SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Peyton Manning isn’t ready to answer the question everybody asked after the Denver Broncos carried him to his second Super Bowl ring.
Flush with emotion at the end of a tumultuous season filled with injury, speculation and accusation, Manning stayed away from the feel-good ending of announcing his retirement on the winner’s podium.
This much is clear: If Super Bowl 50 was the final football game of Peyton Manning’s career, he has the perfect ending.
“It is very special,” he said Sunday night. “This game was like this season has been. It tested our toughness, our resilience and our unselfishness. It’s only fitting it turned out that way.”
Even if it’s not what a lot of fans were hoping to see. The world seemed to want the old legend to roll back the clock, somehow find the 2007 version of himself and be the Broncos’ focal point again, riddling a good secondary for one last throwback performance in the sun.
But that version of Manning is gone, and Denver was prepared for the player he is now.
Back when the Broncos brought in Manning to make a run at the Super Bowl, he sat down with Denver legend John Elway, now the team’s general manager, to talk about the challenges of playing quarterback after the age of 35. Elway understands better than most that no great quarterback can carry a team to the Super Bowl on his own, and the task gets even more difficult as he nears the end of his career.
By the time Elway got his first Super Bowl ring, he was a complementary player on a complete team, and after a Manning-driven Broncos team got demolished by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl two years ago, Elway went overdrive into building the kind of team that could carry Manning if his age started to catch up with him.
These Broncos never needed Manning to carry the load. Elway made sure of it. He built the NFL’s best defense — a swarming, attacking unit led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware that sacked Carolina’s Cam Newton six times and forced four turnovers.
All the Broncos needed their quarterback to be was what Manning has been throughout the playoffs: a cagey veteran who limits mistakes and comes up with a couple of key throws.
Manning made a few mistakes in Levi’s Stadium, including an underthrown ball that Carolina’s Kony Ealy picked off and a few more errant passes that could have been intercepted. He was sacked five times.
He also completed his first four throws, marching Denver to a field goal and ensuring that Carolina wouldn’t erupt out of the gate the way the Panthers had throughout their playoff run. He hit Emmanuel Sanders for 25 and 22 yards on another field-goal drive to start the second half, adding another field goal to the total.
Denver’s incredible defense took care of the rest. Elway threw for just 123 yards in his first Super Bowl win; Manning completed 13-of-23 passes for 141 yards, doing just enough to support the incredible Broncos team around him.
“He was on a team that could help him get a win,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “He didn’t have to go out there and do it all on his own.”
For that reason, this championship simply adds to Manning’s list of accomplishments, makes him the only quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams. Unlike Elway, who was still chasing the sport’s ultimate prize, Manning already had his ring, even if it had been somewhat tarnished by two Super Bowl losses in the years after that first victory.
But he didn’t need to be the game’s MVP to cement his place in the history of the sport.
“All it does is add to it, you know?” Elway said early in the week. “This is not a make-or-break game for Peyton. His legacy is already set. He’s already going to go down as one of the greatest players to ever play the game.”
Manning spent the week trying to stay in the moment.
His emotions took over. Reporters peppered him with questions about retirement, teammates wanted to talk about the past and old friends descended on the San Francisco area to see a game that could be Manning’s last. In a pregame interview with former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, Manning’s memories brought tears to his eyes.
For that reason, he’s tabling his retirement decision until later on advice from Tony Dungy, the coach who led him to his first Super Bowl, to let the emotions pass and take a closer look.
Before that can happen, the NFL’s everyman quarterback, the man with the affable, easygoing personality and a star who has never had transcendent physical gifts, wanted to celebrate this Super Bowl the way most of the rest of us handle some of life’s biggest accomplishments.
The elephant standing in the corner of the locker room can wait a little longer.
“I’ll take some time to reflect; I’ve got some other priorities first,” Manning said on the field immediately after the game. “I want to kiss my wife and my kids, I want to go hug my family. I’m going to drink a lot of Budweisers tonight, and I’m going to take care of those things first. Then I think I’ll say a little prayer to the man upstairs and thank him for the opportunity.”
A man at peace, celebrating a job well done.