Great quarterbacks often go out less than willingly. Peyton Manning, however, has the chance to leave on his own accord like another all-timer did—at least, temporarily
Peyton Manning’s pending “ride off into the sunset” after a Super Bowl victory illustrates a true rarity in the business of sports: a player—let alone an elite player—leaving on his terms as a champion. If we have learned anything about the treatment of players in the management-tiled world of the NFL it is this: Even for the best of the best, football careers rarely end the way players want them to end. The vast majority of players are “retired” before they can willingly retire, and even the best players sometimes retire unwillingly. Here are a few relatively recent examples of the way it ended for some quarterbacks who were clearly the face of their franchises at one point:
Phil Simms (1993): Released by Giants after surgery for torn labrum.
Joe Montana (1993): Traded from the 49ers to the Chiefs; retired after two seasons there.
Jim Kelly (1996): Carted off field with concussion in playoff game; never played again.
Dan Marino (1999): Retired from Dolphins after 55-point loss playoff loss to Jaguars.
Steve Young (1999): Retired from 49ers due to repeated concussions.
Troy Aikman (2000): Released by Cowboys before a contract extension could activate.
Steve McNair (2007): Traded from Titans to Ravens, retired after two seasons there.
Donovan McNabb (2011): Traded from Eagles to Redskins, then from Redskins to Vikings. Released by Vikings.
Peyton Manning is certainly in the discussion of the all-time great NFL quarterbacks and fits the phrase that we will now hear describing him: “first ballot Hall-of-Famer.” I was around another “first ballot Hall-of-Famer who just became a “Hall-of-Famer” for nine years in Green Bay. Brett Favre was the signature player for the Packers and unequivocal face of the franchise…until he wasn’t.
We were close to giving Brett that “ride off into the sunset” moment, but our 2007 season ended in an overtime loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game. As was his routine, Brett returned to Mississippi after that to contemplate whether to play another season. Although I was also leaving the team at that time, I noticed the Packers’ approach to Brett’s decision-making was different than that of previous off-seasons. Instead of recruiting visits and pleas to return, the Packers’ message was “It’s your decision, and we will respect it either way,” and wanted that decision sooner rather than later.
And although Favre tearfully retired that March, it was predictable that once he felt the pull of training camp later that summer, he would want back in. In a fateful conversation between Favre and Mike McCarthy on June 20, 2008—I remember the date, as I was hiking up Mount Hood when the calls came in from a furious Favre camp—McCarthy said the four words that started an ugly divorce that took years to reconcile: “Brett, we’ve moved on.” And they had.
When asked about Manning’s decision, Broncos president John Elway’s comments were very similar to the Packers’ stance with Favre, leaving everything up to Manning without any type of recruitment. Even had Denver not won the Super Bowl, my sense is Peyton would have also received the subtle—or not-so-subtle—message that the Broncos were moving on, even if he wasn’t quite ready to.
In Green Bay we had seen Aaron Rodgers run the team during a couple of off-seasons when Brett was in Mississippi, noticing Aaron’s obvious physical skills, natural leadership abilities and wry sense of humor that would serve him well later. We knew that, after warming up in the bullpen for three years, it was time to give him the ball. The Broncos have actually seen more of a window into their future than the Packers had with Rodgers. Brock Osweiler has played in big games, such as a win against the Patriots, and ascending to the starting position is not too big for him. Of course, there is still that pesky matter of negotiating a contract with Osweiler, who is set to become a free agent in less than a month.
The Broncos will never say publicly that they wanted Manning to retire, as the Packers would never say with Favre, but my sense is it has been their plan for some time. Sports businesses—as all businesses—must evolve and have succession plans at key positions. Moving from Manning to Osweiler, as from Favre to Rodgers, is a necessary step to move to the future. And it appears the Broncos now have what the Packers wanted in 2008: a graceful exit of their superstar quarterback, with appropriate gratitude to the past, while moving ahead with a chosen successor.
The business-of-football train keeps moving at a relentless pace; new passengers are always getting aboard as others are offloaded. Peyton Manning, thanks to a suffocating defense, is a rare exception to the rule that even for the elite, the best of the best, when it ends in the NFL, it rarely ends well.
Five Things I Think…
1. Super Bowl MVP and pending free agent Von Miller certainly is in as highly leveraged a position as there is, but he will never see the light of day as a free agent. The powerful CBA management weapon of the Franchise Tag will prevent him from earning his true market value, a value we may never know.
2. The response to Cam Newton from fans and media over the past two weeks illustrates the lack of nuance in today’s warp-speed social media environment. Newton was showered in a cacophony of praise in recent weeks—until a poor performance and sullen press conference brought shame raining down on the perceived petulant child. Like LeBron James, there seems to be no in-between with Newton when it comes to how he is perceived. It is hard to be measured in the Twitter world in which we live; Newton’s treatment is a microcosm of that.
3. Before the player additions of March, there are the player deletions of February. Players well associated with their franchises for so long, such as Jahri Evans of the Saints and Michael Griffin of the Titans, have been released, and there are and will be dozens of others. This time of year illustrates the truly illusory nature of contracts; teams are chopping off hundreds of millions of dollars in non-guaranteed compensation worth less than the paper it is written on.
4. Roger Goodell’s press conference answer regarding the relocation of the Rams referred to his former role in the NFL, in which he would negotiate with city leaders on behalf of NFL owners to in essence leverage the use of public funding to build stadiums. It was the clearest admission of what we knew about the process: that NFL executives did the dirty work in St. Louis for Stan Kroenke.
5. The NFL’s banning from the combine of draft prospects with records involving domestic violence or weapons charges seems all about optics for the league. While the league can restrict entry to the combine, it cannot dictate what teams do, and, as we know, each team has its own talent/character evaluation. Teams will still make determinations about character risks in relation to their talent level, knowing that the NFL is not going down the rabbit hole of influencing their personnel decisions.
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