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Can Peyton Manning Defy the Odds as he Nears 40?

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At 39, after 17 years of absorbing blindside hits and carrying the weight and fate of two franchises on his shoulders, is it any surprise that Peyton Manning is tired? He’s tired, all right. Tired of answering all those questions about his age.

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NFL history is littered with cautionary tales of quarterbacks who were highly productive into their mid-30s, only to lose the race with Father Time as they approached 40. So how will Manning fare in this, his 18th season of working on Sundays?

“You can’t lump them all into the same category,” says Manning, when asked about all those other 39-year-old quarterbacks. “I think there are young 39s and old 39s. I’m in that young group, for sure. It’s all about trying to do your job no matter how old you are, whether you’re a 22-year-old rookie coming in or not. I guess I have to answer questions about it, but I’m not interested in talking about how old I am.”

That age-old saying about being only as old as you feel? Now that’s what Manning is talking about. Like Bob Seger, he has turned the page on a disappointing, if not depressing 2014 season, and is ready to rock ’n’ roll.

There’s no denying how ugly Manning’s third season in Denver was. Sure, the Broncos won 12 games and their fourth straight AFC West title. But they didn’t just lose their one and only playoff game. With their season on the line, they didn’t bother to show up. Instead, they imploded under the weight of personal agendas, with several players and coaches running for their professional lives the moment the final anticlimactic seconds ticked away.

Manning ended the season with a torn right quadriceps, a sizeable dent in his ego, and a major career decision to make: To return or not to return? That was the question. Or at least that was the storyline among the media. Truth is, Manning was never serious about walking away.

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It happens every spring. Manning, in a personal rite of passage, sets aside his emotions and soldiers on in preparation for another season. It’s in his DNA. It’s what he does, who he is, how he’s wired. The myth and the legend can wait. He still wants to be The Man. Whether retirement is off on the horizon or just over the dashboard, he’s going to keep the pedal to the metal and compete.

Oh, and let the record show that a new coaching staff, headlined by former Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and several assistants with long-time ties to the organization, has only served to rejuvenate him more than usual. It isn’t just apparent. It’s blatantly obvious to everyone who’s seen Manning sweating it out behind the scenes at the Broncos’ suburban Denver training facility.

“He’s still got a lot of juice in him,” says Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. “For everyone, last year was a disappointment. But at the same time, it’s a new year so everyone is rejuvenated. It’s the same thing with Peyton. You talk about a guy who understands that the clock is ticking for him. He loves this game. I’ve never seen a guy who loves the game of football as much as he loves it. That passion and that spark is there.”

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, Manning’s offensive coordinator back in the day at the University of Tennessee, wasn’t sure what to expect when Manning arrived in Durham, N.C., for his annual offseason passing camp. But Cutcliffe told nationally syndicated radio host Jim Rome that Manning was a “boatload of energy and enthusiasm.”

Why shouldn’t Manning be excited? He has fielded countless questions about how he’ll fit into Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-oriented offense that requires the quarterback to make plays outside the pocket, foreign territory for Manning. But all those questions miss the fundamental point. Fact is, Manning and everyone else in the Broncos organization needed a change.

After three years of Super Bowl or bust, former head coach John Fox had run his course in Denver. Emotions were frayed, and game-planning sessions were giving way to travel itineraries. In the days preceding the Broncos’ 24–13 playoff loss to Indianapolis, both coordinators, Jack Del Rio and Adam Gase, were off interviewing for head coaching jobs. On the morning of the game, a national television report linked Fox to the head coaching job in Chicago.

Add a handful of starters with one eye on their playbooks and another on free-agent paydays, and the Broncos were anything but focused to make a second straight Super Bowl run. The day after the loss, Fox was gone. Three days later, he was hired by the Bears amid speculation — which Fox denies, but no one in the Broncos’ organization is buying — that he leaked his interest in the job because of Elway’s refusal to give him a contract extension. Del Rio, meanwhile, became head coach of the Raiders, and Gase joined Fox as offensive coordinator in Chicago.

If last season was filled with friction in Denver, this year will be defined by the excitement over the hiring of Kubiak, who served as Elway’s roommate and backup for nine years and later was Mike Shanahan’s offensive coordinator from 1995-2005 before leaving to become head coach of the Houston Texans. After leaving Houston he had settled in as offensive coordinator in Baltimore, telling teams he wasn’t interested in interviewing for head coaching positions. And then all heaven broke loose: The Broncos job became available.

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“This is a game changer,” says Kubiak. “It’s as simple as that. This is where I got my start. This is home for me. I can’t wait to just go out there and fight the fight and believe in this city, this team and this organization. I was standing there with them when they won their last championship, and that’s what we all work for.”

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 “I know what Gary Kubiak is about,” Elway says. “I had a chance to play with him and play for him. I know his philosophies and I know what he can do. I know his goals are the same as mine, and that’s to win and win world championships. He’s a Denver Bronco. He knows the culture of this organization. He knows the culture of this building.”

And he isn’t alone. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had the same job in Denver from 1989-92 before serving as the Broncos’ head coach from 1993-94. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison played linebacker for the Broncos and was an assistant coach on Shanahan’s staff before joining Kubiak in Houston. Then there’s special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, who has become one of the most respected assistants in the league after cutting his teeth on father-in-law Dan Reeves’ Broncos staffs more than 20 years ago.

