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Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson exit, and NFL marches on

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It was 2009, and Peyton Manning was on the way to his fourth NFL MVP award and his second Super Bowl appearance. I was leaving the Indianapolis Colts' locker room when Manning called me over.

"How's Mark Sanchez doing?" Manning wanted to know.

Sanchez, then the rookie starting quarterback for the New York Jets, seemed to be handling New York just fine, I told Manning. But he was throwing a lot of interceptions.

"Well, I threw a lot of interceptions when I was a rookie, too," Manning replied.

I think I tried not to laugh too hard when I told Manning that I thought we'd all seen a somewhat higher ceiling during his rookie season than we expected from Sanchez. But that exchange was Manning in a nutshell. Self-deprecating superstar. Lover of NFL gossip. Tireless defender of quarterbacks.

I thought of that conversation while watching Manning's tearful retirement press conference on Monday, because in it, he gave public voice to what has been apparent to people who have been around him for 18 years: Manning adores football. All of it. On Monday, he mentioned how he will miss everything from picking out the game balls with the equipment staff on a Friday to talking to his brother Eli Manning (himself the quarterback for the New York Giants) while they were on their respective team busses after games, all of it with his voice wavering with emotion.

You hear other players, even the greatest ones, say that by the end of their careers, they loved Sundays, but wearied of the other six days of preparation. Receiver Calvin Johnson, who retired Tuesday at age 30 after nine seasons, was understandably worn down by recent physical ailments, and maybe by year after year of losing in Detroit. That he walks away with time left is particularly poignant, because there is a sense that his career is unfinished and unfulfilled.

Manning, who played in just two losing seasons, never seemed to get worn down by football. He revered -- his word -- it and all that it encompassed, including the preparation and the sense of community in the locker room. If you were around his teams during the postseason, he would inevitably ask about the coaching carousel that played out while he pursued another Super Bowl. In October 2014, after the Broncos had demolished the Jets, not long before Manning's physical decline began in earnest, he asked me what was going to happen to then-Jets coach Rex Ryan. When I told him I thought Ryan would probably be fired at the end of the season, Manning mused that maybe Ryan could become the Broncos' defensive coordinator if Jack Del Rio (the current Raiders coach, who was filling the coordinator slot in Denver at the time) got a head coaching job.

That complete immersion, and the joy Manning took in it, is why it is hard to imagine -- once the golf and hunting trips subside -- that Manning will completely divorce himself from the NFL. The outcome of the NFL's investigation into Al Jazeera America's HGH report, which implied that a shipment of the hormone addressed to Manning's wife may have been intended for his use, could complicate things, as could something new potentially emerging from the lawsuit against the University of Tennessee that has led to a 20-year-old incident involving Manning and an athletic trainer being resurfaced. But short of smoking guns that significantly sully Manning, it is hard to imagine people in and around football -- in television, in front offices -- would not seek to absorb some of the drive and ability to elevate those around him that John Elway and Gary Kubiak attested to on Monday.

As much as Monday was about giving Manning the opportunity to bid farewell to football, the league was marching on, even as it looked on. Manning's speech may have choked up some, but the NFL is not nostalgic. The Broncos would have released him had he not retired. The Lions may have wanted Johnson to take a pay cut.

And when Kubiak sought to explain how Manning regained the starting job -- a finger directed to Kubiak on video of one of his practices was not meant to signal "No. 1" -- that interlude, before Manning had even taken the microphone, sounded an awful lot like a gentle shift in the Broncos organization.

They have been preparing for life after Manning from almost the moment they got him four years ago, and in reviewing the details of the push and pull -- of what sounded almost like a negotiation -- between him and Manning after Manning's foot healed, Kubiak came across as a coach trying, once again, to explain the situation to Brock Osweiler, who had to wonder what he had done to deserve losing the job when even Manning didn't think he'd been playing badly.

If it wasn't exactly a recruiting pitch, it also probably wasn't an accident that Kubiak, himself very emotional, took the occasion to make it clear that Manning had lobbied to get his job back, that he had to convince Kubiak this was the right course.

Barring a last-minute deal, Osweiler will be a free agent Wednesday, and with fellow signal caller Sam Bradford already having signed with the Eagles, Osweiler is the best available quarterback in a market full of teams trying to land one. That will almost certainly send his value above the three-year, $45 million deal the Broncos have reportedly already offered.

The unattractive new video of Osweiler shoving away a woman in an apparent altercation notwithstanding, the Broncos need Osweiler more than he needs them. If he leaves for another team -- Houston is a frequently mentioned potential landing spot -- the Broncos will have botched the transition plan they have had in place since Manning showed up, and they will have to scramble to sign a quarterback who is not just capable of replacing a legend, but who can helm a team that is still very much in its Super Bowl window with a superb defense.

As for the Lions, with the free agency period about to open, they now must figure out how to operate with an offense that no longer includes a wide receiver who could outjump whatever defense was on him.

This week's retirements of future Hall of Famers were bittersweet. The fallout for the teams left behind might simply be bitter.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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