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In a career of perfect timing, once more, Peyton Manning got the timing right

Posted Mar 6, 2016

In 18 seasons, Manning's timing was impeccable. His decision to retire, allowing him to walk away a world champion, is no different.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the end, it was time.

Peyton Manning got the last act that only John Elway among NFL quarterbacks had managed to achieve: He played his final game in a Super Bowl, and he walked off its champion.

On a brilliant, sunny California afternoon that became a starlit night, Manning had the Hollywood ending of which many dream, but previous few achieve.

There was nothing more for Manning to do, leading to his decision to retire.

There was, frankly, nothing more he could do. He owned league records for passing yardage and touchdown passes -- both for a single season and a career.

And the final win moved him past Brett Favre for most wins by a starting quarterback in the regular season and postseason combined -- while also making him the oldest quarterback to start in, and win, a Super Bowl.

His entire four seasons in Denver -- which included three dominant ones -- came after he underwent multiple neck surgeries in 2011. He had no feeling in his fingertips.

And he adapted better to his new physical reality than anyone could have imagined -- better than anyone ever had before. Because Manning wasn't just the same quarterback as he was before his neck surgeries.

He was better -- and in 2013, on a statistical basis, he was the best ever. The wins and touchdown passes continued to accumulate, to the point where as he walks away, he does so with more of each than anyone else who took a snap.

But time was ticking. Three seasons into Manning's time as the Broncos' quarterback, they didn't have a world championship together, and most of the coaching staff changed with the hiring of Gary Kubiak.

Nothing came easy in the season that followed.

Manning played the 2015 season injured. The torn plantar fascia that forced him to the sideline in Week 10 had bothered him for "quite some time" before Kubiak pulled him in the third quarter of the loss to Kansas City, he later admitted.

Before that moment, Manning was struggling through the worst run of play of his career, with eight more interceptions than touchdown passes. Every interception launched a fusillade of real-time criticism on social media, much of which could be distilled to seven letters and an apostrophe: "He's done."

But he wasn't done.

No Hollywood ending comes without a crisis, of course; without it, you don't have a screenplay, and unless you're shooting a documentary or "mockumentary," you don't have a film to begin with. And that's what the foot injury and his subsequent six-week absence from the lineup was.

Manning spent days in the training room and on the practice field in quiet, quick workouts, throwing passes to practice-squad wide receiver Jordan Taylor and members of the team's equipment staff. He didn't travel to road games at Chicago or San Diego, staying back in Colorado to continue his rehabilitation work. He spent the Week 12 overtime win over New England watching in the equipment room, rehabbing and working out with DeMarcus Ware.

But nothing could keep Manning away. Even then, he dashed out to the sideline at the urging of Ware to offer advice to Brock Osweiler, just as Manning suggested that Ware go outside to pass tips along to the defense.

Manning stayed as involved as he could, but the focus remained on rehabilitation work. Every lift, every cardio workout, every minute of treatment, every workout pass that he threw ... it all got him closer to being ready if the time came.

At 4:29 p.m. MST on Jan. 3, that time arrived.

Trailing 13-7 to the Chargers thanks to five turnovers and with the possibility of the No. 1 seed in the postseason slipping away, Kubiak looked for "a spark," and found it in Manning.

This wasn't going to be the Manning of 2013, when he had the most prolific season ever posted by a quarterback. This was a different Manning: playing within the limits imposed by injury, the passage of time and the accumulation of 18 seasons, which to that point had seen him throw 10,306 passes, play in 289 games, and absorb 334 sacks and countless other hits.

His 290th game would be the first -- and only one -- in which he played without starting. But in that and three postseason games that would follow, he didn't have to be what he was.

He just had to be enough to win.

His statistics after his return will be forgotten: 56 completions in 101 attempts, 608 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for a 75.4 quarterback rating.

The sight of Manning holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy, on the other hand, will be remembered for as long as Super Bowls are played.

Just like Elway, he got the perfect ending to a career unlike any other.

There is nothing more to prove. The resume is full. The legacy is secure. The name "Peyton Manning" stands for greatness and success unlike that of any other quarterback.

The time is right.

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