ENGLEWOOD, Colo.—Peyton Manning retired from football on Monday, and he did it the way he has done most everything in his life: by script. A few minutes at the podium for club president Joe Ellis, a few minutes for GM John Elway, a few (emotional) minutes for coach Gary Kubiak, a four-minute tribute video, and then, in halting voice, 11 minutes and 45 seconds of Manning thanking those who made his career possible, ending with his voice breaking as he said: “God bless all of you, and God bless football.” Then a few questions from a packed room full of family, friends, former teammates and the media. Done by seating chart, of course.
Some in the room, including Ellis, wiped away tears as Manning spoke. I got the feeling from text messages to my phone that some in the league were doing the same as the game said goodbye to one of the greatest players of all time. One club executive sent this text minutes after the ceremony: “I’ve welled up three or four times already watching this. Feel like a piece of football just died today.”
Manning, who turns 40 on March 24, said there was no specific event, no lightning bolt, that caused him to make the intelligent decision to walk away exactly one month after winning his second Super Bowl of an 18-year career. He said he doesn’t know what he’s going to do with his life, and on this day he didn’t seem particularly concerned about his future.
“I’ve always had good timing,” he said, “and this was just the right time to retire.”
The NFL will continue to be a monster, and the game will continue to get mountainous TV ratings, and the business of 32 teams will go on without a blip as Manning begins next chapter. He and brothers, Eli and Cooper, will get away somewhere down south to play a few rounds of golf this week—as Peyton Manning begins to try to fill the void that was always taken up by football. It won’t be easy. No one lived and breathed the game the way he has done since he was preparing to enter the NFL with the Colts 18 years ago, when he told Indianapolis GM Bill Polian: “If you don’t pick me, I will come back with another team and kick your ass.”
His stratospheric numbers—Manning holds the NFL record for passing yards, touchdown passes and quarterback wins—will be surpassed in a game that regularly sees quarterbacks exceed 5,000 passing yards and 600 throws a year. But he will leave everlasting footprints.
There is a horribly overused cliché when good and even great players retire. He changed the game is something you hear over and over about athletes of all abilities. But think of it: How many players really have changed a significant aspect of football? Peyton Manning did. Manning had a pedestrian arm. His athletic ability was poor, in a time when pass-rushers got ever faster and more athletic. But here we are, talking about Manning as a candidate for the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks. Why? Because of his mind. The moral of Manning’s career is he that beat teams as much with his head as with his arm. And that will be what he continues to pass on to young quarterbacks in retirement.
Every summer, Manning and his dad and brothers host the Manning Passing Academy, where 900 high school quarterbacks from around the country convene in Louisiana for a long weekend of instruction from the Mannings and 40 college-quarterback counselors.
“When Peyton and Eli talk to the campers,” said dad Archie, a former NFL quarterback himself, “they talk about the mental aspect of the game almost exclusively. That’s so much of what the game has become. When I played, we had to learn nine coverages. All I had to know is what the middle linebacker and the safeties were doing. Today, I don’t care about the strength of your arm or how athletic you are, you better know how to read defenses, or you have no chance. So much is about the mental part of the game today.
That’s your boy’s biggest legacy, Archie.
The Mental Game
“It was a treat,” Elway said Monday, “for an ex-quarterback to be able to watch Peyton Manning prepare and work and play the game … In the old days we’d get the snap, we’d try to figure out coverage on the way back, making our reads there. Peyton Manning revolutionized the game. We used to think the no-huddle was fast-paced—get to the line of scrimmage and get people off balance. Peyton revolutionized it—get to the line of scrimmage, take our time, find out what the defense is doing and then I’m going to pick you apart.”
When I think of that, I think of a 2006 playoff game: Colts versus Ravens, on a Saturday afternoon in downtown Baltimore. Three days before the game, Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan agreed to share his game plan, with the proviso that nothing would get reported until afterward. Ryan was so excited that day—thrilled with the prospect of chasing Manning down with his ferocious pass-rush and Indy’s porous offensive line. Manning, he told me, wouldn’t have time to play his mental tricks on the defense, because by the time he set up to throw, Ryan’s blitz would have destroyed the pocket.
