Can Peyton Manning Ride off into Sunset with One Last Shot?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 11, 2015

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) prepares to take the field prior to an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Next month, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will become the only 39-year-old starting position player in the NFL. The only active players from 2014 who are older than him are kickers Adam Vinatieri, Matt Bryant, Phil Dawson and Jay Feely, punter Shane Lechler, backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and long snapper Mike Leach. 

Considering the rough way in which Manning's 17th NFL season concluded, there's been a lot of speculation that the five-time MVP might be ready to call it a career. Of course, the fact that Manning hasn't publicly stated he'll return for a fourth season in Denver hasn't helped with that chatter. 

But a report this week from Jeff Duncan of The New Orleans Times-Picayune states that No. 18 "is back home in New Orleans and training with the intent to play the 2015 NFL season."

[Manning] has been evaluated by renowned fitness trainer Mackie Shilstone and is expected to begin training with Shilstone this week as he starts offseason preparations for his 18th NFL season, two sources close to Manning said Monday.

Manning wants to talk with Broncos executive vice president and general manager John Elway before announcing his intentions for the 2015 season, a source said. He hopes to talk to him in the next couple of days.

If indeed Manning's neck, which has undergone multiple procedures, and his thigh, which hindered him down the stretch in 2014, are healthy, his return won't surprise many. But it'll still be fair to wonder what the seven-time All-Pro has left in the tank. 

As one of the most accomplished individual players in NFL history, Manning's legacy deserves to be capped on a high note, but that's not always how these scripts are written. Can he get his career back on track and make another championship run before it's too late? Let's break it down. 

Can he redeem himself?

It's never a good sign when a 38-year-old athlete experiences a sharp decline in performance. That was undoubtedly the case with Manning as the 2014 season wore on, with the reigning NFL MVP looking increasingly mortal in November and December. 

Peyton Manning's 2014 campaign (ranking in brackets)
CategoryFirst 7 gamesNext 5 gamesNext 4 gamesPlayoffs
Comp.%69.1 (3)64.3 (13)63.6 (15)56.5
TD-INT ratio22-3 (2)14-6 (13)3-6 (33)1-0
YPA8.5 (2)7.2 (14)8.2 (8)4.6
Rating119.0 (1)95.1 (9)76.8 (25)75.5
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

It surprised nobody when ESPN's Adam Schefter reported after that playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts that Manning had been playing with a torn right quad, which he had apparently suffered Week 15 against the San Diego Chargers

That might help explain why he struggled so much the following week against the Cincinnati Bengals and in the playoffs against Indy, but it doesn't cover him for lackluster showings Week 11 against the St. Louis Rams, Week 13 against the Kansas City Chiefs or Week 14 against the Buffalo Bills

Particularly against the Bills and Chiefs, there were countless examples of Manning overthrowing open receivers while continuing to struggle to get air under his deep balls

That was part of an eight-game stretch during which Manning threw 12 interceptions—something he had done in only four of his last 10 full seasons dating back to 2003. He had just five multi-interception performances during his first 39 regular-season games in a Broncos uniform, but he matched that total over the next eight weeks. 

Manning's had to compensate for age and injuries before. It was clear that those neck problems in 2011 forced him to rely less on his arm strength and more on his pocket presence, his command of the game, his decision-making skills and his accuracy. 

Nobody would suggest Manning has the same arm today that he possessed in, say, 2004, when he averaged a ridiculous 9.2 yards per attempt. But he adapted and kept his sack and interception rates low while completing more than 68 percent of his passes in 2012 and 2013. That all seemed to go to hell in 2014. 

Peyton Manning's accuracy numbers in Denver
SeasonINT rateComp.%Acc.%Multi-INT games
20121.9 (T-5th)68.6 (2nd)78.6 (3rd)2
20131.5 (T-4th)68.3 (3rd)77.0 (T-3rd)2
20142.5 (17th)66.2 (6th)73.1 (17th)6
Accuracy percentage courtesy Pro Football Focus

So can Manning redeem himself? Can he break from one of the biggest slumps of his career? Back in 2010, he went through a three-game stretch in which he threw 11 interceptions in losses to the New England Patriots, Chargers and Dallas Cowboys. He recovered from that and put together a great December, but that was nearly half a decade ago and before Manning's neck became a major hindrance.

Now he's a lot older and has more limitations as he attempts to come back from one of the worst five-game stretches of his career. 

The problem is that even if he were hot rather than cold, what a 39-year-old Manning will be attempting to do in 2015 will be nearly unprecedented. 

QBs who have started at least 12 games beyond the age of 38
QuarterbackYearAgeComp.%TD-INTYPARating
Brett Favre20094068.433-77.9107.2
Warren Moon19953962.233-147.091.5
Warren Moon19974159.325-167.083.7
Brett Favre20083965.722-226.781.0
Vinny Testaverde20044160.017-207.176.4
Doug Flutie20013956.415-186.772.0
Brett Favre20104160.611-197.069.9
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Only four quarterbacks have ever put together remotely full seasons at Manning's age, and only one of the seven seasons from those four quarterbacks generated a passer rating better than the 101.5 mark Manning posted in 2014. 

