Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos Photo: Ric Tapia/NFL

Manning's Last Rodeo?

By Gary Jordan

The Super Bowl 50 logo shaped confetti has been swept away from the much criticised Levi’s Stadium turf, the cloud that it made above the celebrating Denver Broncos team a golden memory. Was this also the final curtain falling on the illustrious career of Peyton Manning, the veteran quarterback who had an indifferent 2015 season? That's the question that may play on Manning's mind as he takes his time pondering his future.

Manning, who turns 40 in late March this year, not only became the oldest QB to start and win the Super Bowl, but also the first to do so with two different teams. His previous triumph in Super Bowl 41 with the Indianapolis Colts looked destined for a while this season to be his only win in the big game. Not only were he and his Broncos pulled apart just two years ago by a rampant Seattle defense to deny him a second ring, it was his own lack of productivity this past year which threatened to end his playing time as a benchwarmer to fresh faced Brock Osweiler.

After learning his trade from one of the best, the 4th year Osweiler out of Arizona State came in when the Broncos were stalling under the guidance of his Canton-bound mentor. Manning had a game that was worse than most rookies on November 15th against a Kansas City defense that picked off 4 of his passes. Head Coach Gary Kubiak had seen enough and pulled Manning from the game. The decision was made, helped by an injury to Manning, that Osweiler would gain his first career start the following week. He went on to help the Broncos win three straight games, including an impressive overtime win against the previously unbeaten New England Patriots.

As the regular season wore on defences were starting to adjust to the style of Osweiler. In the final game of the season, one which the Broncos had to win to retain their AFC West division title and secure home field advantage in the playoffs, Manning was called from the bench to salvage the win after his understudy had a torrid time against San Diego. Rallying his team from behind, Manning not only won the game but his starting position back.

Going into the postseason there was still a question mark surrounding the dwindling ability of Manning’s play. He would be coming up against some fearsome defences who would be upping their game to new levels. The Broncos coaches wisely adapted their game plans and didn’t ask anything strenuous of their talisman under centre. In fact they were confident that should he play error free football, their defense - ranked number one in the League - would be the difference maker.

So it proved, as first they held off Pittsburgh, then dialled up a plan that had arguably the best QB of all-time, Tom Brady, and his Patriots on the run in an AFC Championship Game that had Super Bowl level intensity. If people were in doubt over whether or not this would be Peyton Manning’s last season they had something to chew on when he was overheard when embracing and consoling Patriots’ Coach Bill Belichick. “This may well be my last rodeo” he drawled as the two held each other.

This was one of the big topics during the days leading up to Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, though (and somewhat thankfully) more of the spotlight seemed to fall on his opposite number. Cam Newton had an MVP calibre year and led his Carolina Panthers to the big dance having lost just once all season. His play couldn’t have been more distant to that of Manning’s, his scrambling around to buy time for his receivers or himself to dash into the open field had taken the League by storm. Always ready to flash a big smile the confidence flowed through Newton onto his teammates.

Maybe this was Cam’s undoing? Maybe it was Wade Phillips' uncanny knack of drawing up a masterclass of defensive schemes? Whichever it was, Newton and the Panthers were simply not at the races in SB50, and it was breathtaking to watch. In many ways it resembled the way the Seahawks had their way with Denver a couple of years prior. The game however remained in the balance, for as good as the Denver D was - and it was very good - Manning was finding it equally hard to move the ball against a Carolina D that on another day against another team might have come away victors. Knowing that the D had their backs all Peyton had to do was do enough.

“I’m going to spend some time with my family, and drink some beer” were his immediate thoughts after the game when pressed if it was his “last rodeo”. It was not the time to make an emotional decision. “This has been an emotional week, an emotional night” and off he went into the confetti-filled night.

Peyton Manning has many NFL records. The two stand-outs that will be the hardest to surpass are that of Regular Season passing yards, currently on 71,940, and Regular Season passing touchdowns, standing at 539. This is testament to his longevity and of course his gift for the game and an exemplary work ethic. His playing career has been almost ambassadorial in approach, and should he step away now, which is more than likely, he will leave the game as the perfect role model for all those playing now and in the future.

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