The prologue to the game plan that week read: “First and foremost, this is a finesse, non-physical offense.” It was a game plan both respectful (of Manning) and disdainful (of everything else). “If you don’t disrupt Peyton’s timing and his rhythm, you have no chance,” Ryan said that day, after he’d shared the game plan. “But as big a challenge as we face in Peyton, he faces a bigger challenge in us.”
Final score: Colts 15, Ravens 6. The pass-rush, fearsome on previous weekends, was tentative. In 31 pass-drops, I counted Manning being pressured three times and sacked once. Manning kept going to the line, acting as if he was about to snap, then waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting until one of the 11 defensive players showed his hand, and only then, with three or two seconds left on the play clock, would he take the snap and run a play. Manning wasn’t masterly by any means that day; the Colts won on five Adam Vinatieri field goals. But in the second half the Colts were privately gleeful when they heard Ray Lewis on several occasions screaming to his teammates on defense: “DON’T MOVE! DON’T MOVE!” Unable to get a head start, the Ravens struggled to force Indy into mistakes.
I found Ryan on the field after the game. He looked like his dog just died. “Damn!” he said, shaking his head after watching Manning play games with his D, holding the Ravens sackless for the first 49 minutes. “He’s a stud,” Ryan said. “An unbelievable player. He didn’t fall for one of our bluffs all day.”
“The minute you tipped anything as a defensive player,” former Manning center Jeff Saturday said here Monday, “even a yard or two, he’d know. He’d watch the tape, and he’d get the backup quarterbacks to watch, and they’d find something—every week. If teams picked up the audible, he’d just get to the huddle and say, ‘Okay, we’re changing the signal.’ And it’d be a different word.”
“Sometimes he didn’t wait until mid-game. On the plane to Jacksonville before the 2002 opener, he told receiver Qadry Ismail that the hand signals for a comeback route, which had been two fingers all week, now were going to be a fist. Manning thought studious Jags defenders might have seen something late the previous season, or in a preseason game. In that 2002 game, Ismail told Manning the Jacksonville corner, Jason Craft, knew that when Manning made a shoveling motion at the line or called the world “Crane,” Ismail would run a short dig route. Later in the game, Manning gave Ismail “Crane!”
“Easiest double move I ever ran in my life. Touchdown,” Ismail recalled.
On Monday, Manning talked about his approach: “Every moment, every drop of sweat, every bleary-eyed night of preparation, every note I took and every frame of film I watched was about one thing: reverence for this game. When I look back on my NFL career, I’ll know without a doubt that I gave everything I had to help my teams walk away with a win. There were other players who were more talented, but there was no one could out-prepare me, and because of that I have no regrets.”
I never met a player as interested in the minute details of everything the way Manning was. Three personal stories:
Every year on my training camp trip, if I had a visit to see Manning’s team with in Indiana or Colorado, I’d try to make it late. Because if Manning gave me 45 minutes after practices to talk, 15 of those minutes would be him grilling me on what I’d seen in all the camps along the way. He was the king of NFL gossip. Who knew what little piece of information he could find out that maybe he could barter or use for his own means—or just soak it in because he wanted to know everything about football? “When you grow up,” I’d tell him, “you want to be Chris Mortensen.”
Last May, I was in San Francisco preparing for my daughter’s wedding. I was off the clock for a couple of weeks. But the first night there, Manning emailed me. He was excited. He said he’d just been on David Letterman’s final show, and he wondered if I wanted to write about it in some way—and make no mistake, this was about Manning figuring a way to commemorate a cool moment in his life. I suggested we collaborate on a first-person column for The MMQB; I had to figure a way to do this quickly and efficiently so as not to ruin the family week. Manning agreed, and on his way back from New York to Denver that night he recorded several voice notes and texted them to me when he landed in Denver. I wrote the column in his voice and emailed it to him for approval. Not bad. Got it done in about three hours.
Well, 14 edits later, we finally finished the thing. Back and forth came the ideas. Could we come up with better phrasing for this? Could we rework that? But in the end, the piece was fun, Manning was thrilled, and I was not the black sheep of the family in Laura’s wedding week.
In 2013, Sports Illustrated named Manning its Sportsman of the Year. The ceremony was in Denver and—no surprise—Manning had his fingerprints all over the event. You’d figure he’d want to know who was invited, and what the program would entail. But his level of detail went beyond that. He saw the menu. He suggested that maybe different and healthier vegetables ought to be served. SI called an audible. Manning’s menu choices won out.
