ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Peyton Manning surveyed the landscape of his brilliant career and called one last audible. He’s retiring a champion.
A month after Denver’s triumph in Super Bowl 50, Manning informed John Elway he’s going to follow his lead and ride off into that orange sunset just like the Broncos’ boss did 17 years ago after winning his second Super Bowl.
Just shy of 40, Manning will forgo $19 million and a 19th season in the NFL, where he served as both a throwback and a transformer during a glittering career bookmarked by an unprecedented five MVP awards and dozens of passing records.
“Peyton was a player that guys wanted to play with,” Elway said. “That made us better as a team and I’m thrilled that we were able to win a championship in his final year.”
Manning leaves the league he helped popularize to supersize status as its all-time leading passer and winningest starting quarterback, the only one in NFL history to win Super Bowls with two franchises.
His first came in 2007 with the Indianapolis Colts, who drafted him No. 1 overall in 1998. The Colts gave up on him after a series of neck surgeries forced Manning to miss all of the 2011 season and left him without feeling in the fingertips of his right hand.
A rare superstar quarterback on the open market in 2012, Manning resettled in Denver, where, despite a right arm weakened by nerve damage, he went 50-15 with his fifth MVP award and two trips to the Super Bowl in four seasons.
“I get asked a lot about my legacy,” Manning said before the Super Bowl. “For me, it’s being a good teammate, having the respect of my teammates, having the respect of the coaches and players. That’s important to me. I am not taking this for granted. I just love football. I always have.”
The 18th season for No. 18 was by far his most trying on the field — and so, his sweetest.
He had to adjust to new coach Gary Kubiak’s run-based offense, to unrelenting health issues, and to questions about his character on his way to winning his second Super Bowl title.
Manning, whose dry wit and star power has made him a staple of late-night television and 30-second commercials for nearly two decades, saw his squeaky-clean image take a beating as the final pages were flipped on his storied career.
The NFL is investigating allegations that human growth hormone was shipped to his home in his wife’s name following an Al Jazeera report that Manning angrily dismissed as “garbage.” And in a new lawsuit filed last month. Manning was cited as an example of a hostile environment for women at the University of Tennessee for his alleged harassment of a female trainer in 1996. The university filed a motion to strike a reference to Manning from the Title IX lawsuit.
A torn ligament in his left foot hampered Manning all the way back to August. It led to his worst statistical season and sidelined him for six weeks before that fairy tale finish in Santa Clara, California, when his defense carried him across the finish line.
Manning relinquishes the game he loves secure in having left an indelible imprint on America’s most popular sport.
“He was on the forefront of basically a revolution in the way offenses are run in the National Football League,” Joe Theismann said recently.