It’s never easy to decide that your time in the NFL is over. For every Jim Brown and Barry Sanders who stepped away while the game still had bountiful things to offer them, there are dozens of players who find it difficult to deal with the fact that they’re no longer players. Brett Favre’s dive into self-parody with his multiple retirements was a certain kind of story overkill, but it was also an example of how a person who has defined himself through the lens of football can feel utterly lost when that lens closes for good.
Is that lens closed for good for Peyton Manning? We’re not entirely sure yet, but after passing Favre as the NFL’s all-time passing yardage leader on Sunday, Manning put his Broncos in the place they’ve really been approaching all year: the difficult position of having to tell one of the greatest and most determined players of all time that his best game simply isn’t good enough anymore. Manning’s performance against the Chiefs was incomprehensibly bad, even for a player who had been performing well under his standards all season—five completions in 20 attempts for 35 yards, no touchdowns, four picks and a 0.0 quarterback rating. That marked his worst rating since a 41–6 disaster against the Dolphins in 2001, when the young Manning completed 19 of 32 passes for 173 yards, no touchdowns and three picks. Back then, there weren’t any questions about Manning’s future; only how he could best overcome his sometimes toxic hyper-competitiveness and stay within the game. Manning’s father Archie once told me that he wished his most prominent quarterbacking son had a better sense of performance amnesia, something that his brother Eli seems to have in spades.
Certainly, when it comes to his 2015 season, Peyton Manning probably wishes for the kind of amnesia that could wipe the whole season away. He leads the league with 17 interceptions. Among qualifying quarterbacks, only Colin Kaepernick’s opponent-adjusted metrics were worse entering Week 10, and Manning’s will probably dip below Kaepernick’s after this latest debacle is added to the mix. Kaepernick, of course, has been benched for Blaine Gabbert, which is about as low as things can go.
Manning will be benched for Broncos backup Brock Osweiler, though according to coach Gary Kubiak, that decision has far more to do with Manning’s plantar fasciitis, a foot injury that is merely the latest in a series of physical maladies that have affected his game. That’s why Manning won’t start against the Bears next Sunday, but fresh off a 29–13 loss that dropped the Broncos to 7–2, one has to wonder if the Broncos’ coaching staff views this injury as an unexpected relief.
Denver’s focus for now is getting Manning healthy, but the larger goal is clear and inevitable. The Broncos clearly want to find a way to let Manning go out as a winner. A champion. One of the all-time greats. At the same time, they have the best defense in football—a valuable property that doesn’t tend to last from season to season—and they can’t waste it at the altar of what Manning used to be.
Because as much as Kubiak desperately wants to paint this as Manning's latest injury and something that can be pushed past with time, it really isn't. Manning was bad at the end of last season, and this season, he’s been absolutely brutal. You can look at the tape of every single game and find not only the dying ducks and heinous overthrows that have marked his game for nearly a full season now, but also a truly puzzling litany of bad reads and horrid throws into obvious coverage traps. It's not likely that Manning’s famed football acumen has diminished; rather, this is a clear example of a player whose mind is telling his body to do things that his body simply can’t anymore.
“I didn’t play well, I had a bad game and I’m not sure what else you can say about that,” he said Sunday. “Whether it was because of my injuries or my poor decision making, I tend to lean on the poor decision making and some bad throws. I had some underthrows to some guys, so I wish I would have played better.”
It was an honest assessment, and one we’ve heard from Manning more in recent weeks than ever before. That’s one thing that can be said, no matter what: Manning will not lean on his injuries, or any dropped passes or blown blocks, to excuse his own limitations. He has to know in the depths of his soul that this thing he’s done at an insanely great level for more than half his life is betraying him, bit by bit at first, and then in huge chunks.
Kubiak, an NFL quarterback with the Broncos from 1983 through 1991, knows the drill better than most. He was a career backup whose talent never remotely touched the levels set by Manning or his current boss, John Elway. But Kubiak does have a sensitivity to this situation that puts him in an impossible situation. As much as he wants to support the greatest quarterback he’s ever coached, he’s also smart enough to realize that quarterback doesn’t exist anymore. Thus, he probably shouldn’t have trotted Manning out there against the Chiefs in the first place.
“I trust players, especially veteran players, but it wasn’t like he didn’t [practice],” Kubiak said right after the game. “He did practice on Friday. I watched him practice Friday. I watched him make all the plays, all the throws. I felt good coming out of Friday. I guess my point that I’m trying to make is that when Saturday came there was more [weight to the injury], that’s when I felt like I should have said, ‘Okay, no.’
“That’s my point. Guys want to play. That’s why he’s a great player. That’s why he’s going to be a Hall of Fame player. They want to compete. They want to do everything they can for their football team, but as a football coach, sometimes you have to say, ‘No, I don’t think this is the right thing today,’ like I said.”
The Broncos have two choices when Peyton Manning declares himself healthy and ready to return to action. They can hope he’ll catch fire for another game or two, and end his career the way he’d ultimately prefer: with his second Super Bowl ring. Or, they can realize that with Manning as their quarterback, Denver’s chances of winning a Super Bowl are between slim and none, and Slim just walked out the door. If that is their ultimate decision, Kubiak and Elway can sit down with Manning as a friend, as a player, as a colleague, as a member of this fraternity of quarterbacks, and tell him the one thing he least wants to hear and most needs to hear: It’s time to go.
Few will remember this last season, and those who do remember will chalk it up to age and injuries. People will remember your battles with Tom Brady, your recovery from the injuries in 2011 that would have felled lesser players, the records you set before and after that triumph over your own mortality, the Super Bowl you finally did win after so many heartbreaking postseason failures. But time is the only undefeated opponent—it took both of us out, and it’s come calling for you.
Put simply, Peyton, it’s time to go with grace.