Phillips doesn’t renovate defenses, he resurrects them. To wit: The 1988 Broncos had perhaps the worst defense of the Reeves era. One year later, with Phillips orchestrating the defense, they played in the Super Bowl. The 2003 San Diego Chargers finished 4–12. After hiring Phillips, they won 12 games and finished atop the AFC West. The Texans were 6–10 before Kubiak hired Phillips, whereupon they made their first-ever playoff appearance.

Phillips faces a different type of challenge in Denver. The Broncos return a handful of Pro Bowlers on the defensive side of the ball. Granted, statistics can lie in today’s NFL, but the Broncos finished third in the league in 2014 in overall defense. The challenge, then, isn’t to resurrect the defense so much as take it to the next level. That, of course, being the stuff of Super Bowl champions.

“I was a lousy head coach, but I’m a pretty good defensive coordinator,” says Phillips, who came out of retirement to rejoin Kubiak in Denver. “That’s what I do well. I just wanted to get back to doing that and I couldn’t be happier. This is probably the best situation, defensively, that I’ve come into. … Normally they have a bad year and they’ve brought me in as defensive coordinator. This team has a lot of talent on defense, but we’re going to do better.”

Twelve wins and four consecutive division championships, and the song remains the same in Denver: What have you done for us lately? Welcome to life in the Rockies with Manning under center. Ever since the five-time MVP’s arrival in March 2012, the Broncos have been a one-trick pony with one singular goal, one primary purpose, one reason for being. As Fox discovered, getting to the Super Bowl isn’t good enough.

Elway knows what Manning is going through, having walked in those shoes in a previous professional life. It’s remarkable, the similar paths the two have taken. Elway was the first pick in the 1983 draft, 15 years before the Colts selected Manning No. 1. Elway, like Manning, received more than his share of criticism before finally winning a Super Bowl. Elway spent 16 seasons with the same franchise, two more than Manning. During his Hall of Fame career, Elway engineered 35 fourth-quarter comebacks and 46 game-winning drives. And how many did Manning have on his résumé when he signed with the Broncos? Thirty-five comebacks and 46 game-winning drives.

Elway won Super Bowls at age 37 and 38 despite an assortment of injuries, including a deteriorating left knee that ultimately led to replacement surgery. How did he do it? With Terrell Davis behind him in the backfield grinding out huge clumps of yards in Shanahan’s system, the same one employed by Kubiak. Now comes C.J. Anderson, who emerged from the shadows last season — 17 carries in the Broncos’ first seven regular-season games, 648 rushing yards in their final six — to earn a Pro Bowl berth. In Elway’s mind, the threat of Anderson breaking loose for big plays in Kubiak’s offense can do for Manning what Davis did for him.

“Peyton could fit in this offense very easily,” says Elway. “It’s a very helpful offense. It’s a lot more dependent on balance so Peyton is hopefully not going to have to throw the ball 50 or 55 times. As an older quarterback, it’s a perfect system to be in. It’s really a great system for any quarterback, but I think it’s even more helpful the older you get.”

It’s not like Manning will morph into a game manager or one of those other catch phrases that describe your basic mediocre quarterback. He’s coming off a season in which he threw 39 touchdown passes, a career year for most quarterbacks, and undoubtedly would have had more if he hadn’t struggled down the stretch with the quad injury. If he’s going to win that elusive second Super Bowl, it will be in Denver, with Elway and another former quarterback, Kubiak, forming the foundation of his support system.

Ask him about adjusting to Kubiak’s offense, and Manning has to suppress a laugh.

“I like to think I’m pretty versatile, believe it or not,” says Manning, smirk completely intact. “I feel like I can execute whatever plays the coach calls. … You’re always looking into learning football. Whether you’ve got changes or you’re doing the same thing, you’re always learning out there. As soon as you stop learning, something is not going right. So I’m looking forward to learning Coach Kubiak’s philosophies and trying to do my part as a quarterback. I’m looking forward to the process.”

Says Kubiak: “We’re going to do what he does best. Obviously, if we run the ball well, which we plan on doing, we’re going to move the quarterback (out of the pocket) at some point. … He’s been very excited. He’s been challenged. He said that to me a couple of times: ‘I’m challenged again. I’m having to learn new stuff because I’ve been doing this for so long.’ I think that’s good for all of us no matter how long you’ve been in the league.”

Now about all those other 39-year-old quarterbacks. Elway, at 38, is the oldest starting quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl. Since 1983, only two quarterbacks 39 or older — Phil Simms and Brett Favre — have won playoff games. Some 39-year-olds, most notably Favre and Warren Moon, have put up nice numbers, but quarterbacks that old typically are stopgaps. They’re starters by default because their teams couldn’t find a younger alternative. Now comes Manning, who’ll try to lead the new-look Broncos to a Super Bowl victory with his 40th birthday on the horizon.

No-huddle offense, meet the no-time-to-waste offense.

“With Peyton, obviously there isn’t much he can add to his legacy,” says Elway. “As I told him, ‘You don’t have to throw for another yard and you don’t need to throw another touchdown pass because your legacy is going to be one of the all-time greats as it is.’ Where he can really add to his legacy is to win a Super Bowl.”

-By Jim Armstrong