Whether he’ll admit it or not, we are witnessing the twilight of Peyton Manning’s long and illustrious career in the NFL.
The Broncos may be 2-0 and Manning may still be capable of leading last-minute drives (as he did against the Chiefs last Thursday), but make no mistake about it: Peyton Manning’s days in the NFL are numbered.
Kevin Von Valkenburg published a terrific story about the 39-year-old quarterback today over at ESPN, and the first few paragraphs, in which he describes the painstaking process Manning goes through after each game to remove his pads, paint a portrait of a broken down veteran and one who, frankly, doesn’t belong in the league.
From Von Valkenburg:
He begins with his cleats, which he can barely untie without assistance. A Broncos equipment staffer helps peel them off his feet while he does a radio interview, because after nearly 25 years of football dating back to high school, it’s a relief to not have to bend over that far. Next come his shoulder pads, which, when yanked over his head, generate a groan that is a mixture of suffering and sweet relief. Manning’s pale arms and torso are covered in fresh scrapes and old bruises, some the colour of strawberries, others a shade of eggplant.
His socks come off after several violent tugs, revealing toes that are twisted and bent into obtuse angles. When he removes a thick blue DonJoy knee brace from his stiff left leg, he twice pauses to grimace and gather himself before stripping it off and handing it to a staffer for safekeeping.
This is great detail, and it’s also gruesome. Of course, Manning’s deterioration has been well-documented of late, most notably vis-a-vis his arm strength and the wobbly footballs that quiver through the air like R.A Dickey knuckle-balls. Even though the Broncos have won both their games, the narrative around the Broncos this season has been — and will continue to be — one not of a stymieing defence but of a struggling quarterback.
And yet, Manning’s throws have always had some wobble to them. As Von Valkenburg notes, Manning has racked up over 70,000 total yards and a plethora of offensive records not because he has produced Aaron Rodgers-esque ropes but because, over the years, he has continued to simply see the defences better, read and study them like chessboards. This season, his brain certainly hasn’t shut off — the question is whether his body can still keep up with his mind, and if it can, for how much longer?
Perhaps this question has already been answered. From Von Valkenburg:
Through Week 2, he had a 41.0 Total QBR, 29th in the league. He was averaging just 215.5 passing yards per game with a 58.8 per cent completion rate. He’d been sacked seven times. His numbers haven’t been this low since his rookie year. And yet, his team is winning.
As Charlie Pierce noted last week in Grantland, if Manning never took another snap he’d still go down as one of the all-time great quarterbacks in the sport. The only soft spot in his legacy — if you even want to call it soft — is that he has only won one Super Bowl. It seems hard to believe that Manning will get another one this year, but crazier things have happened.
If the Broncos do make the playoffs, it will be because his body has found a way to match his mind, and because the offensive line will have better protected him from getting hit. Following the team’s win over the Chiefs last week, players kept coming up to Manning and slapping him on the back to congratulate him. Writes von Valkenburg:
He was grinning like a high school kid, but each time it happened, he winced in pain, looking every bit like a 39-year-old man with a sore neck who wished he could see the hits coming, if only so he could brace himself for such a hearty celebration.
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