Monday, February 08, 2016

A Super Bowl Sunset

In the twilight of his career, Peyton Manning wasn't the man in Denver’s Super Bowl 50 win, but he didn't need to be. The defense dismantled the Panthers, which left the Broncos QB ‘at peace’ as he weighs retirement. 

by Peter King
February 8, 2016

Manning is the first starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams.

Manning is the first starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On Thursday, three days before the winningest quarterback in NFL history would play The Last Game (or at least the game we’re sure is the last one), he lined up his offense around the defensive 20-yard line and barked out signals. This would be the last full series of plays in the Super Bowl 50 practice week for Denver at Stanford Stadium, their home for the week … and maybe the last full series of practice plays in Peyton Manning’s life.
The sun was nearly touching the top of the west stands of the stadium on this beautiful California winter afternoon, creating an image of a sunset and lengthening shadows on the field as Manning directed traffic.
“Be alert! Be alert!” he called out, motioning Emmanuel Sanders across the formation. And Manning shouted out the play, which began with “Z Motion!” And then the snap, and then … nothing. No one open.
“One more time!” Manning yelled, annoyed. “Do it again!”
And the offense did, Sanders trolling the back of the end zone and Manning hitting him for a touchdown.
Manning completed 24 of 28 passes against the scout team defense on this temperate afternoon, and his coach, Gary Kubiak, said afterward that this was as good as the 39-year-old Manning had looked all season. Around the Broncos as the week aged, there was growing confidence that Manning could once more have a Manning-of-2013 game.
And then he didn’t.
And then the Broncos won the Super Bowl. By 14.
And then Manning, in the bowels of Levi’s Stadium on Sunday night, was fine with being along for the ride, almost a 2000 Dilfer, on a team with the best defense in the league that absolutely pummeled Cam Newton.
“I’ve just had a real peace this year,” Manning told me 90 minutes after the 24-10 win over the Panthers. “I didn’t know how it was going to work out. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I’m at the point … I’m okay with that.”
It must be daunting, and it must be a relief, to go from winning like Clayton Kershaw to winning like Mark Buehrle. To be utterly dominant, and then to be along for the ride on a team that hits four home runs every night. The way the Blue Jays pummeled the ball late last season is the way the Broncos’ defense pummeled Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newton in their great playoff run. Denver has a great defense. Holding Big Ben to 16 points, Brady to 18 and MVP Newton to 10? Holding the Steelers, Patriots and Panthers to four touchdowns in 12 quarters? Carolina, New England and Pittsburgh were 1-3-4 in the league in scoring, yet managed all of seven third-down conversions in three games.
Von Miller is the star of this team. He and DeMarcus Ware and two young defensive linemen (Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe), and a couple of swift linebackers and a strong and physical secondary. Manning can complete 13 of 23 for 141 yards, with two turnovers and a 56.6 rating, and the Broncos can still be the ’85 Bears.
“This is a game Peyton never would have dreamed of playing 10, 12 years ago,” his old coach, Tony Dungy, said Sunday night. “But when you win the Super Bowl, you’re fine with it.”
My theory is Manning, while rehabbing his heel and lifting and getting stronger in the 48 days he was out of the Denver lineup, looked around and realized he didn’t have to throw for 250 anymore for his team to have a chance to win. That was most of the time in Indianapolis, and much of his first two years in Denver. Just don’t make the big mistake, he must be thinking. Punts can be your friends. “I’m buying your theory,” father Archie Manning said Saturday. “I really think he’s fine with it. Look at him. He’s happy. He’s peaceful. I think you have to put this in some perspective. He had four neck surgeries [in 2010 and 2011]. He might never have played again. But playing again, and playing well when he came back—what a blessing.”
But in December, when the rehab was slow and the Broncos were struggling on offense, losing to Oakland and Pittsburgh in succession, Kubiak still was convinced the team was good enough to overcome not knowing if or when Manning would play. “There can still be a fairy-tale ending to this season,” he confided to a friend in December.
And there was, of course. Manning returned to play the second half of the final game, then as a complementary player in both the Pittsburgh and New England wins, all the while having the free world think he was retiring at the end of the year. Which he likely will do. But after talking to Dungy nine days ago, Manning felt convinced he needed to let this moment live without infecting it with the so-called Disease of Me.
“I called him,” said Dungy, “and I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do, but if you haven’t decided yet, don’t decide now. Don’t decide at halftime of the last game, or five minutes after the last game. Don’t do it in the moment.’ I think Dick Vermeil made that decision in the moment, and he regretted it. I said, ‘Let the adrenalin wear off and then decide.’”
