Manning’s legacy saved by real Superman

The final pass of his football life was a completion, threaded and definitive, as poetic as it was fitting. And after the referee raised his arms signaling a two-point conversion that sealed Super Bowl 50 and secured his legacy, Peyton Manning did not gesture or leap or dab or do much of anything, really.

On a cool Bay Area evening, he mildly pumped his fist, perhaps because he barely could move.

Minutes later, he allowed a relieved, contented smile to curl amid fireworks and a golden shower of confetti, knowing he was helped to this moment much more than he’d directed it. “I’m just very grateful,” he said, repeating the word several times. “And I’m gonna say a little prayer to thank the man upstairs for this great opportunity.”

For creating Von Miller, too. Manning was just another awestruck spectator at Levi’s Stadium, amazed that Miller and his teammates on Denver’s destructive defense had turned the heretofore unstoppable Cam Newton into a skittish, disoriented Bobblehead doll. Leading this mayhem, in the Broncos’ 24-10 mauling of the unprepared Carolina Panthers, was a pass-rusher who wears black framed glasses during the week — a Clark Kent look, if you will.

It made sense, too, because all day and well into the night, Miller was the real Superman of this championship game. He haunted the presumptive, self-described Superman and stripped Newton of his pride, his skills and, in two bookend plays that symbolized this Super Bowl, the football. In the first quarter, Miller sacked Newton and swiped the ball out of his hands, watching as Malik Jackson fell on it in the end zone for a 10-0 lead. Then in the final minutes, with Newton 75 yards away from the go-ahead touchdown, Miller again slapped the ball out of Newton’s grasp and into the waiting hands of safety T.J. Ward. They were memorable exclamation points for an epic singular performance, earning him Most Valuable Player honors and an even better distinction for the ages. In a game when Manning didn’t play well and was a mere wisp of his once-dominant quarterbacking self, when the Broncos clearly won in spite of him and were lucky he was intercepted only once and fumbled the ball away only once, Miller and the defense served as his parachute.

His golden parachute to retirement, in fact, though Manning will wait a while to announce it after becoming the first QB to win Super Bowls with two franchises.

“I’m gonna drink a lot of beer tonight,” he said, six weeks from his 40th birthday, “and Von Miller’s buying.”

In the same interview area, Miller seemed humbled and comforted by it all, knowing he is helping people now instead of sabotaging himself with personal problems he finally has overcome. “I think it’s great for Peyton. Whenever you’re doing something for your buddies, it means a little more,” he said. “As human beings, we’re selfish but when you’re doing something for someone else, that’s when the magic happens.”

Actually, Manning should be buying the beer rounds for life, now that Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe and the attack-dog defense of the resuscitated owl Wade Phillips — can you believe 24 defensive coordinators were hired by NFL teams while he was unemployed until John Elway and Gary Kubiak reassembled the old Broncos band last offseason? — have saved No. 18 from more torment. Unfair as it may be in the courtroom of all-time passers, Manning entered his final game as an underachiever of sorts. He was roundly known as the best regular-season QB ever, with five league MVP awards and virtually all the records for yardage and touchdown passes. But in Super Bowls, he was 1-2, and the concern this time was that he’d break down as he did during a regular season filled with injuries, missed games and woeful performances. It’s a miracle that he’s even upright.

But here he is, going out a champion just as Elway did after similar big-game criticism. Once upon a time, Elway was known in Stanford lore as simply a great jock. Now, he’s an innovator who has succeeded in his realm much like the school’s Silicon Valley products, having responded to the ugly Super Bowl loss two years ago with a masterful defensive rebuild. In doing so, he kept his promise to Manning that he’d send him out on top. The night before, at a team meeting at the Santa Clara Marriott, Manning had come close to spilling tears in an emotional speech. Now, he wanted to find his family, a hint at his first order of business in his post-playing life.

“It has been a very emotional week and a very emotional night,” Manning said. “I’ve got a couple of priorities. I want to kiss my wife, kiss my kids and say hi to my family.”

And that retirement announcement? “I’ve gotten some good advice not to make an emotional decision immediately,” he said. “I am going to enjoy the night and take it one step at a time.”

It was a typical touch of class by Manning to let the defense have the spotlight. On a night when the offense gained only 194 yards, fewest for a victorious team in a Super Bowl, the defense had seven sacks and forced four turnovers. Newton was pouty afterward, vowing to return to the big game but also not in the mood to give the victors any particular credit. Here we thought he’s turned a maturity corner with a strong mid-week news conference. Not so.

“I don’t know what you want me to say. They made more plays than us. We had our opportunities. There wasn’t nothing special that they did,” Newton said. “We dropped balls. We turned the ball over, gave up sacks, threw errant passes.”

So much for the karma of Steph Curry, who banged the Panthers’ ceremonial “Keep Pounding” drum before kickoff on the sideline. “Let’s go!” he yelled for naught. Nothing was going to overcome Miller, now that he finally has overcome his own demons. We forget that he was handed a six-game suspension to start the 2013 season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. The reason, shockingly: He tried to corrupt a drug test by substituting a clean sample, with the help of a urine collector. He should have been suspended for a season, at least; later, his career was complicated by a torn ACL.

“Every guy that’s up here has had to deal with adversity and had second thoughts like, ‘Man, do I really want to do this?’” Miller said. “But those were the times where I really — those were my strongest times, when I questioned myself and questioned if I really want to play the game.”

And now? “God is so good. God is great,” he said. “I tore my ACL, suspended. My mom, my dad and my little brother were there with me every single day. My teammates, they never wavered. You have to keep playing, keep on pushing. I want to thank Mr. Elway. And Mr. [Pat] Bowlen. They didn’t give up on me.”

Bowlen, the team owner, wasn’t in Santa Clara as he continues to fight Alzheimer’s. It was the wish of Elway, Manning, Miller, Kubiak — all of them — to win for Bowlen, which led to Elway’s shriek into the night, “This one’s for Pat!” Bowlen would be proud of all, but perhaps mostly for how far Miller has progressed as a man and teammate.

“No. 18 is my favorite quarterback. I love everything about him,” Miller said. “The way he handles the media, the way he handles his teammates and his brothers — it’s something that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”

Manning will take a piece of Miller with him, too. Imagine not having to hear anymore that brother Eli has more Super Bowl victories. “We don’t do that, that’s not what we do,” he said. “Maybe you guys do with your brothers, but not us.

“But when I was up there with Von on stage when he was getting his MVP prize, I told him, ‘Hey, just let me have a ride in that car every now and then.’ Von is just awesome. That defense is just awesome. I’m just glad I’m on the same team and don’t have to play against them.”

Mercy. Considering how they pummeled Newton, goodness knows what they would have done to the old man. He won’t have to worry about that in his next life.

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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