Peyton Manning told the Denver Broncos he plans to retire on Sunday. He has the all-time records for MVP awards, game-winning drives, touchdowns and passing yards, among others. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

Manning smartest, but Montana still best

Muhammad Ali stayed too long on the ropes, suffering poundings that led to Parkinson’s syndrome. Willie Mays batted .211 at 42, was replaced by someone named Don Hahn and couldn’t take enough red juice to stem the aging process. Michael Jordan looked ordinary (and hideous) in a Washington Wizards uniform. Jerry Rice signed a one-year deal in Denver before seeing his name low on a depth chart.

So let’s thank Peyton Manning for not similarly lying to himself, for preserving his legacy instead of torturing it.

Just as he knew when the nickel back had twitched a pinky finger, just as he knew when to enter maestro mode and wave maniacally and shout “Pickle!” or “Bags Montana Fat Man!” before the inevitable “Omaha!” three or four times, he knew exactly when to say the final code word.

Goodbye, which he’ll utter officially today at a news conference.

To have continued any longer would have been more painful for us than him. And this is a man who barely was able to walk at times in his final season, when his passes floated, wobbled and knuckled and he had to be stitched back together (pause here for human growth hormone crack) to survive a postseason that ended gloriously at Levi’s Stadium. The Broncos won Super Bowl 50 in spite of him, not because of him, and though he could have staged a Hollywood finale next season by quarterbacking the Rams in their return to Los Angeles, why would someone with such a theatrical bent — you may have seen his commercials — not grasp the rare gift of retiring as a champion? I’m so glad he did, not that he had anything left to achieve as the thinking man’s QB who transformed the most important position in team sports with uncommon intelligence, preparation and dedication to detail.

For us, he was the closest thing football offered to a nuclear scientist. For him, it was much simpler: fun, camaraderie and winning.

“I get asked a lot about my legacy,” Manning said. “For me, it’s being a good teammate, having the respect of my teammates, having the respect of the coaches and players. That’s important to me. I am not taking this for granted. I just love football.”

There was a weird incongruity to how his 18-year career climaxed that February evening in Santa Clara. He had to lean on a powerhouse defense for his second championship when so often in the past, while amassing NFL records for touchdown passes (539) and passing yardage (71,940) and winning an unprecedented five Most Valuable Player awards, he failed in signature moments. That prompted a tag that he viewed as an insult — Best Regular-Season Quarterback Ever. When the Indianapolis Colts gave up on him after four neck surgeries and spinal fusion surgery, he vowed to win another title. Offering him the chance in 2012 was Broncos boss John Elway, who’d heard the same big-game-underachiever knocks as a Hall of Fame QB before himself going out on top.

They succeeded in their mutual vow, though Manning complained in the end that he couldn’t feel the fingertips on his throwing hand. The only choice was to leave the sport, at once. After spending the last four weeks surveying the landscape, reading the defense and making sure every strategic possibility was considered, he made the right play call.

“Peyton Manning’s extraordinary career was driven by his talent, an incredible work ethic, and an unwavering desire to be the best and ended so perfectly for him with a Super Bowl victory,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Peyton’s competitive fire and love of the game made him a legendary player who thrilled fans for a generation. He has served as a great representative of the NFL both on the field and in his community. We are forever grateful for Peyton’s unmatched contributions to the game and know that his success will continue in the next phase of his life.”

Said Elway, who wasn’t going to bring back Manning at $19 million, making the decision that much easier: “Peyton was a player that guys wanted to play with. That made us better as a team and I’m thrilled that we were able to win a championship in his final year. Peyton was everything that we thought he was and even more — not only for the football team but in the community. I’m very thankful Peyton chose to play for the Denver Broncos, and I congratulate him on his Hall of Fame career.”

If a second Super Bowl victory assures Manning a place on any Mount Rushmore for quarterbacks, he falls short of best-ever status. That honor still belongs to Joe Montana, whose passing numbers pale in comparison but who sparkles in the biggest piece of criteria: He led the 49ers to four Super Bowls, won all four, and didn’t throw an interception. And he did so in an era when the NFL didn’t protect quarterbacks with safety rules and, thus, statistics weren’t inflated by a passing emphasis. If Manning hadn’t gone 14-13 in the postseason, he’d be second on the all-time list. But Tom Brady, who has 14,000 fewer passing yards and 10 fewer game-winning comebacks than Manning, has won four Super Bowls in six tries. Manning is just 2-2. Unfair? Hey, when judging the ultimate elite at the most scrutinized of positions, the crowd is tough. Icy as Montana was when it mattered most, we can say Manning was the most cerebral of all.

“There’s no question that his work ethic is what made him into one of the great quarterbacks of all time,” said Elway, who isn’t far below on that list. “All the film study Peyton did — and the process that he went through with game-planning and understanding what the other teams did — was second to none.”

“He beat you mentally,” said DeMarcus Ware, the Broncos’ All-Pro pass-rusher. “That was his guide: Physically, you might be faster than me, you might be more athletic than me, but I’m going to outsmart you every time.”

His genius clashed with a downhome, self-deprecating, goofy-uncle persona that made him a heavy-rotation ad star most of his career. If we actually grew a little tired of his commercials, be forewarned: He’s only turning in his pads and helmet and will be around football for a long time, meaning too much to Americana to fade away. Manning is all but certain to join a major network in a prime commentator role — think third man in the “Monday Night Football” booth, trading wits with Jon Gruden — and someday, it’s natural to think he’ll be running an NFL front office, if not owning a team.

You’d be wrong to say Manning is running away from the public eye, never to return, because of two lingering issues likely never to reach the level of scandal. The league is monitoring an independent probe after a dubious allegation against Manning, by a since-shuttered TV network, that linked him to HGH five years ago. And an incident from 1996, in which Manning allegedly shoved his genitals into the face of a female trainer at the University of Tennessee, has resurfaced though he never was charged and his accuser since has unsuccessfully tried to win money in lawsuits against others.

Now, with Manning retired, the league has no reason to pursue the HGH investigation. And judging by the zeal in which TV executives are chasing him — even when their journalistic units are “probing” him — it’s doubtful anything short of a surprise 20-year-old video will affect Manning in a case in which he claimed to be “mooning” a male athlete nearby.

In every way, by every consideration and metric, Peyton Manning has mastered his end game as the clock ticks to zeroes. His timing and rationale, as always, are exquisite.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

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