Is Manning Headed for Unhappy Ending?
Quick, name all the NFL stars who have changed teams late in their careers to huge success. Not so fast, Brett Favre fans.
Today future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning — four days shy of his 36th birthday — becomes the latest NFL legend to try to make the jump from the franchise that made him a legend – and that he made great in return – to success in another city as he signed that five-year $96 million contract with the Denver Broncos. Almost nobody thinks Manning will last five years, or see all that Mile High money. Even Manning said at his press conference that “this is a ‘now’ situation.”
But even in the now, history doesn’t look favorably on the Manning move. He need look no farther than another Colts legend to see what the future might hold. After 17 largely brilliant years with the then Baltimore Colts, Johnny Unitas left to play one more year with the San Diego Chargers at age 40. He played just five games and completed only 45 percent of his passes. He retired following that 1973 season.
Joe Namath was the first NFL mega-star of my lifetime. I was born just before the 1968 season in which he led the Jets to a Super Bowl win (over a Colts team playing largely without an injured Unitas) and I don’t remember him in his prime. But I remember all the commercials, and the fame and unfortunately the four games he limped on those awful knees around the L.A. Coliseum as a Los Angeles Ram. He was 2-2 in those games and completed 47 percent of his passes. He was 34 years old.
At least we don’t have to worry about Manning limping. He hasn’t moved fast enough to limp in the last three or four of his healthy seasons. He showed off his new No. 18 Broncos jersey today. The number had been retired for former Broncos great Frank Tripucka. Tripucka released the number for Manning and you wonder if from a mobility standpoint, once Manning puts his helmet on you could tell him from Frank, who is now 84.
Back to Favre. Either his story or Joe Montana’s is a best case situation for Manning. Manning leaves for much the same reason that Favre and Montana left the franchises where they made their fame – a younger player too good to let go in the cases of Aaron Rogers and Steve Young, and too good to pass up in the case of certain-as-death-and-taxes No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck. Favre after “retiring” from the Packers played eight pretty good weeks for the New York Jets before arm problems limited him and limited the Jets’ ability to make the playoffs. Then he had one great year for Minnesota – his innate Brett Favreiness leaving him one game shy of the Super Bowl. His last year in Minnesota he was a shell of his greater self; injury and age nearly getting him killed before the Vikings season mercifully ended.
Montana helped produce a 13-3 record and a trip to the AFC championship game in his first year in Kansas City – although he spent some of that season injured. His second year produced a second playoff trip. He retired after those two, one short of the three-year contract he had signed. He was 38.
And there aren’t enough words to talk about all the running backs who have unfortunately tried for one more year. The only thing that could get the sadness of seeing pictures of O.J. Simpson standing on the sidelines in a San Francisco 49ers uniform out of my mind was the sadness seeing him in the Ford Bronco chase (Why do Broncos and Colts keep being involved?), and then on trial, and then on trial again.
Neither Favre nor Montana arrived at their new franchise with the questions that surround Manning from a health standpoint. There are still concerns about how far his neck has come since the multiple surgeries that sidelined him last season. Even he said at his press conference today that he isn’t as far along as he’d like to be. But he will start. John Elway made that clear when he said that the Broncos don’t have a “Plan B.”
I hope it works out for Manning. I have some friends in Indianapolis who run in the same social circles as Manning and they say he’s a great guy. That’s all the evidence I need to believe it’s true. Beyond that, there is no denying the good he has done for the city of Indianapolis and for the franchise that let him go (the only sane financial decision for the Colts to make).
I hope it works out for the fans – the loyal Broncos fans who pay the money to go to games knowing that their franchise is one awkward hit from being quarterback free…again, and for NFL fans in general.
And I hope it works out for Manning’s legacy. One hobbling NFL legend is all I really needed to see in my lifetime.