Peyton Manning doesn't need your sympathy, but he's earned your praise
I come not to bury Peyton Manning, but to praise him.
That should be said up front, because these days, you can’t help but notice a whole lot of would-be Brutuses ready to plunge the knife into the back of America’s top Sunday pitchman and occasional NFL quarterback.
“Peyton Manning’s downfall is in full swing.” ... “Peyton Manning clearly not what he once was.” ... “Peyton Manning is pretty much done.” Even my esteemed Cauldron colleague, Tim Baffoe, has chimed in, too.
And sure, Sunday’s start against the Baltimore Ravens is probably not going to make it into any Manning career retrospectives, but there’s a couple of angles here that are probably worth exploring. Most obviously, it’s only Week 2 and there is plenty of time for Peyton and the Broncos offense to come together.
It’s easy to forget, but around a year ago at this time, Tom Brady was mired in his own career crisis after an opening-week loss to the Miami Dolphins. A few weeks later, he found himself pulled from a blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick was later asked by a reporter, quite unironically, if we might see a QB controversy in New England. Naturally, the reply was Belichickian.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we treat Peyton’s doubters with the same haughty disdain. There is, after all, no denying that the quarterback we saw against the Ravens bore little resemblance to the all-everything superstar we’ve come to know and love. Though he still managed to complete 60% of his passes, Manning’s longest completion was for just 18 yards, and he averaged only 4.4 yards per passing attempt—well below his career average of 7.7. And yes, all of these numbers confirm what’s readily apparent to the all-important eye test: That Manning no longer delivers the ball with anything close to the same degree of zip as his much younger peers. (Although, as Sam Monson noted this week at Pro Football Focus, the lack of arm strength is not exactly a new phenomenon, and is of far less immediate concern for the Broncos than Peyton’s inability to avoid the pass rush.)
Ultimately, you can choose to focus on the fact that Manning is not exactly the quarterback he once was, or you can marvel at the fact that he’s still an NFL quarterback at all. After all, he has undergone three spinal surgeries in a period of 15 months, and managed to return to the field. He recently told Peter King that he still has not regained feeling in his fingertips. At age 39, with 16 NFL seasons of tread on his tires, he has persevered through injuries to his neck, knee, thigh, ankle, and, apparently, a stomach bug, caught from his young daughter that contributed to a shaky physical end to last season
Manning is basically a walking injury report, and, given the speed and strength and skill of all those who surround him, each game in which he still manages to hold his own should probably be considered a minor miracle.
No, Manning doesn’t possess the physical tools of his younger self, but that’s never really what defined him to begin with. Peyton Manning's physical tools have never shone as much as his ability to manipulate the game mentally. When he finally steps away, the image we’ll remember won’t be of a ball in flight, but a man, behind the line, gesticulating wildly, calling out the names of American cities, and controlling the pieces in front of him like a true grandmaster.
This, as it turns out, may soon become something of a lost art. A recent piece by Kevin Clark of the Wall Street Journal cataloged the many NFL coaches and executives frustrated by young quarterback prospects' inability to read and recognize even the most rudimentary of defensive schemes. “You have to teach these kids the absolute basics,” said Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead said the burden falls on the league itself to change its ways. “It’s doomsday if we don’t adapt and evolve,” he said.
Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine, no stranger to quarterback drama, likens talented, sophisticated readers of the defense to an “endangered species,” but you don’t have to take his word for it. Every time a gigantic multiyear contract is handed out to a guy who still has a few question marks on his resume—$103 million for Matt Ryan, $96 million for Ryan Tannehill, $115 million for Andy Dalton!—it’s a reminder that a talented quarterback is still the most precious commodity in the sport. The only real way to appreciate the value of a good QB is to not have one at all, and that day may be rapidly approaching for more and more teams. “The quarterback may not be gone yet,” Pettine told the WSJ, “but if you have one, protect it.”
This is why we should not snark at late-career Peyton Manning, but instead savor him. For all the talk of a noodle arm and limited mobility, he’s still out there, playing an unforgiving game and holding his own. It may have gotten lost a bit in the talk of decaying skills, retirement rumors, and fantasy disappointments, but believe it or not, the Broncos were victorious on Sunday, with Manning doing just enough to supplement the team's strong defensive effort. Maybe, just maybe, Manning needn't be Superman anymore. Perhaps that can be Denver's formula this season—Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Brandon Marshall and Aqib Talib anchoring an exceptional unit, and Peyton and the offense avoiding mistakes.
Would it be odd to watch the future Hall of Famer reduced to game manager? Undoubtedly. But can you think of anyone more qualified for the job?
Manning summed things up quite well during an unusually feisty post-game media session. “It’s Week 1,” he told reporters. “We’re a work in progress. If you need a catchy headline for your little article or whatever it is you might be doing, we’re trying to get better every single week. What’s another cliché I can think of? We’re chipping away. Something along those lines.”
Yes, Father Time is clearly chipping away at Peyton Manning's career. But he’s still chipping away, too with screens and slants, with audibles at the line, with taking whatever’s available, even as his body betrays him. Maybe that will be enough. Maybe it won’t. But we should savor this final act of his career, because before too long, we’ll be missing one of the greatest signal-callers we’ll ever see, and there will be a 6'5", 230-pound, charming-but-slightly-goofy hole in our Sundays.
Except for the Papa John’s commercials of course. Those will outlast all of us.