The abiding question: Can a first-round NFL Hall of Fame quarterback, a legitimate superstar, who is now, according to many, in his football dotage, play one more beautiful game?
The answer is no. The hope is yes.
Everybody stays too long. Joe Namath wanted to play that elusive one more year. After 12 years with the Jets, he signed with the L.A. Rams in 1977. Lasted four games.
Mr. San Diego, Johnny Unitas, was traded to the Chargers in 1973 after 17 years with the Baltimore Colts. He lasted five games.
Ken Stabler played his last three seasons with the New Orleans Saints. Sporting News says, “He was third-string at the end...” And then there’s Jim McMahon, Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, Y.A. Tittle...great quarterbacks who hung around too long.
There is an exception. John Elway. At the age of 37 and 38 he led Denver to back-to-back Super Bowl victories and was voted MVP of Super Bowl XXXIII, the last game he played.
Which brings us to the increasingly weird story of Peyton Manning, who turns 40 next month. He dodged a bullet shot from the Al Jazeera steroids documentary The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers. Manning was a patient at the Grey Institute during 2011, the year he was rehabbing from neck surgery. His wife was also a patient. Al Jazeera reported that a pharmacy intern told them he shipped HGH to Manning’s wife, “all the time, everywhere, Florida.” The mailing-steroids-to-wife being a dodge other athletes have used. Juicy stuff except, oops, the pharmacy clerk recanted his story.
The documentary was a puff of wind for a few days and then everything settled down, helped along by the news that Al Jazeera was going out of business. The problem is Manning’s stats look like old-guy-playing-like-young-guy steroid stats. Manning completed rehab, returned to the Broncos and had “...two out of the three best seasons in his career in 2012 and 2013.”
After a brilliant 2013 regular season Manning took his team to Super Bowl XLVIII and collapsed. Seattle routed Denver 43 to 8; Manning threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.
It went downhill from there.
At the start of the 2015 season, according to USA Today, “Peyton Manning’s QB rating is lower than Blake Bortles, Josh McCown, Jameis Winston, Matt McGloin, Johnny Manziel, Tyrod Taylor, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, among many, many others. He’s 29th of 34 quarterbacks who qualify.”
November 16 was the day Manning hit rock bottom. USA Today reported, “...Manning got benched. The moment came with 6:34 remaining in the third quarter, after Manning threw his fourth interception of the game, as the Broncos trailed the Kansas City Chiefs 22-0 in a game they would ultimately lose 29-13. He had been booed off the field after nearly every previous possession, and the crowd at Sports Authority Field roared as backup Brock Osweiler jogged to the huddle.... He [Manning] completed just five of his 20 attempts, for 35 yards, and was benched with a passer rating of 0.0.” Manning, the NFL’s only five-time MVP, had never been pulled from a game in his 17-year career.
Then, comes a twist only seen in Hollywood sports movies. Fast-forward to the last game of the regular season. If Denver beats San Diego the Broncos have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Deep into the third quarter, after the Broncos had five turnovers, two interceptions, a fumble, and a sack, Manning enters the game. It had to get that bad before he was tapped.
He wasn’t brilliant, throwing nine passes for a humble 69 yards. Still, he managed his team to two touchdowns and two field goals by running a conservative offense and relying on defense for the win.
Next, Denver beat the Steelers in the AFC divisional round. After the game, Boston.com journalist Sam Benson Smith wrote, “Peyton Manning is having a career year, and not in the good sense (lowest passer rating in his career, lowest completion percentage, worst touchdown/interception ratio since his rookie season).”
Then, a win over the Patriots and another humble performance by Manning, which brings us to Super Bowl 50. Carolina is a six-point favorite. Six points for a team with a 17-1 record, a young, mobile quarterback with a strong arm, and great defense versus a team with a 14-4 record, great defense, an immobile quarterback with a weak arm, and a reputation for choking in big games.
I’m like everybody else, I want Manning to have that last great game. I wanted Muhammad Ali to beat Larry Holmes. I wanted the Padres to acquire Rickey Henderson from the San Diego Surf Dawgs. I wanted Tiger Woods to win the 2015 Masters.