers later adapted and perfected. It was the diligence of his preparation, and Manning’s love for that grind, that even his peers cited as influential.
Adversaries like Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing said that, at the height of Manning’s career, opponents could tell just from looking at Manning when he had deciphered what an opposing defense was trying to do — and they knew he would slice through them from then on. Quarterbacking brethren like Hall of Famer Dan Marino said no signal caller had ever maintained as much control over the game as Manning had.
But Manning had, in fact, anticipated that struggles would accompany the change to Kubiak’s offense, and they were exacerbated by a makeshift offensive line that was beset by injury and inexperience. The Broncos remained unbeaten through the first six weeks of the 2015 season in spite of Manning, not because of him — an unfathomable turn of events for a player who had been a dominant force practically since the moment he entered the league as the first overall pick in 1998 from Tennessee.
Those first games this past fall, combined with the $4 million pay cut Manning was forced to take before the 2015 season began, fueled the belief — never confirmed — that the campaign was Manning’s unannounced retirement tour. When he threw four interceptions in rapid succession in a Week 10 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, and a partial tear of the plantar fascia in his left foot was revealed, Manning was replaced by Brock Osweiler in a painful and sudden changing of the guard. After the game, even Manning admitted that he had hurt his team by playing.
All that was forgotten with the second Super Bowl championship, though. It was surely the defense that won it, but years from now, few will remember that Manning completed just 13 passes and had no touchdowns and an interception, just as almost nobody recalls that Elway completed just 12 passes when he finally won his first Super Bowl near the end of his career. That Manning’s postseason record had been regarded as the only smudge on his otherwise-sterling résumé is a testament to the outsized expectations that have accompanied Manning since he was little more than one of the three princes of New Orleans’ royal football family — Archie Manning’s middle son, the most sought-after recruit coming out of high school whose decision to eschew his father’s alma mater, Mississippi, in favor of Tennessee provoked no small amount of intrigue and outrage.
There was plenty of both when Manning, already a national star as a college junior, decided not to enter the NFL draft but to return to Tennessee to try to win a national championship and Heisman Trophy, in the process altering the fortunes of multiple franchises — most notably the New York Jets, who held the first pick in the year that Manning did not come out. When he did finally enter the draft in 1998 — without either the championship or the Heisman — he became one half of one of the most ardently debated choices in draft history.
Ryan Leaf, another Heisman runner-up, was believed to have the better arm and athletic ability, and a higher ceiling. Manning had the greater intangibles and football intelligence, a fully formed quarterback prepared mentally and emotionally for the rigors of the NFL. He had shown up at his interview with the Colts during the NFL Scouting Combine armed with a legal pad and questions of his own: What offense could they run? What were the plans for roster construction? Many scouts, still enamored with the measurables, tilted toward Leaf, but the Colts‘ general manager then, Bill Polian, had gone to see Manning work out at Tennessee and saw tight spirals being zipped to receivers. He knew two weeks before the draft that he would select Manning, but when Polian brought Manning to Indianapolis for a final physical and told him he would let him know his pick before he left for draft day in New York, Manning responded with a quotation that will long be part of his lore.
“If you pick me, I guarantee you that we will win a championship and we’ll have a great program here,” Polian has recalled Manning saying. “If you don’t, I’ll come back and I’ll kick your ass.”
He was not wrong. The Colts did pick Manning, and after a dismal first year — in which he threw 28 interceptions (he still reminds people of that when young quarterbacks struggle) and the Colts went 3-13 — he delivered playoff berths nearly every year. He became one of the NFL’s biggest stars, a ubiquitous pitchman who was also one of the league’s most consistently compelling players. Almost from the beginning, Manning took control of much of the offensive game planning, and he was given broad latitude to change plays. In 2001, the Colts began to run the no-huddle offense almost exclusively. Manning thrived in it immediately — he threw for more than 4,100 yards and had 26 touchdown passes, and the offense scored the second-most points in the league that season. But in the first example of a problem that would become a recurring issue for the Colts during Manning’s era there, the defense gave up the most points.
Still, Manning’s mastery of the offense was such that, in the 13 years he played in Indianapolis, the attack finished the season ranked in the top five in scoring nine times. He became known for his arm-flapping, “Omaha”-barking orchestration at the line of scrimmage, and his study habits became the stuff of legend. He formulated the game plans in Indy to such a degree that Frank Reich, who served for a time as Manning’s quarterbacks coach, said he and others in a small circle of coaches and players served as Manning’s research and development team each week.
