USA Today Sports / Reuters

Midway through the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, the Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning took a shotgun snap from the Broncos’ own 25-yard line. He shuffled his 39-year-old, six-foot-five-inch frame back a couple steps, then forward, and then let go of a low throw aimed at the right sideline, where the Denver speedster Emmanuel Sanders was presently streaking. The pass was perfect. It snuck just over the turned shoulder of a Cleveland cornerback and arrived before the helping safety could offer any aid, settling into Sanders’s grip as easily as if he’d been tossed a set of keys.

In other words, it looked like the type of throw with which Manning was once synonymous, the type made possible by virtuosic skill and foresight bordering on precognition. These throws had turned defenses’ fissures into gaping and exploitable openings and put point totals in the 30s or 40s on scoreboards across the NFL. This latest exhibition was placed so well that Sanders could catch it without decelerating and run the field’s remaining 50 yards for a touchdown.

This season, though, such passes are far rarer than they used to be. Manning’s fourth-quarter strike to Sanders on Sunday came minutes after his second interception of the day, returned by the Cleveland defense for a touchdown, and before his third. It was a much needed, dramatic salvo in a close game against a mediocre team that in years past would have played the role of patsy in a Manning-engineered blowout. On Sunday afternoon, as on most of the Broncos’ Sundays so far this season, the response the once-great quarterback inspired wasn’t awe but ambivalence—about his remaining aptitude, his health, his place on his team and within his sport, and the barbarous essence of the sport itself.

Manning is old and hurt. He underwent spinal-fusion surgery in 2011, which facilitated the end of his illustrious career with the Indianapolis Colts (featuring a Super Bowl title and four Most Valuable Player awards) and the beginning of his accomplished late-career run with the Broncos (a Super Bowl appearance, another MVP). The operation led to immediate changes in his abilities and tactics—wobblier spirals, shorter passes, a heightened disinclination to take big hits—but those changes have since been magnified to an extreme.

Some of his passes this season have been torturously slow or misaimed, and he curls and tumbles at the approach of a defensive lineman as if to protect a skeleton made of chalk. In late summer, near the end of the preseason, Manning admitted that the fingertips of his throwing hand have been numb ever since his return four seasons ago, and in September, ESPN The Magazine ran a profile of the player in which the normal routine of undressing after a game was revealed to be more arduous to him now than throwing an out-route against a top-flight defense once was.

From the perspective of pure football, the present situation of Manning and the Broncos is an interesting one. Despite Manning’s struggles, Denver holds a record of 6-0. A league-best defense and a cadre of highly skilled receivers, once considered networks of support to their quarterback’s distinct genius, now do most of the weekly work, with Manning chipping in where he’s able. One effect of this inversion of roles is that the Broncos seem somewhat anachronistic, a low-scoring and hard-hitting team in a league built (owing in no small part to Manning’s own influence) on prodigious passers.

But because football is a grim and violent game, Manning’s swan song is no harmless experiment. Each of his drop-backs triggers a hint of fear, from the viewer if not from the player himself. The words spine and neck linger, and nightmare scenes of paralysis flash. His slow and lanky limbs seem ready to fall apart at the slightest knock. Manning once stood for a certain kind of football future, chess played with human bodies—hazardous, sure, but fundamentally artful and intellectual. Now he stands for the game’s very real and very dangerous present.

* * *

In the prime of his career, Manning seemed lab-built to fulfill the needs of the NFL, in regards to both the evolution of the sport itself and its family- and advertiser-friendly, corporate-synergistic sheen. He was a generational talent, and an even rarer character in the ongoing story in which football positions itself as an outlet for American gumption. The old, hard times called for hard heroes, men who hit and scowled and spit out their teeth, but by the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, the nature of the country and its appetite for injury as entertainment had changed, however slightly. Football needed a star who could make its virtues—hard work, leadership, sacrifice—more modern, and maybe a little gentler.

So in stepped Manning. His ethic challenged that of any icon of yesteryear, but he showed it by logging long hours in the film room instead of by playing through cracked bones or torn muscles. Studio shows filled pregame airtime with stories of his obsessive preparation, and his gesticulating, heavily coded audibles at the line fascinated fans. When one of his passes found its target, it seemed a triumph of a new sort of gridiron archetype, with mental diligence replacing physical toughness as the defining characteristic.

Manning had the sort of physique and manner that, were he not a world-renowned superstar, might be called dweeby. He was gangly and seemed to play in borrowed, ill-fitting pads. He had a massive forehead that featured a red, pressure-induced spot whenever he removed his helmet and revealed his Tintin-like haircut. Neither quick nor fluid, he moved about the pocket as if stepping barefoot on summertime blacktop, and even at its best, his throwing motion looked overstudied, even a touch robotic.

