Deconstructing Peyton


In the pre-dusk hours of his career, Peyton Manning doesn’t play like the NFL would want you to imagine him playing. They can’t really do that camera-panning-from-the-feet-up thing. That resting-for-a-moment-on-his-chest-of-armor-before-caressing-his-jutted-out-jaw thing. The-slow-motion-dragon-snorts-of-cold-air-from-his-nostrils-and-mouth thing. The most-exciting-thing-he’s-done-this-season-is-sneak-a-late-night-turkey-club-up-the-hotel’s-back-stairs thing.

Though still in the top twenty pocket change jinglers of NFL’ers, he’s got the dwindling endorsement deals of a retired catcher, relegated to obsolete footwear and gross pizza hucked by a guy who calls himself Papa and has some really questionable face work exposed on the regular by the miracle of HD. The get-my-mail and water-my-lawn equivalent of side deals for a man who just Sunday broke the league’s all-time touchdown record.

Manning is old if not resourceful. His tiny blue marbles still dart over the black and white facsimile pages of the drive that was on the sidelines. When he takes his helmet off instead of the Barry Gibb mane of Tom Brady, he sports the spotty coif of a doll his two-year-old daughter just furnished with a home haircut.

More recently, as he coaches in-game, his squint bears the knowledge that the game goes on without him. And though there’s a fight there left, some competitive glue which holds those loose and creaky joints together, there is no more urgency of now, just the sense memory of a man doing, as long as nature will allow, what he was born to do.

If there is a legacy, some kind of hidden desire to become immortal in a fan’s fading memory, Manning stuffs it deep in his carryon, behind the sensible shirts and the first job interview slacks; underneath an extra pair of business socks, next to his comb and a half-empty bottle of hotel mouthwash he got a season, or maybe two, ago.

Whether he wins another, whether he can put his fingerprints all over that shiny silver trophy and wear that silly hat and throw that silly T-shirt over his shoulder pads while the confetti gets stuck to his forehead, is largely irrelevant: to his family, his wallet and perhaps most importantly, his legacy.

His boss, John Elway, sits from a rarified perch and gazes in approval. As a lion in winter himself, Elway rode one sixth-round pick called Terrell Davis to a pair of late-career championships as shadows slipped long over his career in the Mile-High City.

Elway’s may have been a different path than Manning’s, for sure. He didn’t taste early success and never had much in the way of receivers to throw to until his arm had about 200k miles and he was looking to trade in his body for zero down and 1.9% APR at one of his Denver-area dealerships.

Elway’s contemporaries, from the Kosars and Testaverdes to the Marinos and Montanas, had long left the game and were keeping a bar stool warm for the multi-sport buck toothed mop-haired Stanford grad with a cannon and a brain. But Elway had to cement that legacy and so he dove, headlong and like a helicopter, into his own perception of history in Super Bowl XXXII.

But don’t expect such flamboyance from Elway’s hired gun this post-season, or any for that matter. For his part, Manning doesn’t perceive nor project himself to be that important. Maybe it’s a sign of humility, or self-awareness or true stare-it-down-for-a-minute admission of mortality.

Most NFL players, even the greats, aren’t given the luxury of time to ruminate over a career until well after it’s gone and they’re bending over in a tee box on the shores of Kaanapali and the cart girl suddenly doesn’t look at them quite the same and they can’t remember what they had for lunch (or if they had lunch) and if you spun ’em around three times and asked them to go find which condo they were staying at, they’d simply fake a laugh and a shrug and go plunk down at the cabana bar and make small talk with the willing patrons until the wife comes to fetch.

Peyton gets to reflect in real time, as he’s setting records, as he’s making defensive ends jittery with hard counts, as his body’s still recovering from neck surgery.

The best retirement holds for those of Peyton’s ilk, if in fact, he has an ilk: It gets worse from here. Headaches, cat scans, sleepless nights, a medicine cabinet with a corner pharmacy’s worth of child safety caps and the name once familiar to millions staring back in bold typeface. The average lifespan of an NFL position player is about twenty years less than an average man and to some, it’s a blessing. A forever solution to the daily repetitive brain trauma, never-healed knee ligaments, arthritic joints and the teeth gnashing long-term effects of exposure to acute pain, chronic use of painkillers and a neck that doesn’t quite turn to gaze at oncoming traffic at every intersection.

His emergence in Denver was, like much of the rest of his career, both classy and choreographed. He did not sprint outside the pocket and toward the sidelines, away from the problem that was the Colts, a franchise he resurrected and left in a state of significance if not vague relevance to the rest of the sporting world. The break-up was amicable and timely, and like Maverick in the end, he had his choice of assignments; what wicker chair he wanted to rock on for the remainder of his career behind center.

