Broncos, Manning made health plan

January, 12, 2014
Jan 12
1:35
PM ET

DENVER -- We're always told to never, ever assume, because of what that does to you and me.

But in and around the Denver Broncos, the working assumption with quarterback Peyton Manning is that, in a public forum, where microphones and cameras are in attendance, he never says anything -- not one syllable -- he didn't mean to say.

So Manning did at least raise an eyebrow or two locally this past week when he answered a question about whether he could still find a way to “enjoy" a postseason game 16 years into his career in light of the playoff disappointments he's had along the way.

And he answered with: “Well, I think it depends what attitude you want to approach it with. I mean, if it's just miserable this whole time then why are you really doing it? I mean, there are other things you can do that might make you feel less miserable than if it's just an absolute grind. That is my approach. And maybe, as you get older, you think more in those lines -- that, ‘Hey, this is a pretty unique opportunity to be in this position, to be one of just a few teams playing.' It's going to be a great atmosphere on Sunday, playing a good football team, and there is nothing else I would rather be doing than be in that opportunity. And so that is certainly my goal to enjoy the preparation -- not just the game -- to actually enjoy the preparation part of it, enjoy being around the guys. Because certainly, the light is at the end of the tunnel for me, no question. And so, I think you enjoy these things maybe even more than maybe you have in the past."

It was the “light at the end of the tunnel," part that caused at least some pause as some wondered if it was a signal, a prediction. Look, Manning is 37 years old, he's had four neck surgeries, he missed the entire 2011 season in what was decidedly an uncertain postoperative return. Nobody in his/her right mind believes his career in Denver will be an extended stay.

It's just that in his second season with the Broncos, Manning did things even he never did before, finishing with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns -- both NFL single-season records. He's 26-6 in regular-season starts with Denver, with two division titles and whatever becomes of this postseason still on the docket. He's spent fewer than 24 months in the city and folks are already talking about what it would take for him to go into the team's Ring of Fame.

But as ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Sunday, Manning's status for 2014 will not depend on whether this playoff run ends with him enjoying a Super Bowl win or dealing with a playoff loss. It will depend on what a medical exam on Manning's surgically repaired neck shows in the coming weeks and months.

If doctors give Manning the thumbs up, he will play in 2014. If not, then he arrives at the end of his career, and we start the clock for Canton.

Manning has always said if the doctors told him, even during his recovery following spinal fusion surgery, he shouldn't play, that he would walk away from the game knowing, “it's been a good run."

And in all of his dealings with the Broncos, the team and the quarterback have put those medical opinions at the forefront. The coming exam will be much like one he had following the 2012 season that, when passed, kicked in some contractual clauses and guaranteed money in Manning's deal.

The Broncos also tweaked Manning's contract -- a five-year, $96 million deal that runs through the 2016 season -- in May 2013 after the Broncos purchased insurance to cover the team in the event Manning did not play in the 2014 season due to an injury suffered during the 2013 season that wasn't related to his surgically repaired neck.

The Broncos had added the policy after Manning passed a postseason exam on his neck in early 2013. That 2013 exam kicked in a $20 million guaranteed salary for 2013 and a $20 million guaranteed salary for 2014, to go with some salary advances along the way. The insurance policy is for the 2014 season and covers the team for $10 million of that salary if Manning does not play in 2014 because of a non-neck injury he suffered at some point in the 2013 season or postseason.

When the Broncos signed Manning in 2012, his $20 million salaries in both 2013 and 2014 were guaranteed, but 2014 could be voided if Manning injures his neck in 2013. The insurance policy simply covered any non-neck injuries that would prevent him from playing in 2014, because his contract would still be in place in that scenario. It's all business and technicalities perhaps, but it does show the two sides have been up front and proactive on Manning's health from the start.

Manning dealt with ankle injuries this season and the Broncos cut his practice time -- having him sit out Wednesdays -- for a time. He has received his usual treatment from the team's training staff for his neck as well as treatment on his ankles throughout the season, including this past week.

He has worn a brace on his right ankle for much of the season, but overall Manning has not missed a start in his two seasons in Denver. But this is a player who has repeatedly said he wanted his health to “be an open book" for the team that signed him. He didn't want his contract to be a reason a team could or couldn't address other needs on the roster when his time with the team was over.

Many with the Broncos, both Manning's teammates and team officials, have privately expressed their belief in recent weeks that, despite the amount of time and effort it takes Manning to prepare himself physically each week to play (to go with his renowned mental preparation), he would return in 2014. Many with the team have believed Manning would play three or four seasons with the Broncos if he stayed healthy and engaged along the way.

But just like doctors gave the thumbs up before Manning originally signed in those frenzied weeks in March 2012, they'll have a lot to say about 2014.

And that's just the way Manning, and the Broncos, planned it.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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