Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Was this Peyton Manning’s ‘last rodeo’?

In typical Peyton Manning fashion, the Broncos quarterback demonstratively signals his team at the line of scrimmage during Super Bowl 50.
In typical Peyton Manning fashion, the Broncos quarterback demonstratively signals his team at the line of scrimmage during Super Bowl 50. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Peyton Manning is 39 years, 18 NFL seasons old. He has had four neck surgeries and too many sore muscles to count. He knows the score. He no longer is that guy. But these past few days, the NFL’s career passing leader was scheming and dreaming about orchestrating one more great game.

Well, this wasn’t that. This was more like one last gasp.

But when you win? When you ride the Denver Broncos’ defense to a 24-10 Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers? It’s all good. It’s also a great time to retire, to sit in the stands and watch someone else’s ride.

“I’ll take some time to reflect,” Manning said afterward. “I have a couple of priorities first. I want to kiss my wife and my kids. I want to hug my family. I’m going to drink a Budweiser tonight; I promise you that. Let this sink in, and take it one step at a time.

When he finally sits down and studies the stat sheet, or watches a replay of a sloppy, disjointed finale that was determined by the Broncos’ punishing, relentless defense, the legendary quarterback – ever the perfectionist – will find plenty to pick apart. If Cam Newton was all nerves, succumbing to the Broncos’ pressure and missing receivers much of the night, Manning wasn’t sharp, either.

He completed 13 of 23 passes for 141 yards, fumbled once, was intercepted once, and reached the end zone only on a two-point conversion to wideout Bennie Fowler with just over three minutes remaining. But as Broncos general manager John Elway noted several times this past week, there are no gaps in Manning’s portfolio.

“His legacy is already set,” said Elway, who retired after guiding the Broncos to consecutive championships. “All he does is add to it, you know? He’s already going to go down as one of the greatest players to ever play the game.”

Just weeks shy of his 40th birthday, Manning became the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl and the first as a starter for two different franchises. The New Orleans native has been playing with bruises for so long, you almost forget that, a football lifetime ago, some of the brightest NFL minds debated whether Archie’s kid or Ryan Leaf was the better prospect in the 1998 NFL draft.

Leaf, a brawny, mouthy quarterback out of Washington, went second to the San Diego Chargers and became a legendary flameout. Manning went first and became a legend. Besides the Archie/Eli pedigree, he arrived in Indianapolis as a rookie with size (6-foot-5) and length, a quick release, an obsession for preparation and a uniquely active on-field demeanor.

The enduring image of the future Hall of Famer might well be a photo finish between his animated audibles, his dancing feet and his remarkably precise, prodigious passing. A cheat-sheet look at his career stats sheet is mind-blowing: He is the NFL’s career passing leader with 71,940 yards and 539 touchdowns, winner of five MVP awards, participant in four Super Bowls – prevailing twice.

Yet his impact extends far beyond the numbers. Even during his earliest years, the former Tennessee standout accelerated the league trend toward pass-dominant offenses and more liberal use of the shotgun, a formation that capitalizes on his abilities to read defenses and make all the throws. Until multiple neck procedures robbed him of his above-shoulder mobility and arm strength, he and Tom Brady were their era’s co-surgeons, pass-oriented savants who eviscerated secondaries.

Another Manning trait – his flexibility and willingness to adapt to five coaches – was never more evident than these past two seasons in Denver. After the Broncos were thumped by the Seattle Seahawks 43-8 two years ago in the Super Bowl, Elway immediately started transforming his franchise, with a major tilt toward the defense.

In free agency, he struck for DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, and he bolstered an increasingly punishing unit through ensuing drafts and free agency. Additionally, after the Broncos flamed out in last year’s playoffs, head coach John Fox was replaced by Gary Kubiak.

Manning’s role evolved accordingly. Primarily because of his diminished arm strength and range-of-motion issues, Kubiak and quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp adjusted his mechanics and urged him to get more of his legs into his throws. At times Sunday, he was so stiff-necked as he looked for his receivers, he was almost painful to watch. Admittedly, he has morphed into more of a game manager than deep strike thrower.

“This team has a unique personality,” Manning noted. “Our defense has led the charge for all of us to be here. We’ve had a lot of nonstarters become starters and have stepped up and done a great job.”

Those nonstarters? Manning was one of those for a while this past season, for the first time in his career. In that sense, his presence in the starting lineup Sunday represented a late, late, late career comeback. He was benched after converting only 5 of 20 attempts and throwing four interceptions against Kansas City in November. A combination of factors – the diagnosis of a torn left arch, coupled with backup Brock Osweiler’s impressive play – hinted at a disappointly premature Manning final.

But when Osweiler faltered and Manning rescued the Broncos in the season-ending victory over the San Diego Chargers, the job was his again. But for how long? In the days and weeks preceding the annual global sports circus known as the Super Bowl, Manning often hinted that his retirement was pending, repeatingly suggesting, and sometimes teasingly, that he was approaching his “last rodeo.”

“It’s just awesome because he was on a team that could help him get a win,” Kubiak noted. “He didn’t have to go out there and do it all on his own, and he knew that. I told him I watched John Elway win a championship with 120-something yards passing, and he got one today with about 100 or something yards, too. I’m just so proud of him.”

Go into the stands at Levi's Stadium for Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, February 7, 2016. See glimpses of the Denver Broncos and Charlotte Panthers fans, the stadium and the halftime show.

Sacramento Bee staff is on the field and around Levi's Stadium bringing you Super Bowl photos and video. See it all at Sacbee.com.

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