Peyton Manning is riding off into the sunset on a horse made of confetti. Many expected him to announce his retirement this offseason no matter what the Denver Broncos did in the postseason. What the Broncos did was win the dang Super Bowl.
And so it seems likely Manning will take the rare opportunity to leave a sport on top. So Manning and his confetti horse are riding to a land where the Papa John's grows on trees and the Budweiser rivers never run dry. Oh, it looks so beautiful.
If Manning does retire, he will draw comparison to his boss, Broncos GM John Elway, who also ended his career with a Super Bowl win. But there's one critical distinction: Elway ended his career with a 336-yard MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXIII. Manning will have ended his career with a relative dud.
Manning went 13-of-23 passing for 141 yards with no touchdowns and an interception, plus he lost a fumble. The Broncos finished with just 186 offensive yards, the least of any Super Bowl champion ever. 2015 was by far the worst season of Manning's career, as the typically brilliant quarterback ranked among the worst quarterbacks in the league. And this was one of the worst games he played in his worst season, the only game he started and finished with so few passing yards. Of Manning's 296 career games, this game tied for the 272nd-best QB rating.
The Broncos did not win the Super Bowl because of Peyton Manning. They won because of a freakin' incredible defense that stifled the NFL's MVP and most dynamic player, forcing two fumbles that led to two touchdowns.
Denver's defense was so incredibly good that Manning just needed to be non-disastrous to win a title. He did that, and now he gets to saddle up his confetti horse and head towards the horizon.
Peyton Manning is one of the greatest football players of all time. At his best, he epitomized the combination of physical and mental talents it takes to be an elite NFL quarterback. He was improvisational and mechanical at the same time, reading defenses and directing receivers to get open, then finding them with perfectly thrown balls. The game of football has permanently changed for the better because of him.
Yet due to some disappointing postseason exits, some Super Bowl losses and the misfortune of existing at the same time as some other spectacular players and teams, Manning's championship legacy was a lean one. For the majority of his early career, he had a reputation as a postseason choke artist. That kinda vanished when he won a title, but Manning still looked set to end his historically brilliant career with a slew of records, but just the one championship.
Manning redefined the quarterback position, yet to those who view Super Bowl rings as the ultimate decider of QB greatness, Manning was just as good as Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer. Nobody would ever call Peyton the less important Manning brother, yet Eli had the upper hand on him.
For all the years Manning was a revelation and failed, it only made karmic sense that he won one in a year he could barely play.
The best year of Manning's career was probably two years ago, when he set NFL records for passing yardage and touchdowns. But that year, the Broncos were demolished in the Super Bowl by the Seattle Seahawks. This year, Manning set career lows in passing yardage and touchdowns, even if we go on a per-game basis that would factor in the games Manning missed with a foot injury. And yet this is the year Manning gets the biggest reward in football.
Too often, we see athletes end their careers in embarrassing ways. Their skills have gone, and often, their continued presence makes their team worse.
About 350 miles south of Santa Clara, one of the greatest basketball players of all time is playing the last season of his career. It's filled with airballs, blowout losses and nice videos from opponents about how much respect they have for him. For so long, the Los Angeles Lakers have counted on Kobe Bryant's brilliance to succeed. Now there's a roughly Kobe-sized hole in their basketball team, leaving them woefully incomplete. It's especially sad to watch a team with a Kobe-sized hole when one of the players on the team is Kobe.
Manning was close to this situation. After all, a lot of his skills did vanish. In 2015, Manning's arm strength was practically non-existent. Without the vertical bomb in his arsenal, a lot of his ability to pick apart defenses is gone. The deep routes he used to call for his receivers aren't feasible anymore. He was hobbled, not really able to avoid defenders.
What Manning got was the best retirement gift of all time: A defense so good, nobody will remember his late-career inadequacies. While the flaws of other elder athletes are often quite evident thanks to their struggle-filled environments, Denver's defense was so exquisite that Manning was able to reach the pinnacle of football even while being one of the worst players at its most important position.
The Broncos did not win the Super Bowl because of Peyton Manning, but we don't have to dwell on that fact. Time will forget that Manning's last year was a dud. Time will only remember the image of Manning leaving the sport on top, with the Lombardi Trophy raised high and the streamers flowing down. After all he's done, he deserves that final image.
Although I'm sure his image will remain on our TV screens, providing updates from the land of Papa John's and Budweiser. I hope he and his confetti horse are happy there.
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