It was mid-October, and the Denver Broncos had just beaten the New York Jets. As the late sun streamed into the tunnel at MetLife Stadium, Peyton Manning was walking to the team bus, already thinking ahead to next year.
Manning had made that walk eight months earlier, under starkly different and more depressing conditions, after the Broncos had been trounced in Super Bowl XLVIII. But on this afternoon, he was smiling and clearly refreshed. He speculated with a reporter, discussing whether Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio would get a head-coaching job when the season ended (Manning seemed certain of it -- as it turns out, Del Rio is interviewing with the Oakland Raiders) and, if Del Rio left, who the candidates to replace him would be. Manning has always enjoyed NFL gossip, and so he asked what would become of Rex Ryan with the Jets. Told that Ryan would probably be fired, Manning shook his head and then noted that the Jets were still playing hard for Ryan. He laughed when he said that maybe Ryan could replace Del Rio, if all those dominos fell.
Manning said that day he felt great. He said it twice. And he looked it. He had thrown three touchdown passes and no interceptions, was walking without a limp and was already thinking far down the road -- a road that still had him, very clearly, navigating the path toward another shot at that elusive second championship. He was, at that moment, in the midst of a start to the season that again seemed drawn deeply from the fountain of youth and had him in the MVP conversation.
I thought of that walk to the bus with Manning on Sunday afternoon. The dominos had fallen, for sure, though they were not the ones Manning had imagined in October. With the Broncos' resounding 24-13 loss to the Colts, and John Fox's departure on Monday, the long-established order of the AFC might have been re-established.
But it is Manning who will linger in the mind's eye.
Manning has, somewhat infamously, experienced playoff disappointments before. This was the ninth time a Manning-led team lost its first postseason game, an inerasable blot on an otherwise sterling résumé. But this latest defeat was startling to watch, with a quarterback who had seemed to turn back the clock just a few months ago now looking so ordinary against a defense that was decidedly not Seattle's. About midway through the game, as Manning missed on a series of throws to the deep sidelines -- Colts cornerback Vontae Davis acknowledged that Indy had mimicked Seattle's plan by taking away the middle of the field and forcing Manning to try those deep-sideline passes he no longer hits consistently -- it seemed to occur to everyone watching all at once: Were we witnessing Manning's final game? Would a great player, one of the greatest in history, want to keep struggling this way, so that the lasting image of him was not of his pinpoint accuracy and deciphering of defenses, but of his frustration?
That was the quote that caught my eye Sunday night. For years, the game plan against Manning was to essentially chain him to his bench and keep him off the field, so lethal was his offensive mind. That an opponent instead approached a contest -- in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, with the entire season on the line -- thinking the best way to win was to dump the game in Manning's lap is as telling an indictment of where he is now as a player as there is to offer. Opponents, after all, are devoid of sentiment and a sense of history. They look only at the film, and what is plain in high definition is the fact that, in recent weeks, Manning became, incredibly, someone who could be exploited, like a cornerback who had lost a step matching up against a great receiver.
Nobody but Manning can answer the questions about his future, and he clearly was not prepared to answer them following the game. Just a few weeks ago, he had indicated that he expected to return. But when asked directly about his plans Sunday night, he was as noncommittal as he has ever been in public. Manning certainly privately had dark moments of doubt as he recovered from his four neck surgeries three years ago, when the ball would travel 5 yards before nose-diving. But since he came back, he has been sure and certain about his future -- even when he was asked at the Super Bowl last year if he would retire if the Broncos won -- until now.
The change in Manning's tone was noteworthy. But playing into all this is the reality that not much is sure or certain about the Broncos right now. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase, with whom Manning has a close relationship, is a possible candidate for Denver's opening and is being sought for head-coaching jobs elsewhere. If Gase leaves, it is hard to imagine Manning, who will be 39 in March, wanting to start over with someone new. Even before Fox stepped away, there were murmurs he would go so the Broncos could elevate Gase and keep Manning for another year. All of this, of course, presupposes that the Broncos want to keep Manning.
Manning has two years left on his contract, but he was clearly lessened in the last two months, with a mid-December quad strain coming in the midst of a stretch of disappointing performances. Regardless of what sparked the decline -- age, injury or a humbling combination of both -- the Broncos have other enormous roster decisions looming. The list of future free agents is staggering: Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Orlando Franklin and Terrance Knighton, among others, are set to hit the market this offseason.
As we saw today, general manager John Elway is certainly not one to sit still. He took a flamethrower to free agency last year in a feverish attempt to build a physical defense that could help boost the Broncos to that final rung. Now that the Broncos have tumbled off the ladder instead, you wonder what Elway is thinking. He was the rare professional athlete who went out on top, walking away with a Lombardi Trophy in his hands even if the Broncos had to construct a team that could help him get there. That is what Elway had hoped to do for Manning, and the team he put together this year had seemed to give Manning his best shot at a triumphant farewell.
Instead, it might have been his last chance. Manning has faced his football mortality before, of course, and nobody knows more about the history of quarterbacks than he does. He knows what Elway accomplished. He also knows that his beloved Johnny Unitas stumbled to the end, replaced as a 40-year-old starter in San Diego by a rookie named Dan Fouts.
Only Manning knows how much more his body can endure and how much more his mind is willing to take. Even this late in his career, Manning has continued to love the grind of football, the film study and the practices, the time in the locker room. When that went, he has said, he would know it was time to go.
It would be foolish to rush him out the door. He has been a pleasure to watch and a privilege to cover. And if Manning and Elway believe he can summon again enough physical well-being to give the Broncos another chance, if they can upgrade the offensive line this offseason to better protect him, then Manning should return. As miserable as his Sunday was, he was still better for most of this season than all but a handful of quarterbacks. Maybe it was just a very bad day, and not a step off a cliff.
Whatever it was, it was agonizing to watch. The confidence and optimism of that bright October afternoon, when Manning still seemed to have time and plays stretched out before him, were long gone. The plays are over for the 2014 season. And time, the only opponent even the greatest athletes can never beat, might have run out, too.