Peyton Manning surveyed the landscape of his brilliant career and called one last audible. He's retiring a champion.
A month after Denver's triumph in Super Bowl 50, Mr. Manning informed John Elway he's going to follow his lead and ride off into that orange sunset just like the Broncos' boss did 17 years ago after winning his second Super Bowl.
Just shy of 40, Manning will forgo $19 million and a 19th season in the NFL, where he served as both a throwback and a transformer during a glittering career bookmarked by an unprecedented five MVP awards and dozens of passing records.
"Peyton was a player that guys wanted to play with," Mr. Elway said. "That made us better as a team and I'm thrilled that we were able to win a championship in his final year."
Manning leaves the league he helped popularize to supersize status as its all-time leading passer and winningest starting quarterback, the only one in NFL history to win Super Bowls with two franchises.
His first came in 2007 with the Indianapolis Colts, who drafted him No. 1 overall in 1998. The Colts gave up on him after a series of neck surgeries forced Manning to miss all of the 2011 season and left him without feeling in the fingertips of his right hand.
A rare superstar quarterback on the open market in 2012, Manning resettled in Denver, where, despite a right arm weakened by nerve damage, he went 50-15 with his fifth MVP award and two trips to the Super Bowl in four seasons.
So, defensive coordinators, you can breathe a little easier today: Manning will no longer be on the docket to wreck your game plans and ruin your designs on a title.
There will be no more showdowns matching skills with Tom Brady or wits with Bill Belichick — against whom he was just 6-11 but 3-2 in AFC championships.
With no more defenses to dissect, the face of the league since the turn of this century no longer has to be buried in an iPad all day, nor will he have to submerge his battered body for hours in a cold tub in a labor of love.
"I get asked a lot about my legacy," Manning said before the Super Bowl. "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. I always have."
The 18th season for No. 18 was by far his most trying on the field — and so, his sweetest. He had to adjust to new coach Gary Kubiak's run-based offense, to unrelenting health issues, and to questions about his character on his way to winning his second Super Bowl title.
Manning, whose dry wit and star power has made him a staple of late-night television and 30-second commercials for nearly two decades, saw his squeaky-clean image take a beating as the final pages were flipped on his storied career.
The NFL is investigating allegations that human growth hormone was shipped to his home in his wife's name following an Al Jazeera report that Manning angrily dismissed as "garbage." And in a new lawsuit filed last month. Manning was cited as an example of a hostile environment for women at the University of Tennessee for his alleged harassment of a female trainer in 1996. The university filed a motion to strike a reference to Manning from the Title IX lawsuit.
A torn ligament in his left foot hampered Manning all the way back to August. It led to his worst statistical season and sidelined him for six weeks before that fairy tale finish in Santa Clara, California, when his defense carried him across the finish line.
Constantly harassed, never quite comfortable — sort of the way the whole season played out — Manning walked away with his second NFL title after Denver's defense, with seven sacks and four takeaways, all but handed him the Lombardi Trophy in a 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
"He had to do several things different this year," said his dad, Archie, a former star quarterback himself. "Had to take off during the season, which he'd never done before. He ran the scout team, which I don't think he'd ever done, and he dressed out as a backup, which he'd never done."
Manning also had to play the role of game manager for the first time during Denver's defense-fueled run to the title.
"I'm just glad I was on the same team as our defense," Manning said as he relished his second Super Bowl win.
Although his teammates said his speech on the eve of the game felt very much like a goodbye, Manning didn't call it his "last rodeo" right away, saying he needed time to reflect.
Denver gained only 194 yards against the Panthers, the fewest for a victorious team in a Super Bowl, and Manning had but 13 completions for 141 yards. Thanks to a defense led by game MVP Von Miller, however, Manning became the oldest quarterback to win a championship, a year older than Elway was when he won his second Super Bowl in 1999 before walking away.
Manning, who revealed at the Super Bowl that he faces a hip replacement in retirement, finished in a tie with Brett Favre for most regular-season wins with 186. His victory in Super Bowl 50 was his 14th in the postseason, one more than Favre, making him the NFL's only 200-win quarterback.
"There's no question that his work ethic is what made him into one of the great quarterbacks of all time," Elway said. "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."
Almost from his pro debut in 1998, Manning was a pioneer in the way he deciphered defenses and directed play at the line of scrimmage. Envision him pacing from tackle to tackle, pointing and hollering, as he became a model for every quarterback who's come along since. Manning not only was at the vanguard of the aerial fireworks shows that light up today's scoreboards and big screen TVs, he was the mastermind of it.
Manning's work ethic and machinations at the line allowed him to find the underbelly of any defensive formation, adjust accordingly, and deliver the pass with precision.
"I think from the sense of quarterbacks, he's been fast-paced, no-huddle, dynamic offense, score a lot of points, and score quickly," said his brother, Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl winner himself, for the Giants. "He has won a lot of football games. Now you see that more. More teams are doing it. The Colts kind of started that trend and did it well for a long time."
So did the Broncos, for whom Manning threw 140 of his NFL-high 539 TD passes, including a record 55 in 2013.
Also old-school was Manning as his own de facto play caller, endearing him to the players of a previous epoch, noted former All-Pro safety John Lynch.
Lynch called Manning a "genuine game changer" and said he's among the biggest reasons the NFL is so popular.
Manning was never the best athlete, but his off-the-charts preparation and other-worldly memory recall made him rise above the rest, suggested teammate DeMarcus Ware.
"He beat you mentally," said Ware, who came to Denver two years ago for the chance to play with Manning. "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."
Manning's retirement allows the Broncos to focus on re-signing his longtime backup, Brock Osweiler, who went 5-2 in his place.
"There's not a day that's gone by since I've been in the league," Osweiler said, "that I haven't learned something from Peyton."
Manning relinquishes the game he loves secure in having left an indelible imprint on America's most popular sport.
"He was on the forefront of basically a revolution in the way offenses are run in the National Football League," Joe Theismann said recently. "His footprint was bigger than just the cities he played in. He transformed the position. The style of offense that he ran in Indianapolis was revolutionary and nobody ever figured out how to stop it there — or in Denver.
"The only thing that's basically slowed Peyton Manning down was Father Time."