Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever lived. There is little doubt about that fact. His record in the playoffs and the sole Super Bowl win, one less than his younger brother, certainly makes it difficult to put him above Tom Brady, Joe Montana or maybe even Terry Bradshaw, rarely mentioned in the top pantheon of the position even as he amassed an incredible four Super Bowl rings, all time. Most would put Aaron Rodgers, Brady, Luck (at least until Monday night) and Roethlisberger above him in their ratings of quarterbacks coming into this season and maybe should be putting a lot more names above him now based on his current performance. Yet he has led the Broncos to a 2-0 start and recently joined Brett Favre, also in two Super Bowls with one win, as the only quarterback in history to surpass 70,000 yards. He has won five league MVPs, between 1998 to 2010 led the Colts to eight division championships, three AFC championships, and one Super Bowl championship and then led the Broncos to another Super Bowl two seasons ago with one of the best offensive performances in the history of the NFL. His five NFL MVPs are a league record, he won the most valuable player of Super Bowl XLI, has been named to 14 Pro Bowls, has thirteen 4,000-yard passing seasons and is the Indianapolis Colts' all-time leader in passing yards (54,828) and touchdown passes (399). In 2009, he was named the best player in the NFL and Fox Sports, along with Sports Illustrated, named him the NFL player of the decade for the 2000s. Before the 2013 season had even finished, SI had named him their Sportsman of the Year.
Yet it is hard to ignore the decline in his performances dating back to last season, even as we now know a calf injury was partially to blame for the late season fade. He actually finished with impressive numbers – a total QBR of 75.1, 4,727 yards, a completion percentage of 66 and 39 touchdowns. But those number declined precipitously in the second half of the season, particularly after the loss to New England on November 11. Including that loss, here were his QBR numbers by game for the rest of the season: 49.3 (NE), 66.1 (Oakland), 33.7 (St. Louis), 93.7 (Miami), 52.7 (Kansas City), 34 (Buffalo), 92.1 (San Diego), 29.9 (Cincinnati) and 50.7 (Raiders). Beside two standout games against Miami and San Diego, those are mediocre to downright bad numbers. Over that nine game stretch, he threw for under 300 yards five times, 17 TDs and 12 INTs and saw his completion percentage dip below 65 percent five times (with three games in the 50s). Again, we know about the late season injury, but the problems started much earlier, really in that loss to his career nemesis Tom Brady, in a game he threw for 438 yards with two touchdowns and two costly interceptions. This year things have only gotten worse.
Manning has had four surgeries to repair the neck damage sustained over his 18 years in the league. He no longer has feeling in his right hand and it apparently takes him a full fifteen minutes to get out of his uniform after games. Through two games this year, which he admittedly helped win, he has the 29th total QBR in the league (41.0), is averaging just 215.5 yards passing, has a completion rate of just 58.8 percent and has been sacked seven times. To put those numbers in context, his career numbers are a QBR of 78.91 (since 2006), 271.8 yards per game, 65.4 percent completion ratio, and 1.14 sacks a game. His touchdown to interception ratio over the course of his career is 2.26 (533 versus 236), compared to only three touchdowns and two interceptions in this young season. His average yards per attempt is 7.7 for his career, but only 5.1 this season. His highest quarterback rating (the old number) is third among active players at 97.3 (behind only Rodgers and, take a seat, Tony Romo), and his career rating is 97.3, though only 74.2 this season, with only his rookie rating of 71.2 lower for a season. And questions about arm strength, which his intelligence and pinpoint precision have quieted for most of his career, are coming into focus, as he has only completed 25 percent of his passes thrown over 15 yards – tied for third worst in the league).
At some level, Manning exemplifies the current debates about whether Pro Football, and high school and college and even the peewee variety, are too dangerous to continue in their current form. In two weeks of pro football, 14 players have already sustained concussions that we know of, and there might be many others who have failed to be properly diagnosed. A recent study, reported by Frontline (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/09/researchers-find-brain-damage-in-96-percent-of-former-nfl-players/406462/), found that 96 percent (87 of 91) of deceased former NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease believed to stem from repetitive brain injury. Including players in high school and college as well, 79 percent showed evidence of CTE (131 of 165 in total). We all know of the tragic case of ex-San Diego star Junior Seau, who killed himself arguably as a result of this condition. We also know of Chris Borland (http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/12496480/san-francisco-49ers-linebacker-chris-borland-retires-head-injury-concerns), the San Francisco 49ers linebacker who quit over fears that the injury and long-term potential for CTE was too great and walked away from millions of dollars and what appeared to be a Pro Bowl laden career.
Should Manning quit now, while he still has a chance to pick up his young twins and enjoy the fruits of his many years of labor (and shilling products to the American public)? What more does he really have to accomplish in the game at 39? Can his body really take much more stress and suffering? These questions are difficult to answer. The clear and solitary reason one can surmise for Manning continuing to punish his body is to try to win that elusive second ring and more firmly solidify his place in the conversation of the greatest ever. That was why he and John Elway hooked up in the first place and, after a stunning year two seasons back, the gamble seemed to be paying off, until they met Seattle in the Super Bowl and everything rather quickly fell apart. Now Elway has brought in his old backup Gary Kubiak to try to take one more shot at that ring. Is it really worth it? How likely is it that a quarterback with some of the lowest numbers in the league after two weeks can continue to win enough close games to get all the way to the Super Bowl? And what if he does win that second ring? At what cost will that achievement be garnered?
The narrative of the old star getting one more win to silence the critics, remind the young whippersnappers to respect their elders anew and solidify his legacy has always held a certain appeal in the American imaginary. It defies a culture increasingly addicted to the young, dismissive of the aging and even of the past. We are the country of reinvention, of second acts, of long shot hopefuls finding glory on the unlikeliest of stages. We are a country that loves the underdog, even if that dog is blind and takes 10 minutes to crawl out of his dog bed just to meander over to the bowl for some sustenance. What does it cost those fading stars to win one more for the Gipper? What does it cost us to watch players young and old wager their futures for our entertainment? This is the real question that confronts us not only with Peyton Manning but with the sport itself. The same questions have been asked of boxing for several decades now, even broached way back in the Hollywood of the early 1950s. Today, the NFL is a money making machine that continues to be the most popular sport in America. It serves our blood lust, our dreams of a lost masculinity, our imaginary communities and our history of violent redeemers of our greatest heroes. It also appears to serve to destroy the lives of too many young men, some well compensated others less so. How long can this go on?
Should Peyton Manning retire now, before it’s too late?
Do the Broncos have any realistic chance of making the Super Bowl this year?
Should the NFL be doing more to address the clear health risks associated with the sport in its current form?
Can the sport really last in the long run?