Following the Denver Broncos stunning 24-10 upset win over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, Peyton Manning was once again forced to answer questions about his NFL future at age 39 and with his skills noticeably declining. And once again, he skirted the issue after claiming the second Super Bowl title of his career.
“I’ll take some time to reflect,” Manning told CBS reporter Tracy Wolfson moments after the game. “I got a couple priorities first. I’m going to go kiss my wife and my kids. I’m going to drink a lot of Budweiser tonight.”
Manning’s answer simultaneously leaves both retirement and another season open. However, there are several reasons why the five-time All-Pro and two-time Super Bowl champion Manning should bow out now.
Manning became the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl and shortly thereafter he morphed into the oldest one to actually win, putting his critics and those constantly calling for his retirement in their place.
But forcing crow down the throats of naysayers doesn’t erase the fact that Manning is a shell of his former self, and coming back in 2016 wipes away the best opportunity to go out on top.
Manning can mosey towards the sunset just like his boss and Broncos president John Elway did in 1999, capping a Hall of Fame career with consecutive Super Bowl titles and the roar of a championship crowd behind him.
No one else did it before or since Elway, and Manning can do the same while avoiding a repeat of his statistically and physically marred 18th NFL season. Relying on the Broncos stacked, pass-rush heavy defense just like he did in the Super Bowl, Manning was second-worst in the NFL with 17 interceptions despite starting only nine games and appearing in 10.
Thus his interceptions rate (5.1 percent), completion percentage (59.8), touchdown pass rate (2.7), and quarterback rating (67.9) were all the lowest of Manning’s career his since rookie season in 1998.
And when he was a rookie, those numbers weren’t about a lack of physical ability, just a young man with sharp football mind who needed enough time under center for the game to slow down.
Now, at 39, the physical abilities are largely diminished and many other great quarterbacks have come and gone with all their mental faculties still intact but their bodies unable to take hits or make all the throws required of a field general.
Manning’s already given his biggest supporters a sight of what it’s like to see him on the decline, and he continues to run the risk of simply hanging around just a little too long like Hall of Famer and former 49ers Super Bowl champ Joe Montana.
Now 59 after retiring following the 1994 NFL season, Montana posted a 17-8 record over his final two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, but he told USA Today Sports what his body goes through 20 years later.
"The mental part was hard initially when I first retired. Because it's quick -- cold turkey, the game's gone," Montana said. "Then the physical stuff tries to catch up with you."
Montana then went on with what seemed like a bit of a cautionary tale.
"My whole family likes to live on the edge, so some of the things I regret that I can't do with them," Montana told USA Today Sports. "Like snowboarding. I fell like 50 times within 30 yards off the top of the ski lift. ... I love basketball. I can't play basketball. I can shoot, but that's about it. I can't run up and down the court. My knee just gives out.
"I tried a little bit of skiing, but unfortunately when you get weight on one ski under my left knee, it's just not very strong. After my first back surgery, what kind of compounds things, is my sciatic nerve has been damaged. So the muscles along my sciatic nerve into my left foot have been numb since '86."
Like Montana, Manning must consider if playing another year is worth re-injuring the neck that required four surgeries and cost him the entire 2011 season.
There’s also the question of where exactly Manning will play, and it seems unlikely to be Denver. The Broncos will enter the NFL’s free agency period with linebacker and Super Bowl MVP Von Miller requiring a new contract, as well as defensive end Malik Jackson, linebacker Danny Trevathan, and running back C.J. Anderson.
Manning has one year remaining on his contract with Denver at the salary cap hit of $21.5 million, cap room that could be lifted and applied to the much younger pending free agents. It seems unlikely that a contending team seeking a quarterback would take a risk on signing Manning, so the chances of winning a third title would be a big long shot.
Some might call Manning crazy for leaving that amount of money on the table, but calling it quits seems like a much better option than trying to latch on with a quarterback-desperate, non-contender at this stage of his career and life.