“I knew that’s where I was going to try to gain some type of edge,” Manning said in 2010. “I knew I wasn’t going to run away from guys or throw through three guys. My idea was to try to have a good sense of where they were going to be. I never left the field saying, ‘I could have done more to get ready for this team.’ “
Manning became the most popular and marketable player in the NFL — and the immense attention he commanded made the Colts one of the game’s most consistent draws. Lucas Oil Field, the gleaming stadium in which the Colts play, is dubbed “The House that Peyton Built” because it is hard to imagine it would have been constructed — and that it would have hosted a Super Bowl — had the game’s biggest star not played in Indianapolis.
But year after year, the ultimate prize eluded him. The Colts lost in each of Manning’s first six trips to the playoffs — in 2003, to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, but four other times in Indy’s first game of the postseason. The loss following the 2005 season was particularly jarring. The Colts had been the best team in the league all year, starting the season 13-0 before finally losing. They finished with a 14-2 record and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, but lost at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional Round.
In 2006, the Colts finally prevailed, winning one playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, incongruously, on the strength of their otherwise-porous defense, and then beating the Patriots in a conference championship that might be the most memorable of Manning’s duels with Brady — with Indianapolis roaring back from a 21-3 deficit to prevail with a classic hurry-up drive with two minutes remaining that gave the Colts their first lead of the game. When they beat the Chicago Bears in the pouring rain in Miami at Super Bowl XLI, Manning was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
The postseason disappointment quickly returned, though. In 2007, the Colts finally had a top-five defense to match their top-five offense, but they again lost their first playoff game.
Still, the effect Manning had on his opponents could be summed up in one odd game and two stunning play calls from the 2009 season. In a Week 2 contest against the Miami Dolphins, the Colts held the ball for less than 15 minutes, with the Dolphins executing to perfection the best defense against Manning: keeping him off the field. But 14 minutes, 53 seconds proved to be plenty of time for Manning to win the game. A couple of months later, with the Colts hosting the Patriots, Bill Belichick made one of the most scrutinized decisions of his own career, opting to go for the first down on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line while holding a six-point lead with little more than two minutes to go. The play fell a yard short, and Manning did what Belichick knew he would do: He led the Colts on the winning touchdown drive. Then, in the second Super Bowl of Manning’s career at the end of that season, Sean Payton called for an onside kick at the beginning of the second half of the game, to steal a possession from Manning. The Saints recovered the ball and went on to win — a crushing loss for the favored Colts that was not closed out until Manning, while trying to lead a game-tying drive late, was intercepted deep in New Orleans territory, and Tracy Porter returned it for a touchdown.
It seemed, for a long time, to have been the closest Manning would get to winning a second championship. And it was the last game before the injury that altered the course of his career.
Manning and his former coach, Tony Dungy, said the neck was first injured when it was wrenched in a game against the Washington Redskins in 2006. The ailment would occasionally get aggravated, but — as the on-field results indicated — it was never anything serious. Then, Manning was hurt again in the 2010 opener against the Houston Texans and later admitted that he played with some pain in 2010 and did not have his usual arm strength. His completion percentage dipped slightly, but Manning still threw for 4,700 yards that season. The Colts lost in the first round of the playoffs again.
Then began Manning’s odyssey through four surgeries to repair his neck, his fevered attempts to try to return during the season and his awkward, protracted separation from the Colts. The franchise had enjoyed an unusual luxury with Manning’s durability up to that point, and the front office had never spent much time or money on a backup. But when it became clear as the 2011 season was about to begin that Manning could not play, the Colts bottomed out, starting Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins in his absence.
The fallout was swift and brutal. The Colts won just two games that year, Polian and head coach Jim Caldwell were fired, and when it became apparent that they would be in position to select quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Manning’s hope to spend his career with just one team was thrust into doubt. With no way to predict how much and when his arm strength would return, Manning’s viability as a starting quarterback was unknown.
Manning has said he might have been the last person to understand that the Colts were going to release him. When they did, both Manning and owner Jim Irsay were in tears. And just like that, Manning reached another superlative: He became the most sought-after free agent in NFL history, placing him at the center of a whirlwind. Television helicopters followed him in Miami; Jim Harbaugh watched him work out at Duke under cover of darkness and a hoodie; Manning visited with the Titans and gave the brush-off to a flirtation from the Jets.
But it was Elway, who had won two championships late in his own playing career and was desperate to move on from Tim Tebow, who made Manning feel most comfortable. He, perhaps alone among football executives, could anticipate what Manning was going to go through, on the field and in his head.