This inelegant bodily style combined with Manning’s workaholic lore to place him firmly in the camp of the cerebral athlete. He had enviable physical gifts, of course, but he played in a way that made his body itself seem little more than a conduit for his mind. Watching him direct the whirring Colts teams of the 2000s, you couldn’t help but think that a notable portion of the NFL’s quarterbacks could make many of the throws Manning did. What they couldn’t do was see the angles or alleys of space as he saw them or, better yet, foresee what those angles and alleys would look like before they’d even materialized.

Now, it’s plain how much physical ability Manning did have in those days, and how much he had to lose. If he once seemed bookish as he played, he now resembles a disembodied brain suspended in a jar, with a rudimentary mechanical arm jerry-rigged outside the glass. An offense stuffed with talent surrounds him, and it’s all he can do to cobble together, via his gifts for prediction and misdirection and some short and shaky throws, enough yards for a first down. The Denver defense, founded on the pass-rushing menaces Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, works at a feverish clip to make Manning’s slim leads hold or give him time to recover from his mistakes.

Set next to high-scoring feats of the nimble and rocket-armed Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers or the clinical Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, the halting efforts of Manning and the Broncos may seem inadequate. They’ll almost certainly prove to be so as the season wears on, when the stakes and levels of competition rise and shortcomings are less easily papered over. For now, though, they also illuminate aspects of the brilliance of team and player alike. The Broncos have demonstrated their ability to win, if not thrive, with a diminished version of their Hall of Fame-bound quarterback. Manning, for his part, has reshaped the meaning of endurance just as he did that of ethic over a decade ago.

* * *

Any admiration this season produces, though, is undermined by the reality of Manning’s physical condition. A pair of plays from a recent game in Oakland against the Raiders, one that ended in a 16-10 Broncos win, illustrates the queasiness sometimes caused by watching the sunset-riding QB. In the first, Manning was driving the Broncos down the field just before the half in pursuit of a clock-beating score. A play-action pass called for Manning to execute a fake hand-off before targeting a receiver with a throw. It was the kind of common maneuver that usually doesn’t attract much attention, but when Manning did it, it looked exceedingly difficult. He completed the pass, but that minor wrinkle in his usual routine—the pausing of the feet, the rotating of the shoulders to extend the ball and bring it back—rendered his degeneration stark. Among the lineman shoving and batting at one another and the receivers and defensive backs sprinting in tandem, he looked as incongruous as a spectator who’d accidentally wandered onto a speedway in the middle of a race.

The second play came just after halftime, when the Raiders had the ball. The Oakland quarterback Derek Carr dropped back to pass, and Miller, the Denver linebacker, shed a blocker and came blazing toward him. Miller reached Carr in a blink and drove him to the ground and wrested the ball from his hands all in one motion. It was fast, efficient, and final.

I couldn’t help but wonder, watching this display of dominance so closely following Manning’s stiff and awkward shamble: What would have happened if it had been Manning staring down the unchecked defender? Would he have had time to execute one of his protective rolls? Would he have been able to toss the ball to an unoccupied patch of grass and skip out of the way? Or would his efforts to evade or absorb only have brought a weakened vertebra in line with the crown of the defender’s helmet and led to a gruesome outcome that, in retrospect, would have seemed inevitable?

This is the dark undercurrent of Manning’s hanging-on. Manning is, by sight if not by the technicalities of team medical clearance, unfit to be on an NFL field. But tragic as a severe injury would be, it would also be in keeping with a time in which football’s destructive capacity has never been more recognized. The word “concussion” is now spoken during each game, a new hobbled ex-player brings a suit against the NFL in every news cycle, and the league’s attempts to enforce safer tackling regulations read as insubstantial correctives to an inherently perilous sport.

Manning was once the blueprint for a kind of football less aesthetically centered on the hard hit, to the delight of its marketers and fans with more insistent consciences. Under his supervision, the game seemed like nothing so much as the anthropomorphization of a playbook, all patterned lines and practiced reactions and timed throws. It looked shiny, slightly unreal, and comparatively painless. Today’s Manning, though, shows the limits of the balletic shift for which he once served as figurehead. Football still resolves in bodies colliding, and so it still inspires fear.

In many ways, then, the departing Manning sheds a truer light than he did in his glory days on the conflicted experience of watching our national game. It inspires equal parts joy and guilt, not always easily separable from one another. Where we once watched Manning for his expertise, his peerless stature among the NFL’s players, we now see in him a kind of overview of the sport’s emotional terrain. We parse his remaining ability, admire his resolve, and worry over his future. And we hope he gets out in one piece, without that worry hardening into the last and most trying of football’s outputs: mourning.


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