But in that controlling way, he also had an endearing streak. The week before the 2013 season opener, he got Broncos PR chief Patrick Smyth to help him frame nine photos—of the three Denver quarterbacks in the team’s ring of honor, of the three coaches who would be hands-on with the quarterbacks every day, and of the three quarterbacks. He had the nine pictures hung in the quarterback meeting room, each covered by black fabric. And before the first meeting of week one, he asked if he could say something. One by one, he spoke of the men in the photos. Ring of honor quarterbacks Frank Tripucka, Craig Morton, John Elway. Coaches Greg Knapp, Jim Bob Cooter, Brian Callahan. Quarterbacks Brock Osweiler, Zac Dysert and Peyton Manning.
Callahan was the grunt of the group. Quality control guy. And he had this sinking feeling. Everybody else up on the wall had a great résumé. Callahan didn’t. “What is he going to say about me?” Callahan thought.
It came time for the black curtain to be removed from Callahan’s photo. Manning spoke, bringing up details of Callahan’s football life:
Brian was a part of De La Salle High School’s 151-game winning streak … He walked on at UCLA and earned a scholarship through his diligence … Brian was the holder on extra points and field goals for the Bruins … He’s an invaluable part of getting us prepared to play every week …
“I mean, for Peyton Manning to talk that way about me, to make me feel like I belonged with everyone in that room, was pretty unforgettable,” said Callahan.
On Saturday night, Manning called between 20 and 25 former coaches, teammates, foes and meaningful people in his life, to tell them he was retiring. He asked all of them to remain quiet about it. All of them did. Then Manning was free to break the news the way he preferred—by giving the scoop to ESPN reporter Mortensen, a longtime confidant, for use on Sunday morning.
He called coach Gary Kubiak Saturday afternoon to tell him of his decision. Then on Saturday night, he called his previous head coaches—Jim Mora, Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, John Fox—in that order. Notice something about that? Mora, Dungy, Caldwell, Fox. That’s the way they fell in his career. All in order, all in a row.
The real world intervened on Monday. Manning was embroiled in an HGH scandal in December, when Al Jazeera reported that multiple shipments of the banned substance was shipped to Manning’s wife, Ashley, in 2011. The clear inference in the story was that Ashley was accepting the HGH for Peyton, who was rehabbing from neck surgeries. Manning denied that he’d taken HGH, and said his wife’s medical care was private. Then, after the Super Bowl, a 20-year-old incident from the University of Tennessee got reignited, and Manning again had his pristine reputation called into question.
Asked about that at his retirement news conference, Manning said: “I think it is sad that some people don’t understand the truth and the facts. I did not do what has been alleged, and I am not interested in re-litigating something that happened when I was 19 years old.” And he added, “Like Forrest Gump said, ‘That’s all I have to say about that.’ ”
Mostly it was a 50-minute love fest on Monday, and for his career it’s what Manning deserved. So now, how should football history view him?
The game is so different today than it was 50 or 60 years ago, obviously. So quarterbacks must be judged differently. If we view them all on one plane, we have to consider the consistent greatness of Otto Graham, who played 10 seasons with the Cleveland Browns and led his team to his league’s championship game in all 10 of those seasons, winning seven titles; Graham also led the league in passing four times. John Unitas belongs too. He was the hero of the 1958 NFL Championship Game, the event that catapulted pro football into American relevance, and was a great quarterback for a decade, calling his own plays every game, every drive. Then, obviously, come the modern greats.
For me, I’d probably have Tom Brady and Otto Graham on the top stratum; Unitas, Joe Montana and Manning on the next level; and Sammy Baugh (also one of the greatest punters of all time), John Elway, Brett Favre, Dan Marino, Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw. Baugh’s an odd choice, but he led the league in passing, punting and defensive interceptions one season, and I just think he’s been overlooked over the years. I once thought Baugh should be in the top five, but now I believe he should be a bit lower because of the other quarterbacks’ better passing careers.
But deciding which quarterbacks to put on your Mount Rushmore is a never-ending argument, one that no one can win. Peyton Manning bowed out on Monday after 18 seasons, and for so many reasons he will be in the discussion for generations to come.
“I’ve fought a good fight,” he said, his voice unsteady. “I’ve finished my football race, and after 18 years, it’s time.”