Is Peyton Manning crazy?
In the twilight of his career, with his Ironman streak broken, with a surgically repaired neck and a wet-noodle arm, the only franchise he'd ever played for gave him a gold watch and a firm handshake and drafted his replacement No. 1 overall.
Manning, it was rumored, was struggling to rebuild his arm strength and throwing motion. With a Super Bowl ring on his finger, piles of statistical accomplishments and his Hall of Fame bust being sculpted, Manning had little left to prove.
Unlike other players whose bodies betrayed them at the end of their careers, Manning had experience and potential in coaching, as well as in media. Manning had the talent and resources to do almost anything he wanted outside of football.
So why the hell is he playing football?
The Denver Broncos?
After the Colts decided it was time to sunset the Peyton Manning era and bring the Andrew Luck era online, Manning could easily have ended it right there. Instead, he went on a free-agent recruitment tour and picked what seemed like the worst possible option.
In Denver, Manning would have to defy the Tim Tebow zealots. In Denver, Manning would have to repeat an incredibly lucky playoff run (and win). In Denver, Manning's top targets would be questionably talented youngsters with no track record of NFL success.
The first hint of what was to come was a leaked YouTube video, allegedly showing Manning making NFL throws while practicing at Duke University:
The Internet had a field day with this clip. Many tried to nitpick the throws, Manning's form and even whether it was authentic.
Once Manning signed with the Broncos, though, there was nowhere to hide.
I was not the only one to comb through every second of Manning's preseason tape and break down his form. Manning clearly had lost something off his spiral, deep ball and out routes, but he wasn't doing much of anything he couldn't do just as well as he always had.
Denver was, intelligently, asking him only to do what he could do well. As a result, Manning and the Broncos started doing well.
With What at Stake?
Manning had an almost-untouchable legacy.
He was drafted into a flailing franchise; a miserable team whose legacy lay 600 miles away. A team that had receiver Marvin Harrison and almost nothing else. After a rocky rookie season, Manning went to the Pro Bowl in 11 of 12 seasons and was named first-team All-Pro in five of those 12.
Manning started every single game for the Colts from 1999 to 2010, a 208-game Ironman streak that fell just 89 games short of all-time-record-holder Brett Favre. He was synonymous with his team, the Indianapolis Colts, in a way that very few post-free-agency players have been.
Manning led the Colts to 11 double-digit-win seasons in 13 years, compensating for all sorts of defensive (and sometimes, offensive) flaws on the way. He led the Colts to the Super Bowl twice, and he brought Indianapolis its only Lombardi Trophy.
By any measure, Manning was a mortal lock for the Hall of Fame. Playing this season for the Broncos, it seemed, could only damage his legend and legacy.
Manning was more than aware of the risks. In the pantheon of great quarterbacks, the Mount Rushmore of signal-callers, the very highest of heights of his profession, he had another Colt to look up to: Johnny U.
Though Unitas played in Baltimore, Manning was painfully aware of the heritage he represented every time he put on the horseshoe helmet. In 2002, Manning asked the league for permission to honor Unitas by wearing black high-top shoes despite NFL uniform policy—the league denied it.
Unitas himself took the same risk Manning did. After the Colts decided Unitas' performance no longer warranted his salary, he was shipped out to an AFC West team. Unitas' disastrous year as a San Diego Charger is a chapter of NFL history best left forgotten.
Yet, something about what head coach John Fox was building in Denver convinced Manning that the risk to his legacy was worth the potential reward.
Smarter Than the Average Bear
Manning's down-home way of speaking, guileless appearance and "aw-shucks" sense of humor belies a brilliant brain. On the field and off, Manning's more than aware of his place in the history of the game. He prepared like only he can, and he worked with the coaching staff to build the offense around what he could—and couldn't—do.
As a result, the Broncos are 12-3.
Manning took, essentially, the same team that was butt-lucky to make the playoffs in 2011, and improved its record by at least four wins. Denver is six wins ahead of the second-place Chargers and in the driver's seat for a first-round bye.
The defense has allowed just 19.1 points per game, fifth-best in the NFL, so maybe even Tebow would have been able to eke out a winning record on the other side of the ball.
But Fox has proved his mettle as a coach. Manning's sideline-to-sideline, pass-first game bears no resemblance to the Willis McGahee-and-play-action offense of 2011. Manning's doing what Manning does as well as anyone else—yards, points and wins are the result.
Despite having every excuse to fail, every opportunity to hang 'em up and every chance to make it all go wrong, Manning has not only proved he lives up to the legend—he has a chance to surpass it.
If Manning and the Broncos make any kind of noise in the playoffs, he'll bronze his legacy as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play. But besides that, he'll have taken that same legacy and let it ride, putting everything at stake for another shot at glory.
For making that choice, you might call Peyton Manning crazy...
...if he weren't Peyton Manning.