So, what would he do next in life? That was the somber, almost funereal question when Peyton Manning was having multiple neck surgeries not long ago, when doubters were placing him in broadcast booths, front offices and, my, even comedy clubs to hone his TV shtick.
No way would he return from such delicate procedures, not when nerves were in jeopardy. And if he did return, no way would he still be Peyton Manning. Stunningly, the Colts cut him loose, and the nationwide jolt was followed by an eerie lull period when it wasn’t certain who would sign him. This wasn’t how anyone envisioned the conclusion of an epic quarterbacking career. It couldn’t possibly end in such gloom.
There was Manning not 18 months later, on opening night of the 2013 NFL season, a Denver evening that began with a severe lightning storm and 33-minute delay and continued with the crackling thunder of a legend’s revival. Almost fully recovered now, or as much as he can be at 37, he shouldered the lingering civic agony of a January playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens and avenged it with his incomparable football mind, a strengthened arm and a competitive zeal bordering on cutthroat. Manning threw an astounding seven touchdown passes, tying a league record shared by five others, and directed the Broncos to a 49-27 thumping of the defending Super Bowl champions.
“It’s incredible,” said Broncos coach John Fox. “I thought he was incredible a year ago. I’ve said it a million times — to sit out a year, come to a new city, all new teammates, a very unusual type of injury. I don’t know where he finished (in 2012), but he was up there in every category quarterbacks look at. And this one was pretty phenomenal.”
While everyone else was lathering him with praise, the deadpan star of TV commercials and “Saturday Night Live” skits was cracking wise. Told that the last NFL quarterback to throw seven scoring passes was Minnesota’s Joe Kapp in 1969, Manning said at his press conference, “Yeah, Joe Kapp, the great Canadian quarterback out of Cal. Kicked the crap out of a guy on You Tube a couple of years ago.” Huh? What? No, he’s right. In 2011, Kapp was at a Canadian League Alumni Legends lunch in Vancouver when he encountered an opponent from four decades before, one Angelo Mosca. Trying to make amends for a grudge, Kapp handed Mosca some flowers. “Put it up your ass,” Mosca told him. Next thing you know, Mosca was swinging his cane at Kapp’s head, and Kapp was firing some pretty vicious punches, knocking the poor guy off the platform. Kapp was 73, Mosca 74.
In the bright lights of an all-time moment, most athletes wouldn’t be thinking about anything but themselves. Peyton Manning remembered Joe Kapp’s old-man brawl. Gee, did he know any stories about Adrian Burk, George Blanda, Y.A. Tittle and Sid Luckman — the other four in the Lucky Seven club? This should not surprise anyone who has watched Manning’s mental takeovers of games through the years, a cerebral process at the line of scrimmage that should be orchestrated in peace and quiet.
Now, he has his physical qualities back, too, even if the ball wobbles a little and the spiral isn’t always tight. Which means the Broncos, who are without pass-rushing star Von Miller during his six-game suspension and have defensive issues, will be carried by Manning in what could be another MVP season. Assuming he maintains his health, this should be a Super Bowl-caliber team by December. As the Broncos shore up holes, he’ll just play pitch-and-catch with home-run threat Demaryius Thomas, former college basketball player Julius Thomas and his new best friend, possession receiver Wes Welker. Each had two scoring catches in the rout, with Welker’s coming after he fumbled a punt inside the Denver 5 and handed the Ravens an early lead.
Afterward, the media tried to coax Manning to discuss his feat. He refused, deflecting praise to teammates.
“I don’t know. I haven’t had a whole lot of time to think about it,” he said in his folksy tone. “Our offensive line did a great job against a tough bunch up front. Wes, it’s fun to be on the same side as him. Great game for Julius. Demaryius, we’ve seen him over and over catching the fade route. It’s fun to play quarterback when you have guys like that.”
Please. You’ve just thrown seven touchdown passes and made history. Special? “Well, it was a great team win,” he said. “It certainly was an exciting atmosphere. The crowd was awesome; they stayed with us during a lull in the beginning. Anytime you can get a win to start a season, it’s a special feeling. But it’s just one win.”
Is this a Super Bowl team? “That’s a long, long way off,” Peyton Manning said.
Let him enjoy his renaissance, now announced with the loudest trumpets and boldest exclamation points. Leave it to the rest of us to celebrate his night: 27 of 42, 462 yards, zero interceptions. And seven touchdown passes.
“It didn’t seem like that many,” Welker said. “You’re just sitting there like, `That was seven?’ Because he’s so nonchalant about it.”
“That’s a sweet way to start a season,” said Joe Flacco, the Super Bowl hero, reduced to ordinary on this night. “I mean, shoot, he’s almost halfway to 20 already. There’s not much to say. It’s almost self-explanatory.”
“He’s phenomenal. To continue to come out every year and put that kind of performance on for us, it’s amazing,” said Julius Thomas, per the Associated Press.
So memorable was Manning’s show, it might make us forget a Leon Lett-like gaffe. Denver linebacker Danny Trevathan had picked off Flacco and was on his way to a touchdown when he fumbled short of the goal line — and watched the ball bounce out of the end zone. The Broncos’ defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, screamed at Trevathan.
Peyton Manning? He just looked at the scoreboard replay and sighed. He knew there were bigger things in life to worry about, and that he was conquering them.