Manning himself said as much prior to the Denver Broncos’ divisional playoff game against the San Diego Chargers when he told the media that “the light is at the end of the tunnel for me, no question.”
Manning, who will turn 38 in less than two months, set single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdown passes (55), led the Broncos to a 13-3 record and will more than likely capture his fifth MVP award at the third NFL Annual Honors special, which will air on February 1.
Although Manning’s 2013 season will certainly go down as one of the greatest seasons by any player ever, regular-season success is nothing new for Manning. After all, he has been demolishing his competition for 16 years now.
What separates Manning’s 2013 season from the rest is not only the fact that this season has been the most dominant of his entire career, but that he has been able to carry his outstanding play through the postseason, which is something Manning has had issues with in the past.
Manning now has the Broncos just one win away from their first Super Bowl title since 1998, which would be a fitting end to a record-setting year for both Manning and the Broncos offense.
All of this success at the age of 37 begs the question: If Manning were to win Super Bowl XLVIII, what more would he possibly have to accomplish in this game?
As it is, Manning would be the third-oldest quarterback in NFL history (behind John Elway and Johnny Unitas) to win a Super Bowl.
If there were ever an absolutely perfect time for an NFL player to ride off into the sunset after a Super Bowl title, this could be it for Manning.
Very few players in the history of the NFL have gone out on top, particularly in recent years when the league has been designed to produce parity.
Michael Strahan and Ray Lewis are the only two that immediately come to mind in recent years.
John Elway, who is ironically the executive vice president of football operations for the Broncos and recruited Manning to Denver, and who himself walked away from the game after winning Super Bowl XXXIII with the Broncos, is the last quarterback to have been able to walk out on top.
However, Manning’s situation is a bit different from these other NFL legends who were able to walk away as Super Bowl champions.
The production of players such as Strahan, Lewis and even Elway had already begun to decline, if ever so slightly, when they decided to retire after their respective Super Bowl titles.
Manning, on the other hand, just put together the greatest single season by any quarterback in NFL history.
So, if the Broncos were to defeat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII and Manning then decided to retire from the game, he would literally be walking away at the very top of his game, which is something that very few players in any sport have the opportunity to do.
Here is a list of the pros and cons of Manning walking away from the game should the Broncos capture their third Super Bowl title on February 2.
What some may find interesting about this list, and what will likely circulate through Manning’s mind should he begin contemplating retirement in two weeks, is that many of the pros on this list are also cons.
The ability to walk away from the game on top
As previously mentioned, very few players in this modern era of the NFL have been able to walk away from the game on top.
If Manning were to win Super Bowl XLVIII with the Broncos in two weeks and not walk away from the game at that time, the chances would be very slim of him ever encountering another opportunity to truly walk away from the game on top.
Since 1980, only four teams have managed to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Aside from talent, depth and good coaching, there is also an element of luck that goes into winning a Super Bowl title in terms of players staying healthy and the ball taking some favorable bounces throughout the season.
Manning would, at best, have two more seasons left in the NFL should he decide to return to the Broncos next season. Of course, it is possible for the Broncos to repeat as Super Bowl champions or win another title sometime over the next two years. However, if history has shown us anything, it’s that the likelihood of that happening is quite slim.
Essentially, if Manning were looking to walk away from the game while on top, it isn't going to get much better than walking away after a record-setting year culminating in a victory at Super Bowl XLVIII.
Manning showed the world that he was not done when the Colts released him in 2012
On March 7, 2012, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay made the decision to release Manning.
Irsay’s decision, like most decisions in the modern-day NFL, was certainly impacted by the financial implications of keeping Manning on the roster (Manning was owed a $28 million roster bonus if he was not released by the organization). But the Colts' decision was also partially based on their belief that Manning could no longer perform at a high level and that the future of the organization would lie on the right arm of their much younger first-round draft pick, Andrew Luck.