By the time he alighted on Denver less than a year after Helton bore witness to Manning’s futility, the quarterback’s arm had returned. Not to what it had once been — Manning would joke later that he had thrown plenty of passes that wobbled in his career, and plenty of touchdowns that wobbled, too — but to something close enough to convince Elway that Manning and the Broncos could win a Super Bowl together.
Manning’s passes didn’t nosedive with the Broncos in 2013. In fact, he put together one more remarkable out-of-the-ashes season, in which he threw a league-record 55 touchdown passes, won a record fifth Most Valuable Player award and took the Broncos to the Super Bowl. But the pummeling he and the Broncos took at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII might have been, in hindsight, the beginning of the end for Manning. He had been healthy and brilliant that season, but it was the last time he could remain that way for an entire season, the ravages of age and injury finally, irrevocably, taking a toll. His play dropped off markedly in the second half of the 2014 campaign, when he suffered a torn quadriceps. The Broncos were eliminated in their first playoff game, ironically by the Colts.
But Elway’s thinking after that was informed by his own experience. With the window practically slamming shut on the Manning era, Elway fired John Fox and brought in his long-time friend and former backup (Kubiak) to refashion the Broncos into a team that more closely resembled the one Elway won with than the ones Manning had led all those years.
“There’s been a lot of that, thinking about what I went through, the transformation of our football team especially offensively, to have more balance, to play good defense,” Elway said in the days leading up to the Super Bowl. “There’s no question that formula worked; that was something I had in my mind, no question, to be able to take some pressure off Peyton, to be able to take advantage of everything Peyton could do, but also to take some of the load off him the older he got.”
There was a last flash of his virtuosity against the Green Bay Packers in Week 8, when Manning summoned a few more deep passes and the accuracy that had long marked his career. But that was the final glimpse of that Manning. And when, against the Chiefs, at home, Manning threw four picks, the Broncos had — at least at the moment — seen enough. It came, ironically, just a few hours after Manning had broken Brett Favre’s record for passing yards, but it came nonetheless. Manning was benched in the third quarter as his team was being shut out, in favor of Osweiler.
Maybe it was the rib injury, or the painful foot, or just Father Time, but it was clear then that Manning would have to exit the scene he had dominated for 18 years. But Kubiak, who had been the offensive coordinator who had shepherded Elway to his championships, told an associate that, even with Manning on the bench healing and the Broncos winning with Osweiler, there was still a chance for a fairy-tale ending.
It seemed a long shot — until the offense started sputtering late in the regular season with Osweiler, too. Elway knew that the defense was Super Bowl-caliber from training camp, and it had helped rack up enough victories that the Broncos still entered the final game of the regular season with the chance to wrap up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That was the first game since early in Manning’s college career for which he suited up as a backup — a clipboard-carrying shadow of himself. Manning was surprised when, midway through the third quarter of the regular-season finale, with the Broncos trailing the Chargers 13-7, Kubiak told him to go into the game. Osweiler hadn’t been playing poorly — his receivers were dropping passes, his running back fumbling — but Kubiak sensed the Broncos needed the jolt of confidence and experience that Manning alone could inspire.
That game was, perhaps, the greatest contribution Manning made to the Broncos this season. He completed just five passes but led four scoring drives. The Broncos won. They had home-field advantage. And they had Manning back for one last stretch run.
In five years,Manning will be a lock to go into the Hall of Fame, and he will be remembered as having played his position at a higher level than it had ever been played before, for revolutionizing offensive football. There has been speculation about what his future holds. Manning already owns a number of Papa John’s restaurants, remains close to the University of Tennessee, has ties to Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and, because he is deeply respected by players and management alike, will have his choice of options in a football front office or in television if he wants them.
And at some point, probably very soon, the nearly two decades of spectacular play will overwhelm the more recent, gaze-averting images of the last few months. A fuller appreciation of his staggering career will then be possible, a step removed from the immediate dissection of his final few games, however victorious they were, much as we now look upon Manning’s own idol, Johnny Unitas.
The second championship was the perfect, poetic ending, and it allowed Manning a final extraordinary record: No quarterback had ever won Super Bowls with two different teams. In doing so, his career finally seemed whole. Even in his twilight, as the seasons dwindled and other quarterbacks began to eclipse him on the field, Manning remained what he had been since NFL teams first began to covet him, since defenses first feared him, since he started to bend offenses to his will.
Always the one to watch.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.