So many of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks have said goodbye to the game in the wrong city.
Johnny Unitas hung ’em up in San Diego. Joe Montana bid farewell in Kansas City. Brett Favre, arguably the greatest Green Bay Packer of them all, held his final retirement press conference in the belly of one division rival’s stadium while playing for a Vikings team he tormented for most of his career.
Peyton Manning officially announced his retirement Monday in Denver, far from Indianapolis and Lucas Oil Stadium, the place where he put himself in the company of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game.
But he still got to say goodbye at home. Manning founded his legacy in Indianapolis; Denver gave him an opportunity to cement his place among the very best.
“There’s not a guy in the NFL that can walk away and say, ‘I have done everything that can possibly be done at the quarterback position in the NFL,’” resident Broncos legend and general manager John Elway said. “Peyton Manning can say that.”
Denver offered Manning a unique opportunity, a chance to leave a Super Bowl imprint on two franchises, something no other quarterback has ever been able to do. Favre came the closest, steering Minnesota to the NFC Championship Game in 2009, but even if that run had ended with a Lombardi Trophy, Favre would have felt more like a hired gun than an essential part of the franchise’s history like Manning did in Denver.
Few quarterbacks ever got a chance to join a new team with something left in the tank.
“When you’re a great player, you never leave,” former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe said. “Or when you do move on, you’re on your last legs.”
For a little while, it seemed like Manning might be on his last legs at the end of his time in Indianapolis. A herniated disc in his neck led to three surgeries, forced doctors to fuse Manning’s spine, and caused nerve problems in his right arm. Doctors told Manning they couldn’t guarantee that he’d ever return to the field.
By that point in his career, Manning already had a place among the game’s greats. He’d already made his signature imprint on the game, taking back the play-calling duties that had gone to the coaches. He’d won a Super Bowl. He’d thrown for more than 54,000 yards and 399 touchdowns, numbers that put him in the top five of all time. His four MVPs were one more than anybody else had ever won. If Manning had never come back to the NFL after that neck injury, he’d be remembered as a first-ballot Hall of Famer whose career ended before the fans were ready, joining legends like Barry Sanders, Dick Butkus and Gayle Sayers.
“Whatever your perception is of him, I don’t think it would have changed,” Sharpe said. “Would it change our perception of Jack Nicholson if he came back and won another Oscar?”
Except that Manning had the kind of second act few had ever seen.
Offered an opportunity by Elway, who made sure the Broncos were the first team to call after the Colts decided to part ways with Manning and take advantage of the Andrew Luck opportunity that lost 2011 season presented, Manning instantly made Denver into a contender again.
“When we signed Peyton, (there was) a sense of urgency,” Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “We got one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the National Football League, and he’s on our team right now. So when we got him, we already knew what type of team we were, and we knew what type of football we could play. Having him now, we just wanted to seal the deal.”
Manning also started adding layers to his legacy.
Always known as a genius capable of putting up eye-popping statistics, Manning’s toughness was an underrated part of his game.
Then he came back from an injury that should have put his record-breaking days behind him.
“Nobody’d ever had that injury that played that position,” Sharpe said. “It’s one thing to come back in your 20s, when your body’s different. It’s another thing to do it in your 30s, with a new locale, with a new coach and a new set of 53 players who only knew his reputation.”
Not only did Manning find a way to play with his diminished arm, he found a way to be as dominant as he’s ever been. A record-setting 2013 season that saw him produce 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns made up for all of Manning’s lost time, vaulting the legend up every list imaginable. If he’d retired in 2011, Manning’s numbers would merely be among the mountaintops, quickly passed by contemporaries like Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
Four years after coming back, Manning holds almost every major record, Favre’s consecutive starts streak the only one outstanding.
Then the Broncos paid him back, handing him the kind of defense that could get him his second Super Bowl ring and make him the only quarterback to lead two franchises to the summit.
“When I visited Denver four years ago, if John Elway had sat me down and said, ‘Peyton, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to win over 50 games, win four straight division championships, lose only three division games in four years and none will be on the road, we’ll beat the Patriots in two championship games, and you’re going to win NFL Comeback Player of the Year, another MVP, your offense will set single-season passing records, you’ll break a couple more all-time records, and we’ll go to a couple of Super Bowls,’ I think I would have taken that deal,” Manning said.
Manning shied away from trying to figure out his place in history in his retirement press conference Monday. An emotional Manning had far too many people to thank, and he struck a grateful pose rather than a defiant one.
“There’s a scripture reading, 2 Timothy 4:7,” Manning said in his speech. “I have fought the good fight and I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
The rest of the NFL has spent the past two months debating whether Manning finished his race. Former coaches and players seem to agree on one thing: If Manning’s not the greatest of all time — and some believe he is — he’s right there behind Brady and Montana.
Maybe Manning didn’t need another Oscar to put himself among the all-time greats.
But his run in Denver made sure he’ll always be remembered right at the top.
“Put it like this,” Sharpe said. “If you’re doing a Mount Rushmore, he has to be on it.”