In the second quarter of the divisional playoff against Indianapolis, game tied 7-7, Peyton Manning was slammed from the blind side. He was stripped of the football, Indy recovering it. As he jogged off the field, Manning’s face showed disgust and resignation, not his usual stoic demeanor.
It may have been a defining moment.
The Denver Broncos went on to lose 24-13, prematurely ending a redemption story for them. Manning, Most Valuable Player of the 2013 NFL season but unable to win the Lombardi Trophy, was supposed to return to the Super Bowl. And this time, with a much upgraded defense (Hello, Demarcus Ware, Aquib Talib) to support him, he should win.
But what we saw Sunday was what we’d seen the previous five games: Manning unable to drill the ball into the heart of the secondary. He’d been reduced to nibbling on the edges.
In his last six games he’s completed 59.7%, 6.9 yards per throw, 6 TDs, 6 INT. Very average numbers, not even that. And it’s a large body of work: 201 passes.
Fans were booing him in the first half of Sunday’s game, when he threw six consecutive incompletions. And they were booing in the rainy fourth quarter. On 4th-and-8, Manning did not throw for the stick but checked down to C.J. Anderson, putting the burden on the running back to make the first down with his feet. He came up a yard short.
It was another defining moment. Not the sort of play we expect from a fearless gunslinger like Manning. He no longer had the big play in him.
Not that the Broncos’ disappointing season was entirely his making. Three of his receivers – Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker — have not played as well this year as last. Bad timing for them, as they’re all about to enter free agency.
They may be happy to leave because Manning, a lock for the Hall of Fame, is nowhere near the passer he used to be. And a thigh injury may be taking away some of his power to launch. Nagging injuries tend to happen to old quarterbacks.
There’s little chance he can come back next fall and play better. He’s not Peyton Manning anymore. He’s more like Matt Schaub.
Although Manning two weeks ago vowed to return for the 2015 season, he was having second thoughts after Sunday’s game. When asked if he will be back at 39 for an 18th pro season, he said, “I can’t just give that simple answer. I’m processing it. So I can’t say that.”
One who won’t be back is John Fox, after coaching the Broncos to four AFC West titles in four years and winning 72 percent of his games. As Mike Smith found in Atlanta, winning divisions is not what NFL owners aspire to do.
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and general manager John Elway will settle for nothing less than a Super Bowl championship. The team’s postseason record of 2-3 under Fox gave them no confidence, even though one of those wins came with scatter-armed Tim Tebow at quarterback.
Fox may have seen this coming. There were media reports of him letting it be known that if his team lost to the Colts he’d “be available” for another job. He’s drawing plenty of interest. He hasn’t won a Super Bowl, but he’s been a head coach in two of them.
Though he may come to regret firing Fox, Elway does qualify as something of a Super Bowl expert. He quarterbacked the Broncos to Super Bowl victories when he was 37 and 38. But he retired at 39. Seems like a good model for Manning, even if it means he falls a ring shy of Elway.