In sports, rarely does the fairy-tale ending come true. In the NBA, LeBron James returned to the shores of Lake Erie to lead his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to their first NBA title—until they ran into the buzz-saw that is the Golden State Warriors. In baseball, the New York Mets made everyone believers, until they met their match in the World Series against the Kansas City Royals.
But after 39-year old Peyton Manning came away with his second Super Bowl in a season-ending run fit for a Disney movie, the Denver Broncos quarterback has a chance to exit on top—and he shouldn’t hesitate. In fact, Manning may have already missed on the chance to make his exit all the more grand with an announcement following the game, somewhere between meeting the founder of Papa Johns and announcing his intentions to kiss his wife and drink Budweiser.
The veteran signal-caller has proved everything he needs to prove, so it's time for Manning to take a play from Marshawn Lynch's book and kiss his cleats goodbye.
Growing up rooting for the former Indianapolis Colts quarterback in his numerous matchups against Tom Brady, I couldn’t help but admire Manning’s ability to beat teams not with rapid-fire velocity and superior arm strength, but with an uncanny ability to make the right play. Manning was the quarterback friends aimed to be in backyard flag-football games with his bullet-point accuracy leaving defenses helpless.
Throughout this season, much of what I loved about the now two-time Super Bowl champion was gone. Manning’s accuracy was replaced by wobbling footballs that took what felt like ages to drop into receivers’ hands. He finished second in the league in regular season interceptions and struggled to move the ball downfield. Manning had his series of Nationwide commercials, but he also seemed to face a ticking clock for when he would be pulled off the field.
But for once, things broke the right way for the future Hall of Famer, who, after Sunday's win, sports just a 14-13 playoff record. And sitting here today, gone are the memories of Manning dropping a home Wild Card game to Mark Sanchez in 2011 or throwing a game-ending interception against the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.
The veteran saved his toughest run to the Lombardi Trophy for last, as he toppled rivals Ben Roethlisberger and Brady—who own six Super Bowl rings between them—to reach the title game. With nearly everyone betting against him, Manning temporarily halted the coronation of Carolina’s Cam Newton.
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No, Manning’s statistics were not impressive, and yes, he did in fact play with maybe one of the greatest defenses of all-time. Some might call his 13-of-23, 141-yard, two-turnover performance the worst by a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
But the ring belongs to the 19-year veteran and deservedly so. The quarterback’s management of the game and recognition of the plays to call in crunch-time propelled the Broncos to close wins all season. In fact, with backup quarterback Brock Osweiler at the helm, even Denver’s stout defense could not save it from a pair of losses to the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers that almost sent the team tumbling to the AFC's No. 5 seed.
Manning’s road to recovery from multiple neck surgeries and perseverance when things looked bleak is an inspiration that not even HGH allegations can cloud. The quarterback’s success can be attributed to the hours spent watching film and working with receivers to perfect every little route and break so that even his floaters make it to open targets.
Where should the Sherriff go from here?
The Los Angeles Rams? Forget about it, Peyton.
Manning would be hard pressed to muster up enough strength to make it through another full season and doing so makes little sense, since the signal-caller is likely to spend most of his time handing the ball off. The quarterback reportedly made an emotional speech to his teammates before Sunday’s victory, and with people more acknowledging of recent success, Manning has likely blunted the memories of missing the Super Bowl in his first eight campaigns and his oft-maligned struggles in cold weather.
In addition to becoming the oldest quarterback in NFL history to win the title, Manning also ended the perpetual joke of his younger brother Eli winning more Lombardi Trophies, and evened the AFC Championship Game ledger against Brady.
As for the Broncos, it’s hard to imagine they would clamor for Manning to come back unless he accepts a role on the sidelines as a backup. General manager John Elway—who himself rode off into the sunset after winning Super Bowl XXXIII in 1999—has shown his ability to make franchise-altering decisions and handing the keys to Osweiler, an unrestricted free-agent-to-be, is an opportunity he can’t pass up.
Now, we’ll certainly see Manning once again next season. For his sake, I hope it’s on a commercial for Papa Johns or Nationwide instead of on the football field.