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Ride the High Country

Peyton Manning to the Broncos.

9:35 AM, Mar 20, 2012 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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The Peyton Manning tour has evidently ended in Denver, where he will play for the Broncos, and one almost wishes it could have gone on a little longer. It was a nice relief from that other road show we hear so much about—namely, the presidential campaign.

Peyton Manning

Unlike that carnival, Manning’s journey was all smiles and handshakes and good feeling. Everywhere he went, they really wanted him. Which isn’t terribly surprising since, unlike either President Obama or Mitt Romney, Manning could run on his record. It is solid gold.             

He played 13 seasons for the Indianapolis Colts, led them, routinely, to the playoffs and all the way to the Super Bowl twice, winning one and losing one. Along the way, he ran up the kind of statistics that delight über fans who play fantasy football and argue over who is the greatest quarterback of the modern era, Tom Brady or Manning.

For a time, it looked like Manning might not play anywhere next year or, for that matter, ever again. A neck injury requiring several surgeries kept him out for the entire season last year and it was not certain that he would heal sufficiently to play football again. Sad news for all fans of the game … even those who believe Brady is the superior quarterback. Something vital would be missing from the game if number 18 were not on the field with the Colts driving in the last few minutes of a game.

All fans would miss seeing him bring the team to the line of scrimmage, waving his arms and pointing his fingers like some kind of mad choreographer of modern dance. Would miss the way he would take the ball, look to one receiver, then another, and then find the open man. That man would be open, often as not, because of something Manning had seen when he lined his team up and looked across the line of scrimmage. All the wild flapping and pointing had been done to realign his players and signal to them how he planned to exploit the weakness he’d spotted.

Nobody did it – does it – better or more distinctively.

A great quarterback, then. Gifted.

So, it was good news when we learned that the surgeries were successful and Manning not only wanted to play again – that was never in doubt – but also that he could safely play again.

But for whom?

The Colts had just finished a disastrous season. They were, without Manning, the worst team in the National Football League, one place where the old Leninist formulation, “the worse, the better,” truly applies. The Colts have the first pick of college players turning pro—and the top prospect is a quarterback from Stanford.

The alternatives facing the Colts were: do the sentimental thing and stick with Manning or make the cold business move and go with the kid.

After weeks of suspense, speculation, and rumor the Colts surprised no one and decided to try their luck with the kid.

There was a ceremony. Manning tearfully thanked the fans, telling them that he had truly enjoyed “being your quarterback.”

The whole show seemed oddly genuine and sincere. In addition to being a great quarterback, Manning had been a good citizen. He would be missed – for a season or two, anyway – even if the kid turns out to be great and takes the Colts to the playoffs again.

So Manning went on the road, looking for a job. There was no need to send a resume but the teams he visited did want to see if he could still put something on the ball when he threw. And if the neck had, truly, healed.

He passed on both counts.

He made it plain that he did not want to play for some of the teams that had shown interest. Not the Jets; New York, it seems, is not big enough for two Mannings. Not Miami, though he owns a vacation condo there.

Eventually it came down to Nashville, Denver, Arizona, and San Francisco. Manning flew to each city. Met with coaches and management. Worked out. Then flew on to visit the next team. Each visit was fodder for endless discussion and speculation in the sports media. Was Manning a good fit with the coaches? Could the O-line protect him? What about the receivers?

Manning settled on Denver and many fans are wondering why. The team plays outdoors and being Denver, sometimes in very harsh weather. The Colts are a dome team so Manning is accustomed to playing in ideal, which is to say, no weather. Also, the Denver receivers are nothing special. Their running game is average. The Bronco’s record last year was 8-8. They went to the playoffs and lost in the divisional round. Their quarterback in that game was Tim Tebow.

And everyone knows that story. The good Christian kid who gives it all he has on every down but is, when it comes to playing the position of quarterback in the National Football League, still just a great college quarterback.

And Tebow’s boss, in the front office, is John Elway. One of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time. 

Elway won two Super Bowls at the end of his career. He has reason, then, to know that a great, but aging quarterback can still get it done. He doesn’t know that Tebow can and probably doubts, like many football men, that he ever will. The kid just isn’t a quarterback. But now, Manning …

So, two old veterans confident that guile can make up for a loss of skills are saddling up for one last ride. There is something kind of romantic and melancholy about it. If Denver does win a Super Bowl with Manning it will make a good buddy movie. 

Denver, then, probably is the right place for the tour to end. One just hopes that it doesn’t play out for Manning the way it did for that other great Colt quarterback (of Baltimore vintage). Johnny Unitas played his final, forgettable season with the San Diego Chargers and no fan of the game, or the man, remembers that well.

But for now, it is great expectations in Denver. Peyton has arrived.

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