Will he or won't he? Did he or didn't he?
The 18th season of Peyton Manning's legendary NFL career, one ascending the list as proof athletes should retire early rather than stay too long, has devolved into one giant guessing game.
Already, much of this season has been spent trying to figure out if Manning's career is done. Will he ever be healthy enough to play again? When he was on the field, Weeks 1-10, he was arguably the worst starting quarterback in football (and there's barely an argument)—his 17 interceptions still lead the league this season and he has not played since Nov. 15.
The bizarre ride took another turn Saturday night, when Al Jazeera released a special investigative report (which can be seen here), containing allegations linking Manning and several other high-profile athletes to illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Did he cheat? In Manning's case the charge centered around human growth hormone. Former Guyer Institute employee Charlie Sly claims, via hidden camera, that Manning was given HGH as he attempted to recover from neck surgery in 2011. Sly later recanted all the statements he was shown to have made in the video, including that the Packers' Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews and the Steelers' James Harrison were provided banned substances.
The NFL deemed HGH illegal as part of its 2011 collective bargaining agreement; it only began testing for the substance in 2014.
"The allegation that I would do something like that is complete garbage and is totally made up," Manning said in a statement Saturday night. "It never happened. Never. I really can't believe somebody would put something like this on the air. Whoever said this is making stuff up."
The Broncos then came to Manning's defense on Sunday, issuing the following statement:
"Knowing Peyton Manning and everything he stands for, the Denver Broncos support him 100 percent. These are false claims made to Al Jazeera, and we don’t believe the report.
"Peyton is rightfully outraged by the allegations, which he emphatically denied to our organization and which have been publicly renounced by the source who initially provided them.
"Throughout his NFL career, particularly during his four seasons with the Broncos, Peyton has shown nothing but respect for the game. Our organization is confident Peyton does things the right way, and we do not find this story to be credible."
Denver hosts Cincinnati on Monday night, in what stands as a critical AFC showdown. Manning will sit out that game, just as he has the Broncos' previous five outings—three wins and two losses, with Brock Osweiler under center. Manning did go through a full workout late this week and could be cleared for practice ahead of Week 17, which has the potential to be a win-or-go-home game for his Broncos.
At least until this weekend, all that intrigue was plenty to spark conversation about what 2015 was doing to Manning's legacy. Earlier in the year, Manning broke Brett Favre's record for most career passing yards, but his brilliant career threatened to end with a whimper.
Now, he must deal with the Al Jazeera allegations, too. He vehemently denied them but also took the step of hiring former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer to battle the P.R. firestorm. Even if the report turns out to be completely fabricated, Manning has decided he must do more than simply brush it off.
Sly's rapid backtrack, along with other inconsistencies regarding his Guyer Institute employment, made it difficult to take the Al Jazeera report at face value. Manning's reputation will lead many to decry the allegations as false, too, though he would not be the first trusted sports hero to let down the public.
It may not be satisfying, but the only conclusion to reach at the moment is that we do not have any real answers, unless you are willing to accept without reservation the Al Jazeera report or Manning's denial.
Regardless, this is about the last thing Manning needs as he attempts to get back in game shape. Manning is under contract through next season, but Denver could save $19 million of his $21.5 million cap number by releasing once the new league year begins. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk and NBC earlier reported that Manning, 40 in March, "intends to play next year, even if it's not with the Broncos."
The 2016 season remains off in the distance. Manning currently has his hands full working his way back into playing shape and, as of Saturday night, fighting for his reputation.