When a bug-eyed purple puppet was mocking him a few feet away, mimic-mouthing his every comment for a full hour, that’s when Peyton Manning decided to have some fun, too. He said “a young Robert Redford” should play him in his biopic. He fulfilled two requests to say “Happy New Year to China — Go, Broncos.” There was a suspicious character with shoulder-length hair and a backwards cap, wanting an opinion about Donald Trump.
“I should probably ask you. You a political expert? I can see that,” said Manning, cornballing all the way Monday night.
Asked if he’s rooting for Trump in the presidential race, he said, “I’m rooting for the Broncos this week. I’m just a meathead football player. That’s all I know.”
He was pulling out all the yuks, his privilege in what has become the NFL’s version of bad reality TV, this decision to turn Media Day into a prime-time clusterfarce where two women reporters almost brawled. After all, five nights from now, Manning’s acclaimed football career will be over. What we want for him is a triumphant ending to an 18-year run that has been two parts sweet, one part bitter, diluted by his problems in legacy moments. History’s most prolific regular-season quarterback is something of a tortured figure in Super Bowls, having lost two of three, and what no one wants to watch Sunday evening at Levi’s Stadium — even haters long weary of his overexposed rotation of pizza, insurance and DirectTV commercials (cue the Nationwide theme: “Please don’t show another ad”) — is a noodle-armed, red-foreheaded, pick-sixish debacle that leads to his second humiliating loss in 24 months.
The wish is that he uses his wisdom and cunning, plunges into his meticulous preparation routine like never before, and, as a 39-year-old antique, remains competitive against the 250-pound scud missile known as Cam Newton. Manning is in no position to make boasts, knowing the Denver Broncos are decided underdogs against Newton and the Carolina Panthers, who also possess a defense capable of pummeling the old man. But curiously, while spinning yarns and wisecracks, he did cite a country lyric that applied directly to his famous final pursuit.
“Like ol’ Toby Keith said it, ‘Maybe I’m not as good as I once was, but I can be good once as I ever was,’” he said, letting the statement hang in the otherwise cheesy, loud and amateurish scene in SAP Center.
One. More. Time.
Is it possible? Unwatchable as he was at times in his worst season — nine touchdown passes, 17 interceptions and a 67.9 passer rating that ranked 34th and last among qualifying QBs, including Colin Kaepernick — it should be noted Manning played well in the AFC Championship Game. He threw two pretty touchdown passes to Owen Daniels and, most importantly, avoided turnovers. It’s really up to his arm, which has lost considerable steam after four neck surgeries that almost led to his retirement in 2011. Rarely does he dabble in arm chatter, but on this night, he suggested a silver lining to the torn plantar fascia in his left foot that sidelined him for six regular-season games.
Do we dare find hope in his progress report?
“My arm is what it is. I honestly think that having a little time off to heal my foot maybe helped some other parts,” Manning said. “I think it’s something not getting hit every Sunday, not throwing 100 passes at a practice every week. So I took some time off and started rehabbing, and I tried to use that time to help my body physically. My arm feels OK.
“My arm has not been the same since I got injured four years ago. It just simply hasn’t been. I had a strange injury. I had a neck injury that caused some nerve problems in my right arm. My high school coach used to always tell me, ‘When you’re sprinting left, it’d be a lot easier if you could throw it left handed if you were amphibious.’ I think he meant ambidextrous. I hurt my arm and I had that nerve damage and I said, ‘If only I could throw left-handed now it would be a lot easier.’ I’ve worked hard to sort of manage with the physical limitations and have gotten to a place where I think I could be effective and that’s where it is.”
Effective. Would that be enough if the Broncos, with two otherworldly pass-rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, succeed in rattling the young and sometimes immature Newton? “We’re talking about a first-ballot Hall of Famer, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game,” Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “I want him on top as a Bronco, holding a ring, riding off into the sunset.”
He has evolved into a sentimental figure, not always the case when he was dominating 16-game seasons with such methodical ease that his 55 TD passes in 2014 almost came with a collective yawn. Having seen his weaknesses, his pain, America roots for Manning as it does all the greats whose skills wane with age. Broncos boss John Elway, whose mission has been to help Manning finish his career with the same silver trophy that defined his own happy ending, says it isn’t necessary that Manning win this game.
“No, I think his legacy is already set. All it does is add to it, you know?” Elway said. “This is not a make-or-break game for Peyton. His legacy is already set. He’s already going to go down as one of the greatest players to ever play the game.”
Yet only two weeks ago, after the victory over New England, Elway was closer to the truth about Manning and a Denver team that has lost five of seven Super Bowl games, some ignominiously. “I think the big thing is, we’ve got to win it,” he said then.
We all realize Sunday will be Manning’s final game. He has told family and friends. He more or less told New England coach Bill Belichick — “This might be my last rodeo,” he said — in what he thought was a private post-game chat in a world no longer private. He refuses to confirm publicly what is more obvious than his receding hairline.
“What I said was true: This could be it. … Doesn’t mean it will be it,” Manning said. “I haven’t made up my mind, but I don’t see myself knowing that until after the season.”
It’s his life, his decision, and it should be respected as such. “He’s worked too hard to get to where he’ is now to talk about if he’s going to end it now,” Elway said. “He’s going to have plenty of time in the offseason to reminisce and look back. His key thing is, concentrate, stay in the moment. This is what he worked for.”
You will hear those words — staying in the moment — all week. A fine focus was required to maintain his equilibrium, if not his sanity, while young Brock Osweiler was winning games for the Broncos and most were assuming his big arm would be utilized in the postseason. Elway kept his promise to Manning and made sure he had, yes, his last rodeo.
In one sense, the week is awkward. The NFL, so irresponsible and reckless in its feeble handling of the Ray Rice case, is forced to probe every allegation now. A report by since-shuttered Al Jazeera America appears dubious at best, with a source quickly recanting his story. But the unpleasant fact remains: The league is investigating the American treasure in his twilight.
“As far as I know, that’s going to start after the season as far as my role, and I welcome that investigation,” Manning said. “I understand when an allegation is made, that the NFL has no choice to investigate it. I get that, but I can tell you what they’re going to find: a big fat nothing. It’s been completely fabricated as far as the allegations of what they suggested that I did. It’s been nothing but pure junk, and I welcome that investigation.”
Consider this: If Manning was using HGH, he wouldn’t look like a broken-down golf cart when scrambling. His miracle 12-yard escape against the Patriots has spawned more laughter than wonderment, and true to comedic form on a wacky night in beautiful downtown San Jose, he stepped hard on the sarcasm pedal.
“I promise if I run a touchdown on Sunday, I will celebrate. I can assure you of that,” he said. “I doubt I’ll get to run that much on Sunday because of the 12-yard run that I had against New England — there’s a good chance Carolina may send someone to spy me. You know, drop somebody to defend me in the run, I could see it happen. I think we will find out early, the first third-down, to see if they have somebody spy me like they do other quarterbacks.”
He smirked. Of course, he smirked.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.