SANTA CLARA, Calif. — David Cutcliffe knew before we did. Cutcliffe was in Georgia, recruiting for Duke University, when he spent 45 minutes on the phone with Peyton Manning right before the Broncos' 2015 season finale.
It had been a tough few months for Manning. The Broncos were winning, but Manning was, by almost any measure, one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league. He threw at least one interception in every game. His injured foot seemed to get worse every week. His physical and emotional wounds were on display every Sunday.
Against Kansas City on Nov. 15, Manning threw 20 passes. Five were caught by Broncos, four were caught by Chiefs and 11 fell incomplete. He didn’t know if he should try to play, go on injured reserve, or try to work his way back to health and competence.
“It was pretty consuming,” Cutcliffe said. “When you’re not playing, suddenly you’ve got what feels like an eternity, 12 to 16 hours (a day) of thinking about this, what is going to happen.”
In the Broncos’ quarterback meetings, Manning was as vocal as if he were playing. But he wasn’t. Backup quarterback Brock Osweiler took over and played well; it was reasonable to think Osweiler would keep the job, and Manning had taken his last NFL snap.
Manning does not confide in many people. He has been famous for most of his life now, and he knows how to handle it: Be polite to strangers, professional with colleagues and completely honest with a few people he trusts.
Cutcliffe is on Manning’s most-trusted list. He coached him at Tennessee, coached Eli Manning at Ole Miss, and helped Peyton reinvent himself after a neck injury knocked him out of the 2011 season and eventually out of Indianapolis. So Manning and Cutcliffe kept talking, kept texting, and then came that phone call:. Cutcliffe in Georgia, Manning in Colorado. Cutcliffe didn’t have to say much. Manning had figured it out.
“My conversation with him was awesome,” Cutcliffe said. “It was great for him at that moment. The gist of it was, letting the game come to you. You have to manage yourself, your emotions, work at getting well and put the football aside. And figure out a new way to play the game.”
Manning went back into the game in the second half of the finale against the Chargers and did just that. And now, when America watches its favorite sporting event Sunday, our most familiar quarterback will play a most unfamiliar role. Peyton 1.0, in Indianapolis, was a force of nature. Peyton 2.0, in Denver, managed to use his lesser physical tools to do a pretty good impression of Peyton 1.0 (and in the 2013 season, Peyton 2.0 had the greatest statistical year of his career.)
Peyton 3.0 is a game manager. He has thrown 78 passes since he returned in the Broncos’ finale, and he hasn’t thrown an interception.
Denver tight end Owen Daniels said that early in the season, “he was probably trying to do some of the stuff he did in his old offense with our offense. The second half of the season, when he’s been back, and the playoffs, he just kind of rolls with what we’re doing. He hasn’t tried to do too much. We don’t need him to go out there and be Peyton Manning circa the mid-2000s.”
It took Manning a while to figure that out, and some more time to accept it. The foot injury that looked like it would end his career has set up a stunning ending.
Cutcliffe says without the time off, Manning wouldn’t be here today, preparing for another Super Bowl. He healed physically, as much as he could, but the mental rehab was just as important. Manning had a chance to do something he had never done in his whole football life: Step back and watch. Somewhere in there, he made peace with his 39-year-old self.
“He is in a good place, is what I would call it,” Cutcliffe said. “There is no frustration. He’s figured out what he wants to do and how he wants to do it to be successful.”
Manning has played with an uncommon burden for most of his life. He was named the starter at Isidore Newman High School in New Orleans before his sophomore year. He became Tennessee’s starter as a freshman. He started his first game as a rookie with the Colts in 1998 and didn’t miss a game until his neck injury in 2011. And even then, he was out for the whole year, so he wasn’t around the team as much as he was this time.
We make such a big deal about Aaron Rodgers watching Brett Favre for three years, or Tom Brady sitting for three years at Michigan and one in New England, and we forget: That’s a normal path. Cam Newton watching Tim Tebow from the Florida sideline is normal. Andrew Luck redshirting at Stanford, Eli Manning backing up Kurt Warner in New York, Drew Brees sitting behind Doug Flutie in San Diego, and then Rivers backing up Brees: all normal.
Manning never did that. He was always too good, the quarterback equivalent of LeBron James or Tiger Woods. He was so likely to succeed at a young age that he was never given a chance to do anything else. If he has made more critical mistakes than his Hall of Fame colleagues, that’s partly because his teams always counted on him to win the games. There was no relying on the defense or playing a field-position game. His teams demanded fireworks.
As he watched Osweiler, Manning realized he didn’t have to chase the ghost of Peyton 1.0 anymore. Says Cutcliffe: “Sometimes it’s a great advantage when you sense what your team is all about.”
Now he knows, and he’s cool with it. Manning is playing conservative but not scared. Daniels says, “I’m sure he’s had some times in these last few weeks when he wanted to make a throw, or maybe could have made a throw, and decided on a safer route or a safer check-down.”
Peyton Manning, who has famously pushed teammates for his whole career, is letting them pull him. He seems content to enjoy the ride. Cutcliffe saw it coming on that 45-minute call, when the coach didn’t have to say much. He loves what he has seen since.
“We talk most weeks,” Cutcliffe said. “I haven’t bothered him this week, to be honest with you. I like where his mind is, and I try to leave him alone.”