Needless to say, the rejection of a team that Manning had given 14 seasons and an NFL title to, as well as a brand new state-of-the-art stadium that hosted Super Bowl XLVI, must have lit a fire in Manning’s belly.
If Manning were not driven enough prior to being released by the Colts, this rejection by a team that he had given so much to must have driven Manning even harder to succeed again in the NFL…and needless to say, he has more than accomplished that goal.
Manning is headed to Super Bowl XLVIII, while the Colts will be sitting at home watching.
Although the Broncos did not have to go directly through the Colts to reach Super Bowl XLVIII, one can only assume that Manning is satisfied with this form of retribution.
Manning can walk away from the game in relatively good health
Manning has had four surgeries on his neck, and although no one but Manning and his doctors truly know the risk he is taking every time he steps onto an NFL football field, at this point Manning appears to still be in good health.
However, as most NFL veterans know all too well, that could change at the drop of a hat.
Although this writer does not pretend to have a medical degree, one can only assume that the risk Manning faces each and every week with a surgically repaired neck must be at least somewhat greater than the risk most ordinary NFL players face on a weekly basis.
Manning is expected to have an offseason exam on his neck sometime after the Super Bowl.
If everything comes back clean, then Manning’s decision may rest more heavily on other factors. But if the exam shows that Manning has done more damage to his neck or is at more of a risk of suffering a severe injury, then this single issue could be the deciding factor for Manning in terms of his future in the NFL.
Manning would have very little left to accomplish
If Manning were to lead the Broncos to victory at Super Bowl XLVIII, what more would he possibly have to accomplish?
He has just put together the best season by any quarterback in the history of the NFL.
He defeated his long-time rival Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game.
He would have shown the world that he has the ability to perform well in the postseason.
He would have beaten the best defense, and particularly the best secondary, that the NFL has seen in quite some time in the Seattle Seahawks.
Aside from just padding his legacy a bit more over the next couple of years, what more would Manning have to accomplish if he were to come out victorious in Super Bowl XLVIII?
The only real accomplishment left for Manning would be to join the list of quarterbacks who have led their teams to back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
This list currently includes the likes of Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady, which are quarterbacks whom Manning’s name often appears alongside of in any conversation about the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
But would that single addition to his legacy be enough for Manning to come back should the Broncos win Super Bowl XLVIII?
Manning just put together the greatest season of any quarterback in NFL history
While this was essentially listed as a pro for why Manning should retire if the Broncos were to win Super Bowl XLVIII, it can also be viewed as a con.
Manning has worked incredibly hard to overcome injury and get back to this point, so why would he then walk away when he has finally reached that pinnacle he has been striving so hard to achieve?
Of course, on the other side of the coin, it is quite possible, if not probable, that things may never get any better than they were this season for Manning and the Broncos. But even so, would Manning truly be prepared to walk away when he has finally arrived at the place he has been working so hard to reach?
The answer to that question would have a lot to do with just how important it is to Manning to walk away from the game while on top.
Manning may feel as if he is letting down his teammates
Manning is and always has been a true team player.
Manning also has that rare leadership quality that somehow forces everyone around him to step up their game and put in the extra time and effort to succeed.
How would Manning feel about simply walking away from a receiving core that has spent countless hours working with him after practice on perfecting their routes and their timing?
This Denver Broncos offense has really put out for Manning over the past two seasons.
If Manning had a planned exit at the end of this season, that would be one thing, but simply walking away from a group of guys who have really worked their tails off for Manning this season would be quite another thing.
Of course, everyone would completely understand if Manning decided to walk away from the game following a Super Bowl title at the age of 38, but it may be quite difficult for Manning to leave his teammates high and dry like that.
Manning may feel as if he is letting down the Broncos organization
Elway and the Broncos took a major risk by signing Manning to a huge contract after four neck surgeries and more than a year away from the game.
The Broncos have also spent a lot of money and effort building a “Peyton Manning Team,” meaning that they have assembled a team of receivers and offensive linemen who fit right into Manning’s rapid-fire passing offense.