Among those guys, only Brett Favre has a playoff victory. That came when he and the Minnesota Vikings beat the Cowboys in the 2009 divisional playoffs. But the Vikes lost the following week to the eventual Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints

The good news is Favre was actually better as a 40-year-old than he was as a 39-year-old with the New York Jets. If Favre was able to bounce back from a 22-pick season in 2008 to make an MVP run in 2009, anything's possible. And to prove that isn't a complete anomaly, Warren Moon also fared better as a 39-year-old in 1995 than he did as a 38-year-old in 1994. 

Warren Moon's sudden improvement at age 39
SeasonAgeComp.%TD-INTYPARating
19943861.718-197.179.9
19953962.233-147.091.5
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

But historically, 38 has marked the end of the road for a lot of great quarterbacks. 

Quarterbacks who disappeared at Peyton Manning's age
QuarterbackAge 37Age 38Age 39
Fran Tarkenton69.268.9Retired
Ken Stabler71.861.4Benched
Phil Simms83.388.3Retired
Joe Montana87.483.6Retired
Dave Krieg72.676.3Benched
John Elway87.593.0Retired
Dan Marino80.067.4Retired
Brad Johnson88.972.0Benched
Jeff Garcia94.690.2Benched
Kurt Warner96.993.3Retired
Peyton Manning115.1101.5?
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Would that require pulling an Elway?

If Manning is to win his second career championship, he'll obviously become the oldest starting quarterback ever to win the Super Bowl. But he's in the right place for it, because that distinction currently belongs to Elway, who won as a 38-year-old with Denver in 1998. 

New Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak, who was hired to replace John Fox last month, was Elway's position coach when Denver won that last Super Bowl, which would make a Manning title run extra ironic in this case. 

Like Elway when he won his walk-off championship during Manning's rookie season, Manning will have plenty of support from a top-notch defense, a great running game and a strong offensive line. So he might not have to totally carry the Broncos to Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco

But I can promise you that's the only way Manning will gain the ability to walk away satisfied. His archnemesis from this era, Tom Brady, now has four rings. Manning needs a second in order to secure his legacy. It's Super Bowl-or-bust. 

How do the Broncos make that easier on him?

Even if Manning comes back healthier in 2015, he'll be eight months older. And based on the information above, that's significant. The Broncos have to come to grips with the fact he's no longer able to launch rockets the way he was when he was in Indianapolis or even when he arrived in Denver. The eyeball test has revealed that, as have deep passing statistics from Pro Football Focus:

Peyton Manning on passes traveling 20 yards or more
Time frameAtt./gameComp./gameAcc.%
2012 season4.52.152.8
2013 season5.22.448.2
First half of 20144.52.350.0
Second half of 20144.31.638.2
Source: Pro Football Focus

There isn't a lot more the Broncos can do to support the guy. Among quarterbacks with at least 500 pass attempts, only two had fewer dropped passes from their receivers. 

The Broncos also had the league's sixth-ranked running game during the second half of the 2014 campaign, with back C.J. Anderson emerging as a Pro Bowler.

That rushing attack should be just as potent with Anderson carrying the load from the get-go in 2015, especially with Kubiak back in town. The zone-blocking guru once helped turned dudes like Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell, Reuben Droughns, Clinton Portis and Olandis Gary into studs, and he has since done the same with Arian Foster in Houston and Justin Forsett in Baltimore. Four of the last five offenses he's worked with have ranked in the top 10 on the ground. 

The league's third-ranked defense was also pretty solid throughout the 2014 season, and Terrance Knighton is the only key cog headed toward free agency. 

The key for the Broncos will be maintaining the status quo because this is one of the best all-around teams in football, and there aren't a lot of areas in which they can improve.

According to Over the Cap, they have about $26 million in salary-cap space. Most of that money will and should probably be spent retaining impending free-agent pass-catchers Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker, all of whom have at various points served as important safety valves for a quarterback who needs as many of those as he can get. 

What are the chances this backfires?

Everybody wants to walk away on top, but there's a risk that comes with that chase.

Right now, Manning is still considered to be one of the best quarterbacks in the game. He was the league's fourth highest-rated passer in 2014 and was an MVP candidate in November. There's a chance he gets back into a groove and makes another run while adding to his record-breaking resume next season, but there's also a chance he bombs. 

In other words, we may soon be exposed—tragically—to a Peyton Manning who is a shell of his former self. But Manning and his fans will tell you that the risk is worth the potential reward, and the reality—as teammate Von Miller recently pointed outis No. 18 is still the best hope Denver has. 

"We can win a championship with Peyton," Miller said, per The Denver Post's Trent E. Renck. "I think that's the only thing that matters. What else can I say? I think he's coming back. He said a long time ago that he would stop playing football when he felt like he was hurting a team more than helping a team. There's still so much he can do, so many wonderful things he can do for the Denver Broncos."

It's hard to disagree with that assessment. 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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