As endings go, this was about as perfect as you could expect.
Peyton Manning somehow pushed his body a year past its expiration date, squeezed out one last championship run that was carried not by his right arm but by the Broncos’ wondrous defense, and came to realize there was no better time to leave the sport he adores.
Exactly a month after winning his second Super Bowl title and hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Manning stood before family, friends, teammates, coaches and front-office executives and bid farewell to a career that will go down as one of the greatest in NFL history.
Choking back tears and reminiscing about his 18 seasons with the Colts and Broncos, Manning pulled off his retirement speech as brilliantly as he choreographed his offense during a record-setting career that produced many of the most important passing records. He thanked everyone who needed to be thanked, credited all who helped make him one of the most prolific quarterbacks ever, and expressed his passion for the game with just the right words.
“I revere football. I love the game,” Manning said. “You don’t have to wonder if I’ll miss it. Absolutely. Absolutely, I will.”
He told us how his relentless preparation — the hours of watching game tapes, taking meticulous notes and his exhaustive and exhausting practice habits — all were “about one thing: reverence for the game. When I look back on this game, I gave everything . . . Because of that, I have no regrets.”
Manning, who turns 40 March 24, told the Broncos over the weekend that he had decided to retire. Riding the coattails of a defense for the ages that featured extraordinary pass rusher Von Miller, Manning became the first quarterback to win a ring for different teams.
“I fought a good fight,” Manning said. “I finished my football race, and after 18 years, it’s time. God bless all of you, and God bless football.”
His final days featured not the trademark throws that marked his prime, especially his remarkable 2013 season, in which he had a record 55 touchdown passes two years after undergoing a fourth neck surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2011 season. No, he was a shell of his former self in 2015, an athlete whose body clearly had betrayed him. He appeared to be limping toward a pathetic end that Willie Mays, Joe Namath and even his idol, Johnny Unitas, couldn’t avoid.
But somehow Manning found a way, and that may be his greatest legacy of all. Yes, we will remember the brilliant years, the way he would scan the defense, go through all the permutations in his head of what might happen once the ball was snapped, and flail his arms while delivering secret instructions to teammates. We will remember the perfectly timed throws to Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas. Manning was the most accurate passer ever, and to watch him pick apart a defense was as good theater as you will find in sports.
But he added something else to his legacy last season, something that didn’t seem possible when it appeared he had nothing left to give. That game against the Chiefs on Nov. 15, when he threw four interceptions and looked like a burned-out husk, made you think it was over right then and there. It looked as if he would never play again.
Yet despite a foot injury that had robbed him of the ability to push off while throwing, Manning healed enough in the ensuing weeks to give himself and his team one final chance. After coach Gary Kubiak saw enough from Manning during his solitary practices off to the side, he came off the bench to win the regular-season finale, and he never left.
Still weak-armed and with almost no mobility, Manning adapted to his role as a game manager, relied on his running game and his defense — and a handful of clutch throws — and was good enough to produce the capstone to a remarkable career.
Manning would have been ill-advised to continue playing, even if his spirit was willing. He could not do it any longer, and good for him for understanding his limitations and not subjecting himself to an unfortunate ending.
His final days weren’t without controversy, however. Al Jazeera reported in December that human growth hormone, which is banned by the NFL, was shipped to Manning’s house in 2011, when he was recovering from neck problems. Manning vehemently denied he used HGH, although the NFL’s investigation continues.
Further controversy swirled after the Super Bowl about a locker room incident in 1996 at the University of Tennessee that resulted in an out-of-court settlement with former trainer Jamie Naughright. Asked about the incident Monday, Manning said: “I did not do what has been alleged, and I am not interested in re-litigating something that happened when I was 19. Like Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.”
Skeptics might suggest Manning’s departure was hastened by the fallout, but the time was just right for him to walk away.
“Life is not shrinking for me,” said Manning, who will have a host of opportunities, including television broadcasting and job offers to run teams. “It’s morphing into a whole new world of possibilities.”
We will be seeing more of him, just not in a football uniform.
“It was just the right time,” he said. “Maybe I don’t throw as good as I used to or run as good as I used to, but I’ve always had good timing.”
That he does. Farewell to a brilliant athlete who left the sport on his own terms.
A perfect ending.