If Manning were to simply step away after Super Bowl XLVIII, would Brock Osweiler really be able to step in and fill Manning’s shoes?
Should Manning make an abrupt exit from the Broncos after a Super Bowl XLVIII victory, it would leave an organization that took a chance on him and built an entire offense around him in a very difficult position.
At the end of the day, Manning would, of course, need to put himself and his family above the Broncos organization, and everyone understands that.
But this is just another factor that could weigh into any retirement decisions that Manning may contemplate should the Broncos win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Manning still enjoys the preparation
Playing football on Sunday afternoons in front of thousands of screaming fans is what NFL players live for.
However, few casual fans truly understand the amount of work and preparation that occurs before players walk through that tunnel on Sunday.
“I think that’s probably the challenge as you get older,” Manning said prior to last Sunday’s conference championship game, as reported by Julian Benbow of The Boston Globe. “Everybody probably enjoys the football games but I’ve heard players in their late years say that they enjoyed the games but they didn’t enjoy the preparation and the offseason workouts and the meetings and all that."
“I still do enjoy that part of it. I think being in a new offense, being with a new offensive coordinator, having some new teammates, it keeps you stimulated. It keeps you on your toes and it keeps you constantly learning each week something new. I think that’s important to enjoy the process not just the outcomes of the games,” Manning went on to say.
Preparation is an incredibly important part of the game for any NFL player or team.
But Manning’s preparation skills are nothing if not legendary around the league. If Manning were to lose his desire to put in the countless hours to prepare for each week’s opponent, he would almost certainly lose at least some of his ability to perform at the same level he has been over the past 16 years.
As of now, Manning appears to still enjoy the preparation aspect of the game. But who knows how he might feel about the thought of doing this all over again after the conclusion of a long, grueling season.
It’s incredibly difficult for any team to make it to the top of the league
This is another issue that is both a pro and a con.
The fact that it is so difficult for a team to reach the top in this modern era of the NFL could lean Manning towards retirement if he has any desire to leave the game while on top.
However, the fact that it is so difficult to construct a championship caliber team in the NFL these days could also lean Manning towards returning even if the Broncos do win Super Bowl XLVIII.
This is such a rare occurrence that Manning may feel as if he needs to take this last opportunity to ride a wave of success that doesn’t often come along in the NFL and certainly won’t come along again in Manning’s career.
Manning could cement his place as the greatest quarterback of all time
Right now, Manning would certainly enter any conversation about the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
However, even if Manning should capture another Super Bowl title in two weeks, some fans and analysts would still think that Manning hasn’t done quite enough, particularly in the postseason, to be the clear front-runner in any discussion about the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
However, should the Broncos become a dynasty led by Manning over the next two to three years and win another Super Bowl title or two, then that would certainly change the conversation.
If Manning were to win two Super Bowl titles over the next couple of years, it would almost certainly cement his place as the greatest quarterback of all-time.
Of course, a Super Bowl title in two weeks followed by another Super Bowl title sometime over the next two seasons would be an extremely difficult feat. But the Broncos are a very strong team right now, and Manning could view the allure of another Super Bowl title and cementing his place as the greatest of all time as simply too much to resist.
If the Manning and the Broncos were to come out of Super Bowl XLVIII victorious, Manning will likely have a very difficult decision ahead of him.
However, this entire debate is predicated on Manning and the Broncos winning Super Bowl XLVIII.
If the Broncos do not leave MetLife Stadium with the Lombardi Trophy in hand on February 2, then the chances of seeing No. 18 on the field next season could increase exponentially.
One would have a difficult time imagining Manning having the type of season he had and getting within a hair of winning a second Super Bowl title only to walk away from the game with his head down.
For Broncos fans, a Super Bowl XLVIII loss would, of course, taste quite bitter. But a Super Bowl victory in two weeks could wind up tasting bittersweet depending upon any desire No. 18 may have to walk out on top.
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