As Manning said Sunday night, “I thought that was some good advice, to take some time and get away. Coach said, ‘Promise me you’ll do that. It felt like I was back in Indy and he was telling me, ‘Hey, be smart with this ball on third down.’ So it was good advice and I’m going to take some time. But like I said, I have a peace about it either way.”
On Saturday night, Kubiak asked captains Manning and Ware to speak to the team. Ware took a religious tone. “When you walk into the valley of the shadow of death,” Ware said, “you’re not alone.” And he showed images of the offense, the defense and the special teams on the big screen, to emphasize the team aspect of the coming day. Manning did it differently. He talked about the people in the organization, the unsung people they wouldn’t know, or know well. He quoted a favorite pastime of Kubiak’s, the coach’s preference to use “Wise Words” through the year to pass along a lesson. “One of my favorites,” Manning said, “is, ‘Life is fair. Keep working.’” Quarterback coach Greg Knapp said it was the best team-unifying speech he’s heard from a player in his years in football.
“We were ready to play last night,” tight end Owen Daniels said Sunday.
During the day Sunday, when Kubiak saw Manning at the team hotel, he said: “How’d you sleep?”
Manning said, “Like a baby. Ten-and-a-half hours.” Much longer than usual.
Whoa. Maybe the man really was at peace. The game was, in many ways, 1966 football. Quarterbacks playing inefficiently, at least in part because of the ceaseless pressure from both defenses. And it came down to, at the end of the game, Denver trying to play keepaway in a six-point game (Denver, 16-10) the same way the Broncos tried to play keepaway in an eight-point game (Denver, 20-12) in the AFC title game against New England.
Third-and-nine, Denver 26, 5:42 left. Surely Manning would try to convert through the air. No sir. “I thought I saw him change the play to a run,” said Dungy. And Manning did. C.J. Anderson, gain of two. Punt. An incompletion would have taken maybe seven seconds off the clock here. The two-yard run took 43 seconds off. Britton Colquitt punted.
Manning was playing four-corners. He didn’t care. He had Von Miller to strip-sack Newton for the second time moments later, and Anderson scored the clinching touchdown, and Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl without throwing a touchdown pass. He went 3-0 in the postseason and didn’t throw for a touchdown in two of the three wins.
But he has his second Super Bowl title now. And in a day or two, he’ll get away, somewhere no one will find him and his family, and he’ll figure out what to do with his life. At least for now.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Manning said—and he has to know a nation eye-rolls at that. Everyone thinks he’s riding off into the sunset the way Bettis and Strahan and, yes, Elway, have done in the past two decades.
“Ashley and I, we’ll have that talk at some point, but we are going to enjoy this tonight and celebrate. Our kids are four and they are in Pre-K and the teachers say, you really shouldn’t pull them out of school. We are pulling them out! We are going somewhere and we are going to get the heck out of town.
“I have one thing I’ll say, I’ve had good experience with making some decisions, choosing where to go to college, staying for my senior year in college and deciding which NFL team to play for in free agency four years ago. I’ve taken time on all those, I’ve prayed about it, I’ve talked to some people about it and I think I will do that with this. But I have a peace about it whichever way it goes. I’m glad I have been able to get through these two weeks with the focus staying on the team, because that is what it has been about this year. I’ve been a part of it.
“Do you know deep down inside what you are going to do?” I said.
“I don’t,” he said.
But if this is it, and assuming it is, this has been the kind of year Manning has never come close to experiencing as one of the best players ever. Yanked from the lineup. Hurt in midseason. A backup when he returned. Coming back to win a Super Bowl.
“Somebody could say, this year, you really did everything as a QB,” Manning said, sounding wistful. The bus was waiting on him, and he could feel the world waiting for him. For once, he didn’t seem to care.
“I hadn’t been a backup, hadn’t really been injured. I played a long time, but I’d only seen it from one way. I know there are a couple scenarios that I haven’t been in, but I covered a lot of bases this year. Like I said, there is a real perspective to that. And it was really sort of educational for me. You know nobody loves the quarterback position more than me. Today, with the 50th Super Bowl and the league bringing back all the MVPs, I saw Phil Simms and I saw Joe Montana and Steve Young out there on the field before the game. I wanted so badly to find a way to be out there for that MVP picture out there with Eli [his brother] and Tom Brady and Joe Namath. Impossible. There was no way I could do it. But nobody loves quarterbacks more than me and I think I have an even greater perspective and appreciation for the position after this year and I’ve stuck with it. You find out a lot. And it certainly ended up in a real good way today, didn’t it?”
It did. For 53 Broncos and a coaching staff and an organization. An egalitarian Super Bowl, with the quarterback in twilight a part. And the smile on his face, the wide, wide smile, told the story. He was fine with being one of 53, winning a different way. It felt as good.

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