In the end, Peyton Manning won. Unless you happen to be a Carolina Panthers fan, this was wonderful news on several levels. It means he has two Super Bowl rings, and maybe nobody deserves a ring, but if anybody did, it was Manning. It lowers the volume on people who liked to scream he wasn’t a winner.
And it spares us the vision of Manning in a third NFL uniform, playing for a mediocre team, limping around, throwing errant passes and reminding us of the damage that football has done to him. Nobody wanted to see Peyton Manning ride off into the sunset, then turn around and jump on another horse. Let’s all be thankful that in the end, he saw himself the way we did.
Retiring was the obvious decision, but that doesn’t mean it was the easy one. Some players can walk away and be at peace with it. We’ve seen several NFL players do that in the last year. (Calvin Johnson may be next.)
You could not spend 10 minutes around Peyton Manning and think he could take or leave the NFL. Being a quarterback was essential to his existence, almost since birth. He didn’t just play the position; he lived it.
You can remember Peyton however you want. He was a Colt and a Bronco, a micro manager and a hard-ass. He always wanted top dollar in his contracts but was a widely respected philanthropist. You can remember his goofy commercials or the face he would make when he threw an interception. You can remember the hand signals at the line, the way he inadvertently turned “Omaha!” into a signature phrase, or the way that he made you feel defeated when he played your favorite team, even before the ball was kicked off.
You can say that he won two Super Bowls or point out that he didn’t play all that great in either of them. You can point to his playoff record, which was just 14–13.
You should know, though, that in 2003, he led the league in passing yards (4,267) and completion percentage (67%) and finished second in touchdown passes with 29.
And that may have been his eighth-best season.
Nobody ever played quarterback like he did. Nobody. That doesn’t mean he was the best ever. But more than any of the other greats, he was the show. Until this past season, you understood that when you played Peyton’s team, you played Peyton. It wasn’t about the defense or the coaching, even when both were very good. You had to stop the control freak behind center.
I suppose it is possible that we will look back on Manning and think about something stupid he did in college or the still-unsubstantiated allegation that he took HGH. But you know, I doubt it.
In this era of scalding hot takes, cameras in every pocket and mouse-trap journalism, a few athletes figured out how to give us what we want, the way we want it, and still come out in one piece. Derek Jeter did it. Tom Brady did it, though his last 14 months have been so bizarre that we probably need five more years to fully make sense of them. Maybe Kevin Durant or Steph Curry will do it, but they have a long way to go.
It takes a certain steadiness, and it takes the quality that Manning always exhibited: You can’t complain. We just don’t want to hear it. The money is too good, the life too great. Manning seemed to understand this.
When we talk about rising to the moment in sports, we usually mean the clutch free throw or the big completion on third down. Manning rose to the moment in small, personal ways.
If he was giving five minutes to a newspaper reporter he never met, he would make them five good minutes. He looked people in the eye and spoke thoughtfully. When he lost the Heisman Trophy to Charles Woodson, stunning the state of Tennessee and probably Manning himself, he immediately shook Woodson’s hand. When the Ravens ended his first season in Denver with a stunning double-overtime win, Manning went to the Baltimore locker room to congratulate Ray Lewis.
Brady questioned how long his rival would play and Manning publicly shrugged. His divorce from the Colts was uglier than it should have been, and the bitterness probably lingered a lot longer than most fans realized. But Manning did not act petulant.
Some men with injuries like his would have never stopped talking about the pain. Manning spoke matter-of-factly about what he went through, but never gave us a woe-is-me monologue. Whatever he thought of the Broncos’ offense last year, or of John Elway asking him to take a pay cut a year ago, at least he didn’t act like it was everybody’s problem.
This is the deal we make with the modern athlete: If you accept that every moment of your career is conducted in public, we don’t really care what you do in private. Manning handled all of that about as well as somebody could. In the end, Peyton Manning won. So did we.