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Peyton Manning still sounds conflicted about potential retirement

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Before Peyton Manning emerged through a set of glass doors Wednesday -- but only after he'd posed for more than 100 photos with top-dollar donors -- he huddled upstairs with a team of security men to orchestrate a seamless exit.

Once the huddle broke, he moved deliberately. He moved swiftly. He moved down the stairs, made a few formal goodbyes, gave a fast wave to three autograph seekers screaming his name -- and hopped into a black SUV that would get a police escort into the night.

This is how Manning handled an exit from a pretty standard corporate speaking engagement. So you can only imagine how Manning is handling an exit, whether that occurs this year or another, from one of the most illustrious careers in football history.

No, Manning did not provide any transparent insight Wednesday during a speaking engagement that was organized long before his Super Bowl win and the looming questions about his NFL future. Aside from a crowd-pleasing joke with a Papa John's punchline to open his speech, he didn't talk about his immediate future at all.

Yet 24 days removed from his Super Bowl victory and seven days from the moment when the Broncos must decide whether to guarantee his salary for 2016 or cut him, Manning absolutely did not sound like a man ready to hang it up.

Instead, he spoke like a player with an ever-growing fire for the game; a player who even viewed the issues of 2015 as a result of short-term hardships (a temporary injury and a new system) rather than standard age-related deterioration.

"The Broncos got off to a valiant 7-0 start this season; however, that streak ended in Week 8 against the Colts," Manning said. "As our offense struggled adjusting to a new system, our defense became ever more dominant."

While also pointing toward the physical limitations that resulted from the foot injury, and conceding that he understands he can't make the 55-yard throws with ease, Manning still came back to the idea of playing in a new system.

"I cannot overemphasize the importance of a system on a football player," Manning said. "When you're in a system for a long time, you master that system. In the past, I could throw certain passes with my eyes closed because I knew exactly who was going to be open and where they were going to be."

That, of course, begs the question: If Manning's future with the Broncos is over, as his father, Archie, implied after the Super Bowl win, where could Manning play that would allow him to bring his old system?

Cleveland and Los Angeles seem to be the only logical options, but as it pertains to Los Angeles, would the ever-meticulous Manning really want to get acclimated to a new team in a temporary facility during a very fluid year that includes a move from St. Louis?

No question, Manning has a plan. No question, he isn't simply "gee golly goshing" his way through this decision, only to decide on March 9 whether he feels like continuing. If there's one thing we know about Manning, he is incapable of simplicity when given 24 days to contemplate something.

That plan, though, remains to be seen. But be warned: Despite the obvious assumption that swept over the sports world after Manning won the Super Bowl, this is not a man easily accepting the narrative for himself. It is somebody who still wants to play football -- and somebody who is taking a month to figure out a way to do it.

If this was merely about Manning taking some time to see how his body felt, if it was about seeing if he still has fire for the game, the decision already would have been made. If anything, this is about Manning talking himself out of playing ... not into playing.

Don't believe it? Just consider some more of Manning's words from Wednesday's event, when he discussed what it was like to miss games in 2015.

"During some of the home games, when the doctor said it wasn't safe for me to be on the sideline with a cast on my foot, I watched the game on a television inside the locker room," Manning said. "I had the TV on mute so I wouldn't be distracted by what the announcers were saying. It was absolutely excruciating.

"I could hear the roar of the crowd, but there was nothing I could do but continue to work so I could get healthy."

Manning's evening, which included a Q&A session with a moderator that did not delve into his career decision, ended without any clear and certain indication from him about what he will do next.

But this is a man who knows what he wants -- and knows how to pull it off. Forget how he'll exit his career. Just remember how he exited the building.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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