Peyton Manning had no choice.
Manning told the Denver Broncos today that he’s retiring, walking away from a 19th NFL season and $19 million.
The decision ended months of speculation about the future for the 39-year-old five-time league MVP, who won his second Super Bowl in January. It touched off what will be a cavalcade of praise and platitudes, with John Elway calling Manning a player guys wanted to play with and lauding his legendary work ethic.
It’s undeniable that the serious neck injury that forced Manning to sit out the 2011 season and left him without feeling in the fingertips of his right hand had rendered him a shadow of his former playing self. Behind a dominating Denver defense, Manning became that near-insulting quarterback descriptor: a game manager. He completed the passes he needed to complete, but they were largely short throws that sustained drives, not lightning touchdown strikes that exhilarated crowds and devastated defenders.
In Super Bowl 50, Manning completed just 13 passes for 141 yards in the Broncos’ 24-10 victory against the Carolina Panthers, but nonetheless basked in a shower of confetti and congratulations.
But that’s not why he had to go.
If Manning had returned, the questions would have intensified. Questions about allegations that human growth hormone was shipped to his house in his wife’s name. Questions about a lawsuit pointing to Manning as an example of a Title IX-violating hostile environment for women at the University of Tennessee because of his alleged harassment of a female trainer in 1996. Questions about whether the squeaky-clean image that endeared him to legions of fans and made him millions as a dry-witted pitchman was a farce.
I liked Manning, a lot. I still want to. I wrote about him quite a bit. I preferred his nerdy, studious vibe to the playboy persona of Tom Brady, against whom Manning was 6-11 – a record that notably includes a 3-2 mark in AFC Championship games. I thought his Saturday Night Live appearances, where he poked fun at his goody-goody image, and his “Cut That Meat!” MasterCard commercials were hilarious. I liked his family, including older brother Cooper, whose own promising football career was cut short by a high-school injury, and its gracious house in New Orleans’ Garden District - the personal highlight of a tour years ago. I liked the big red spot Manning’s helmet always left in the center of his fivehead.
But even before the HGH and the lawsuit, I had grown a little tired of the shtick. Manning’s partnership with Papa John’s Pizza owner John Schnatter, who lives in a 24,000-acre, $7.58 million castle but said some franchisees might cut workers’ hours to avoid paying insurance costs necessitated by healthcare reform, irked me. Manning certainly has a right to make money, and he clearly seems to be good at it. He also doesn’t need my, or anyone else’s, approval for how he does it. It just rubbed me wrong.
I suppose it also smacked of market oversaturation. Whereas Manning’s ads for MasterCard or DIRECTV once actually stilled my channel-flipping tendencies so I could watch and laugh, he had become more inescapable than refreshing with his Papa John’s and Nationwide spots. Again, good for him and his pocketbook, but by the time he kissed Schnatter on the field moments after his Super Bowl triumph, then got in a plug for Budweiser – Manning owns a stake in two Anheuser-Busch InBev wholesalers in his native Louisiana – in his first on-field, post-game interview, I’d had about enough.
The HGH and sexual harassment allegations are, of course, far more unsettling. They cast a pall on a Hall of Fame career that includes a slew of NFL records: 539 passing touchdowns; 71,940 career passing yards; 200 total victories (186 regular-season, 14 postseason); and 56 game-winning drives, to name just a few.
That shadow will only grow longer if Manning stays in the spotlight. If he rides off into the sunset, given the public’s eagerness to still embrace him and its 24-hour news cycle attention span, it will fade.
Before the Super Bowl, Manning said: “I get asked a lot about my legacy. 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.”
For that legacy to stay intact, Manning had to leave.