For awhile there were rumors of Chicago, San Francisco, even New York across the bridge from his brother. But in the end, he wound up in the Rockies, perhaps laboring under the carefully calculated notion that his passes might sail a few yards farther in the thin mountain air.

Surely, Broncos faithful, a pair of Super Bowls to cap Elway’s career notwithstanding, were used to disappointment. The disquieted fan base under a canopy of sky and snow and dramatic granite peaks is never churlish or wavering. Perhaps because they have something to cheer for as long as there’s cheerleaders in chaps and Coors heavy on tap.

But there was unrest there, like an event you want to be truly great — a wedding or a prom; all this preparation and anticipation and flights and hotels, and barely stumbling through regular season and the big inhale for a playoff run, then, suddenly the 6 am alarm rings and you’re late for check in and it’s just. Over.

In May 2011, while the Mile High city was temporarily attaching its hopes to a young Florida transplant who has a kneeling position named after him, Manning underwent neck surgery to alleviate the neck pain and associated arm weakness while signing five-year, $90 million contract extension with the Colts.

In September of that year, he underwent a second, and possibly career-ending surgery: a level one cervical fusion procedure. He missed the miss the entire 2011 campaign. He was released by the Colts on March 7, 2012 and signed with the Broncos two weeks later.

As he’d been criticized in his career for sticking around well after lights out, Elway was criticized in the front office for signing a falling star.

Peyton’s tenure in Denver has provided a kind of kinky and nervous roller coaster through a pair seasons which ended impassively if not in predictably bad fashion with a devastating loss to the lopsided and inconsequential Baltimore Ravens, the most forgettable team who would be Super Bowl champions in decades.

The whole murkiness of expected relevance eviscerated in a last-second field goal hung over the fan base, but apparently if they’d wished that Manning take that moment with him into the offseason and wear it like a missing piece of shoulder through this one, they didn’t get that satisfaction. Then again, Denver fans are nothing if not about patience, they’ve been living with that orange for more than a half-century, after all.

Manning did what Manning does and quietly went about his business in a way one can imagine an out-of-town consultant does. In his 16th season, he threw for 5,400 yards, the most in his career. His average pass went for 8.3 yards, the most in his career. His 342 yards per game, the most in his career. Fifty five regular-season touchdowns, the most in his career. And 10 interceptions are tied for the second-fewest in his career.

But what does any of it mean if not punching a ticket deep into the post-season. His Elway turn started Sunday in a score-doesn’t-show-the-lopsidedness of a home victory against division upstart San Diego, 24-17 on Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

A pair of stunningly timely third-down conversions to tight end Julius Thomas, one of Manning’s eight favorite targets, clinched an AFC championship meet up; his top-seeded 13-3 juggernaut at home vs. the man the press would have you believe is his biggest foe this side of a double-stuffed Oreo, Tom Brady in their fifteenth match-up.

“There were a lot of teams that had disappointing losses last year,” Manning said post-game Sunday in a Manning way that tiptoes around cliché and paints it with the shiny lacquer of aww-shucks honesty. “Atlanta and Washington and everybody said in that locker let’s get back next year — it just doesn’t happen. It’s hard to get back. I told the team last night you need to be commended for getting back to this point. It’s hard to explain all the stuff we’ve been through all season. So to get to this point was really hard work and to win this game was a lot of hard work.”

Kicking off a week of high-road-taking Hall of Fame QBs, Peyton lobbed the first soft ball when asked which play caller would represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.

“Tom Brady has been an outstanding quarterback for such a long time but the game next week is the Broncos versus the Patriots,” Manning said Sunday. “I know there’s going to be some individual matchups that get headlines but it will be a battle between good teams. Teams that have been through a lot.”

And so Denver gets what it wants, its first AFC championship game since Jake Plummer was in charge in 2005. And Peyton gets what he wants, one more game to endure.

His story will not go under covered, there is a come back tome in there. But we never had to endure Peyton hitting near bottom. In fact, the focus has been so much about the core of the Broncos team (its defense) if only because Peyton’s story is only compelling in its predictability.

There’s no fragments of a rivalry gone bad. No delicious personal tidbits of painkiller addiction or selfless sent to the wrong girl to sprinkle on top. No locker room meltdowns. No egregious sideline thank yous to a higher power. Just a 17-game interpretation of what true preparation looks like. Peyton doesn’t give ultimate answers off the field and introspection from actions on it will be left to that moment of self-realization on the lava rock-garnished fairways of Maui, in a time and space where he swings and speculates with his true contemporary, himself.

If there’s an ultimate answer to it all, it is in the sharpness of the present; self-discovery in the form of the adjusted play call and the so-hurried-it-moves-in-slow-motion offense manned by the most in control, win or lose, to ever play the game.

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