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Don’t do it, Peyton: Retiring, not returning, is the right move

Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Manning, because I really don’t know any stories that featured two separate perfect endings. Most people feel darn fortunate if they get one.

Before March gets any older, an unsolicited memo to Peyton Manning:

Don’t do it, Peyton. Don’t give in to the urge. After three-plus weeks off and some time to think, don’t let yourself buy into the belief that there’s anything resembling “a perfect world” in which to play for a soon-to-be 40-year-old quarterback. Especially coming off an injury-shortened season like you endured in 2015, easily the worst of your illustrious career.

Let 18 NFL seasons for No. 18 be the perfect symmetry that it is, and run with it—straight into retirement, still riding the high that came from that storybook ending in the Super Bowl.

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This week has brought rumblings that you’re not feeling finished after all, and that “in a perfect world,” you’d “like to keep playing,” according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Those aren’t mere assumptions on Schefter’s part, of course. Those are smoke signals, and strong ones, out of your camp. Schefter works with ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, and Mort’s sources when it comes to the Manning family are impeccable.

Rest assured, it appears you’re taking stock of your options for 2016, and that means retirement is anything but the slam dunk it once seemed in the aftermath of the Broncos’ Super Bowl win over the Panthers last month. And to that I say: Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Manning, because I really don’t know any stories that featured two separate perfect endings. Most people feel darn fortunate if they get one.

I know you were far from the top of your game in the Super Bowl, and that might still sting a bit. But you did manage to go out on top of the game, winning a ring and potentially matching your boss John Elway’s feat of earning the ultimate victory in his final career appearance. That’s got to be worth its weight in gold to someone as prideful and as legacy-conscious as any modern-day athlete could be.

And yet we wait, and you refuse to be rushed into any decision, a right you certainly have earned. Perhaps this is just a stalling tactic to buy more time to wrap your head around retirement, because your timetable and the Broncos’ are obviously not in sync. Denver can’t carry you on its roster past March 8 without guaranteeing your $19 million salary, and you’re essentially signaling that you want your release and aren’t ready to walk away from the game just a month and a day after the Super Bowl concluded. Maybe you intend to kick the tires in a few NFL cities, see what develops and still wind up calling it a career later this spring or even summer.

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But if you do come back for one more season and play for a third NFL team, I don’t like the chances of it ending well. Your body started to break down in each of the last two seasons in Denver, and even if you completely heal up this off-season from the partially torn plantar fascia that caused you to miss parts of seven games last year, sorry, but logic says your health and arm strength will again be in decline at some point in the second half of the 2016 season. You can almost count on it.

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The combination of injury and ineffectiveness—your 17 interceptions were second-most in the league despite the fact that you played in only 10 regular-season games—made it difficult for most fans to watch and enjoy your play at times. Like Johnny Unitas in San Diego in 1973, or Joe Namath with the L.A. Rams in 1977, you were a shell of your former self for long stretches, and it would be even more painful to watch your once-dominant game descend into steady mediocrity with a new team, one devoid of Denver’s Super Bowl-level talent.

I hope you don’t forget how it felt to see Brett Favre’s last go-round in Minnesota, when he returned in 2010 and saw his game finally run out of gas for a last-place Vikings team, just a year after leading Minnesota to the brink of the Super Bowl. As Favre’s late-career machinations proved, a year sooner rather than a year later is almost always the right call.

Who knows what potential scenarios might await if you decide to play again in 2016? Maybe it’s one last year with an average Rams team that already has one of the most challenging situations in the game this season, given its relocation and the travel complications that will bring? At 40, can you even guarantee you’ll be a significant upgrade over Rams incumbents Case Keenum and Nick Foles? It probably hurts to even hear me ask that one.

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Houston may be a viable option for you, and there is talent on the Texans’ roster coming off their 9–7 AFC South title last season. But Houston is hoping to draft a future franchise quarterback this season, and even you being back in a division you know so well as a one-year rental doesn’t strike me as the “perfect world” you’re seeking.

Cleveland? Don’t even go there. I can’t imagine any sadder conclusion to your Hall of Fame-level run than to subject you to the quarterback-crushing reality of the Factory of Sadness. And if you’re hanging on just to serve as an emergency replacement for a starter who might happen to go down in the preseason or early regular season, why would a quarterback who has been “the guy” on every team he’s played for since early high school subject himself to that type of assignment at the very end?

Don’t do it, Peyton. The risks far outweigh the rewards. You persevered last season, and things turned your way at the end, offering you the type of exit you dreamed of and a career-capping second Super Bowl ring. Take that as the unmistakeable sign that your work in the NFL is done. Stand pat on 18, and don’t even think about taking another hit.