The End Is Only Part of A StoryThe worldwide rumor that Peyton Manning will retire after the Super Bowl has now been reported as fact by Ian Rapoport of NFL Media. I believe him. A good rule of thumb is that pre-Super Bowl retirement or job change rumors usually come true. Vince Lombardi did retire after the game. Bill Parcells did leave the Patriots for the Jets. And of course, Manning's boss John Elway did retire after Super Bowl XXXIII.
I was lucky enough to cover that game for the Herald. As befitted his Hall of Fame career, Elway finished with a fairy tale flourish. He passed for 336 yards, the Broncos won the championship, and Elway got named Super Bowl MVP. A whole bunch of hearts and flowers ledes were written that evening -- mine included.
Fifty weeks later, on January 25, 2000, I was again lucky, covering the final game of another all-time quarterback, one of the three greatest passers of the last quarter of the 20th century. The last time Dan Marino put on a helmet was also the stuff of fantasy fiction -- as written by H. P. Lovecraft. Marino passed for only 91 yards, threw two interceptions and was benched for Damon Huard as his Dolphins lost a divisional playoff game to Jacksonville 62-7. I don't remember what I wrote, but it had to be sad. Even the Jaguars fans were a little sad.
Manning's final game, should this be it, is likely to fall somewhere between the poles established by Elway and Marino. The betting line says most folks think he'll land closer to Dan than John on the storybook scale, perhaps very close indeed. The Panthers defense made Russell Wilson and Carson Palmer, two quarterbacks who had way better years than Manning, look either ordinary or awful in the playoffs. It's reasonable to assume they can make Peyton look even worse than that.
Having witnessed the ultimate extremes of how great ones bow out has led me to the following conclusion. What happens in Super Bowl 50 will not affect my memories and evaluation of Peyton Manning's career in the slightest. It'll be swell for him if Denver pulls off the upset victory, and depressing for all if he is humiliated as he was in the Super Bowl two years ago, but in the end, it won't matter.
Throughout all history in every sport, for every one historic star who goes out on top, 10,000 stay too long at the fair and end their playing days in failure. It's always sad to see, but here's the thing about greatness. Time passes, and it's the athlete's greatness endures in memory, not his succumbing
to the inevitable weaknesses of the flesh.
I remember Marino's dead swan song, but I doubt others do. If I hadn't seen it, I probably wouldn't. (For that matter, I'll bet most fans think Elway's last game was his first Super Bowl win against Green Bay). Most importantly, it's a memory swept away by others on those occasions I remember Marino at all. I recall the ridiculously quick release, or the fake spike against the Jets, or the resigned and unhappy tones of a succession of Patriots defensive coaches describing how they game planned for the guy.
That's as it should be, too. I remember watching Muhammed Ali fail to land a punch on Larry Holmes, and Willie Mays stumbling around the outfield for the 1973 Mets. I know those things happened. But that's not what I think about, or what anyone thinks about, when considering those two immortals. I mostly think about how blessed I was to see them at their best for as long as I did.
Win, lose or humiliation next Sunday, Peyton Manning will still be a first ballot Hall of Famer, one of the 10 best quarterbacks in pro football history, the pioneer of the all-passing all the time offenses of the 21st century to date. That can't change. Anybody who babbles about his "resume" or "legacy" this week is someone who's missing the point of sports altogether.
I don't need to know the ending of Peyton Manning's story. In my mind, I've already finished it.