By: Chris Dagonas
Super Bowl 50 was a pretty underwhelming football game, all things considered. The Panthers could barely scrape together enough offense to score 10 points, while the Broncos managed just one offensive touchdown, adding in a defensive touchdown and string of field goals to come out victorious, 24-10.
Denver’s defense was the defining unit of the game. DeMarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe and Von Miller, the game’s MVP, made Carolina quarterback Cam Newton scramble, rush, and hit the dirt over and over again, and the Panthers were never able to establish a rhythm.
The Panthers’ defense did a fine job as well, but too often had short fields to defend. By the end of the first half, the Broncos had all the points they would end up needing.
The story that will emerge out of this game, above Cam Newton’s poor play and pouting, above Eli Manning’s non-reaction to his brother’s pending Super Bowl win, was Peyton Manning’s victory and pending retirement.
Manning said immediately after the game that he is going to take time to consider whether or not to retire. But truly, Manning has achieved everything expected of a first-overall selection quarterback in his career. He has won five MVP awards, two Super Bowls, and is currently the NFL’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns, passing yards, and wins. Sunday night’s victory gave him an even 200 for his career, the most in league history until Tom Brady likely surpasses it next year. In short, Manning has had the sort of career every high-school quarterback dreams about.
I started really paying attention to the NFL in the late 90’s. My first hero, Dan Marino, was winding down his career with the Dolphins and a young Peyton Manning was entering the league with the Colts.
Manning had a style uniquely his own. His constant audible calls, his happy feet in the pocket, his thick southern accent and decidedly uncool demeanor played opposite to a lot of the quarterbacks of the 90’s; Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, John Elway and Steve Young were all flashy, handsome, and cool. Manning was none of those.
But, he was great from the beginning, and grew quickly into excellent. With the decline of Brett Favre in the mid-to-late 2000’s, Manning and Brady were mentioned in the same breath when discussing the best quarterbacks of the decade. Again, Manning stood in poor comparison, socially, to his rival. Brady had the models, the hair, the face. Manning had, well, the brain.
As for the arm, well that was never really Manning’s strongest feature. He could hit talented receivers like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne downfield most of the time, but the Colts offense was not built for massive amounts of yards. When Manning did end the season with the most passing yards, it wasn’t by lighting up opponents with 50-yard bombs. Usually, it was because the Colts had a mediocre running game and average defense, and needed Manning to throw the ball 40-50 times per game in order to win.
But no question about it, Manning was excellent. Throughout his tenure with the Colts, there was little doubt about who the most intelligent, thoughtful, and deliberate quarterback in the league. Manning had an incredible gift for pre-snap vision that we might not see again for some time, dissecting the opposing defense and predicting their blitzes and coverages unlike any other quarterback before, or since. What he lacked in his arm strength, he more than made up for in mental capacity.
When he underwent a serious neck surgery in 2011, many NFL watchers thought that he might retire, a stellar career cut a little too short by bad luck. But Manning knew better. When the Colts cut him to make way for their quarterback of the future, Andrew Luck, Manning was making moves to find a new home. He visited Miami in the 2012 offseason, but much to my dismay, though not to my surprise, he chose not to join that disastrous bunch.
He settled in Denver, the Broncos forgoing a string of replacement-level quarterbacks to bring in one of the greats, albeit stiff, sore, and with a rapidly weakening right arm.
His three seasons with Denver were solid, if not spectacular, though he did lead them to a Super Bowl in 2014, losing to the Seattle Seahawks. Continuing a remarkable trend, other than 2011, a season which Manning missed entirely due to neck surgery, Manning had played in every regular season game from 1998 through 2014.
This year, with the Broncos offense flailing and concerns over Manning’s health and arm strength increasing, his coaches turned to backup Brock Osweiler, who performed well enough in a short run to spur the Broncos back into the playoff discussion. When Manning was once again healthy, he returned to the starting lineup and helped guide the Broncos back to the Super Bowl. It was the sort of mid-season rest that columnists like Bill Simmons had suggested, and similar to what LeBron James had done in his first season back with the Cleveland Cavaliers last year.
And it worked. Although Manning’s stats from this year’s postseason don’t jump off the page, they were just what the excellent Broncos’ defense needed; a steady hand, guiding the offense while the defense controlled field position and kept the opposing offense off the scoreboard. In his Super Bowl win with the Colts, Manning was the MVP and clearly the star of the team. In his second Super Bowl win, Manning was a piece of a larger puzzle, and at the same time passed the Broncos’ quarterback torch to Osweiler.
Manning may choose to continue playing, but he would be missing out on placing an incredible ending to first-ballot Hall of Fame career. Peyton Manning’s career has evolved from young ingenue, to veteran Pro Bowler, to quarterback legend, and finally, to a Trent Dilfer-like game control expert. I don’t know if he has the strength to continue playing, or if he even needs to. Contrasted to the flash of Cam Newton, and the quiet dominance of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning has put a perfect exclamation point on a one-of-a-kind career.
Not even he could have seen this coming.