SAN JOSE, Calif. - Peyton Manning continues to avoid making any declarative statements about whether Super Bowl 50 will be the final game of his 18-year run. But as you stood there listening to and asking questions of the 39-year-old future Hall of Fame quarterback at the league’s annual media extravaganza, you can’t draw any conclusion except the one that is screaming out, even if it’s not verbalized.
It would be a shock if Manning were to do anything else but walk away relatively soon after he faces the Panthers.
Yes, he continues to abide by the mantra he adopted midway through the season when he was sidelined by a foot injury.
“Just to go one week at a time has helped me,” he said Monday night. “Not look too far ahead, not look too far back. I’m going to try to stick with that for one more week and focus on this tremendous challenge that we have of playing the Panthers.”
But when I asked Manning, whose love of football includes an encyclopedic knowledge of its history, about once-great quarterbacks such as Johnny Unitas (whom he patterned his game after) and Joe Namath playing one season too long and tarnishing their legacies, he made you realize he understands exactly where he is. And the risks associated with hanging on too long for his own good.
“I think I understand whether you can still contribute and if you’re in the way and just hanging on, a nuisance to a team,” he said. “It would be one thing if you were asking me this question if we were 4-11 and this is the last game, ‘Hey, what are you gonna do?’
“Somehow, some way we’re playing in the Super Bowl. I get to start at quarterback in it and I’m grateful for that opportunity and I think I haven’t gotten too reflective and too analytical of the big picture. At some point after the season, I’ll have that comprehensive analysis, but I’m really at peace with it. I’m at peace with it.”
Then he connected one more important dot to make it even more apparent that this will be it. After initially pooh-poohing speculation that he told Bill Belichick after the AFC Championship Game that this might be “his last rodeo,’’ Manning not only acknowledged the conversation, but expanded upon it.
“Look, I’m a realist. I know there’s talk about this conversation I had with Belichick two weeks ago and that was not pre-planned,” he said. “It was a spontaneous reaction. Sometimes, you want to tell somebody something man to man.
“I told Brady the same thing previous to telling Belichick. I’m aware that this could be it. I wanted to tell both of them that I’ve enjoyed the games. It’s been part of my football life, and both those guys have been a part of it — good for me and not so good for me. Just take the time to tell them.”
He kept talking, and kept revealing.
“Brady’s going to play till he’s 70. Belichick’s going to coach till he’s 90,” Manning said. “Maybe I hit the fountain of youth sometime in the next month and play another 10 years. Maybe we play in 10 more championships against each other. But just in case we don’t, I took the time to tell them both man-to-man. I shook their hands, and I’m glad that I did it because it was important to me that they knew that. In the moment, face-to-face, man-to-man. That’s all that that meant.
“I said this could be it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it will be. Maybe I get to play 10 more AFC Championships, and if I do, eight of them will probably be against the Patriots, because I promise you they’ll be there.
“I don’t know if it’s having kids or getting old, but yeah, I catch myself being a little more emotional at times. That was an emotional game. Brady and I usually have a short exchange and people are bumping into you. So I took an extra 30 seconds to shake his hand, look him in the eye and tell him face-to-face how much respect I have for him. These are things he knew. There’s something about telling him face-to- face.”
If you come up with anything other than Manning knows his time has come, then let me know. There is no other conclusion to be drawn.
And as far as the NFL’s investigation into his alleged HGH use, he’s at peace with that, too. “I welcome it,” he said of the investigation, also suggesting he’d hand over any documentation from the Guyer Institute in Indianapolis, where he was treated for a neck problem in 2011.
A former employee, Charlie Sly, told Al Jazeera of America he had shipped HGH in Manning’s wife’s name, although he later recanted those statements.
“I know the rules of the NFL, and I respect the rules and they’re important to me,’’ Manning said. “What this report alleges that I did is simply not true. It’s fabricated. It’s junk. It’s garbage. I can give you a long list of other words for it. I can guarantee you this investigation what it finds is absolutely a big fat nothing. That’s how I feel about it.”
There is no timetable for the NFL’s investigation, only that it will not be concluded before Sunday’s game. In the meantime, Manning will resume the one-week-at-a-time approach that has benefited him so much these last several weeks.
But as Manning drew back the curtain on his emotions heading into Sunday’s game, you understood exactly what he’s facing and what he’s thinking.
Manning knows his time has come. All that’s left is one last attempt to walk off into his NFL sunset with a Super Bowl trophy.
Peyton Manning, who will turn 40 on March 24, is trying to become the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. The golden oldies:
QB Years/days Season Super Bowl
John Elway 38/217 1998 XXXIII
Johnny Unitas 37/255 1970 V
John Elway 37/211 1997 XXXII
Tom Brady 37/182 2014 XLIX