Put yourself in Peyton Manning’s shoes back in March. You have had fourteen successful seasons as a quarterback in the NFL. You have led your team to eight divisional championships, two AFC championships and you have that all-important Super Bowl ring on your finger. Dan Marino doesn’t have one of those. You’ve been named by Sports Illustrated as the best player in the NFL during the first decade of the 21st century. And you’ve done all this with one team – the Indianapolis Colts.
You have undergone surgery on your neck to alleviate pain that had been building, caused by so many throws of the football over the years. The injury needed time to heal and you had to miss the entire 2011 season. There are even whispers that you might not play in the NFL again. Then, the bomb is dropped. The Colts tell you that they are releasing you from your contract.
At 36 years old, you would be forgiven for thinking of calling it a day. The NFL is different to most other leagues. The high performing quarterbacks in the NFL don’t simply move teams and have repeat success. Try and think of one who has now. There haven’t been any who have won Super Bowls with different teams. The legendary quarterbacks of the game are all inextricably linked with the teams they played for. Try imagining Bart Starr out of his Green Bay Packers uniform, Dan Marino without a dolphin logo on his helmet or Terry Bradshaw not playing in black and yellow. And that’s before getting to John Elway. Some players have tried to move on after long stints with one team, most notably Brett Favre with the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Jets and Joe Montana with the Kansas City Chiefs, but they did not emulate their Super Bowl successes with another team.
No, it would probably be time to call the TV stations and see if they need an analyst for the new season, maybe buy yourself a restaurant or whatever else retired NFL stars do. Crack open a beer, smoke a Cuban cigar and think about the good times. Maybe that’s what you or I would do. I think I would – and that is why I sit here typing at a keyboard whilst Peyton Manning has just set out on a new chapter in a glittering career.
There is no doubt that John Elway being the Executive VP of Football Operations at the Denver Broncos helped Manning to make his decision on which team to join. The question would be how Manning would deal with a return to action. Did he still have that burning passion for the game? Did he still have the ability? Would he be able to inspire a new bunch of team mates for the first time in 14 years?
A little under six months later, it was time for Peyton Manning to once again step into the limelight. It wasn’t going to be easy. The NFL schedulers have a way of matching teams that the fans want to see. The Pittsburgh Steelers had spent the entire offseason growling after getting Tebowed out of the playoffs last season. There would be nothing better for the Steelers and their number one ranked defence to go straight back to Mile High Stadium and spoil the party. There was only one game to show on primetime Sunday Night Football.
Manning did not show any nerves at the beginning of the game but must have felt like the new boy at school after so many years with the same team. At least the colour of the uniform was not entirely unfamiliar to him but it had been a long time since he had worn the orange of the University o f Tennessee. Manning’s presence did seem to lift the Broncos’ offensive line with NBC announcer Al Michaels describing their play “as if they were guarding a museum piece”.
There were a few brief flashes of the old Manning in the first quarter but it wasn’t until the second quarter that we started to see that he is not ready for any museum yet. A player like Manning has to be allowed a lot of input into the offensive strategy and he clearly decided it was time for action on the Broncos’ fourth drive of the game when he switched to a no-huddle offence. He orchestrated a 12-play 80-yard Denver drive ending with a Knowshon Moreno seven yard rushing touchdown.
Manning would not take another meaningful snap for almost an hour as Ben Roethlisberger orchestrated two huge clock-eating drives around either side of half-time. With 6:05 to go in the third quarter, the Broncos were trailing by 13 to 7. It was time for Manning to prove he still had it what it takes. He had been out of the game for almost two years. Could he still put together a touchdown drive when he needed to? We didn’t have to wait long to find out. The answer came 36 seconds later as Demaryius Thomas stormed 71 yards for a touchdown reception – a fitting way for Manning to bring up his 400th career touchdown.
It still wasn’t all over. The Steelers scored again and Manning had to start another drive on his own 20-yard line (seriously, they should stop bothering with kick-offs in Denver) facing a 14-19 deficit. Manning looked assured at the helm once more but credit must also go to the Broncos’ receivers who were there for him all night.
One of the key plays of the game came as the players were regrouping after a failed coach’s challenge by Pittsburgh with the ball at the 1 yard line. Manning had seen something in the defensive lineup – you could almost sense the glint in his eye – and he changed the play at the line of scrimmage. He knew that tight end Jacob Tamme had a favourable one-on-one matchup and found him with a simple pass to his left. Simple to someone like Manning – genius to most of us.
An interception by impressive Broncos cornerback Tracy Porter was returned for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter and a 31-19 triumph for Denver was sealed.
It was only step number one on a long road for Peyton Manning. He will be publicly playing down any talk of the Super Bowl for Denver this year and it is ludicrously early in the season to start making such predictions but, inside, the Manning fire still burns. He answered a lot questions tonight, he silenced a lot of doubters and looked so assured. An outsider would not have known that Peyton had missed the entire 2011 season.
There must already be great excitement at the prospect of Manning lining up against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in week 5. Possibly Peyton’s biggest achievement of his time in Denver so far is that he already has the Broncos fans saying “Tim Who?”
Peyton Manning’s stats against Pittsburgh:
19/26, 253 yards, 2 touchdowns, 129.2 rating