Two words come to mind about Peyton Manning’s retirement:
Admiration for a career brilliantly played.
Relief that it ended as it should for a player of Manning’s stature and impact: on top.
Lots of athletes talk about going out like Manning did. Very few have the opportunity to do it that way. Most have the decision made for them — cut or traded or relegated to the bench.
“We’re all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children’s game,” the scout says in “Moneyball.” “Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40, but we’re all told.”
Manning’s body told him, two weeks shy of his 40th birthday, that it was time to go.
Clearly, he wrestled with the decision. That’s completely understandable. Completely human. The drive, competitiveness and ambition it takes to be as great a player as Manning has been for as long as he has been one makes it hard to walk away. Really, how do you go from having the moxie to quarterback a team to a Super Bowl victory in February to deciding that, seven months later, you aren’t going to be good enough to lead a team into the following season?
If Manning came back this fall, it likely wasn’t going to be with the Denver Broncos. General manager John Elway, the only quarterback to date to win a Super Bowl and then retire, was facing a deadline of Wednesday to decide whether to bring Manning back next season — at a price tag of $19 million, no less.
So if Manning were going to play this fall, he likely was going to be doing it for someone else. As their starter, perhaps, but maybe as their backup. A clear picture of faded glory at the end of an otherwise championship career, rotting away like a latter-day Unitas or Namath.
That picture was already starting to fade last season, actually. Manning was benched for part of it in favor of Brock Osweiler before regaining the starting job late in the season. And to be painfully blunt, the Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 not because of Manning’s legendary right arm, but because of Von Miller and Denver’s mile-high, oxygen-depriving defense.
The quality that made Peyton Manning one of the NFL’s all-time greats was not necessarily his arm but his vision, his decision-making ability, the knack for stepping up to the line and knowing what the enemy was scheming on defense as well as its players knew themselves. His ability to go under center and yell “Omaha!” and have it affect the type and direction of play his team would run was but a glimpse into the imagination and geometric logic he brought to the game.
Manning, ESPN’s John Clayton said, was as responsible as anyone for turning the NFL into the collection of passing-made teams it is today. He was one of those exceptionally rare talents who have the ability to change a sport just by the way he played it, conceived it and achieved within it — on his terms.
His was not a career we were privileged to witness, but an age.
Unfortunately, if Denver didn’t beat Carolina, his legacy would have been tarnished, a reflection in bronze more than the sterling silver of the Vince Lombardi Trophy. He would have been 1-3 in the Super Bowl and been shouted down as something less of a quarterback than he truly was, more in league with Fran Tarkenton and Jim Kelly for their big-game failures than with Joe Montana and Tom Brady, his archrival and greatest contemporary nemesis.
Fortunately, it won’t come to that. Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks can sometimes be dismissed as happy accidents, no matter how many games they win or regular-season yards they pile up. Win more than one, and somehow it’s a mandate, a validation of your career.
For Manning, it will be a career that simply ends, at a time and place of his choosing, not one that withers away. It’s human nature to remember the ending of things, not always all the shining moments that led up to it.
Manning gave us, and himself, the perfect ending. Now, Omaha goes back to being simply a city in Nebraska and a beach in Normandy.
Just in time.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.