<
>

The audacity of Peyton Manning

play
The continued brilliance of Peyton Manning (3:11)

After 18 years in the league and four recent surgeries, Peyton Manning continues to perform at a high level. ESPN's Bill Polian examines the future Hall of Famer's longevity. (3:11)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's October 12 Owners Issue. Subscribe today!

IT TAKES PEYTON Manning 15 minutes to shed his suit of armor after a game.

He begins with his cleats, which he can barely untie without assistance. A Broncos equipment staffer helps peel them off his feet while he does a radio interview, because after nearly 25 years of football dating back to high school, it's a relief to not have to bend over that far. Next come his shoulder pads, which, when yanked over his head, generate a groan that is a mixture of suffering and sweet relief. Manning's pale arms and torso are covered in fresh scrapes and old bruises, some the color of strawberries, others a shade of eggplant.

His socks come off after several violent tugs, revealing toes that are twisted and bent into obtuse angles. When he removes a thick blue DonJoy knee brace from his stiff left leg, he twice pauses to grimace and gather himself before stripping it off and handing it to a staffer for safekeeping. As he slices away at the thick layers of athletic tape supporting his ankles, he looks like a surgeon operating on his own leg without anesthesia.

When he finishes, he stands, joints creaking, loose strips of tape and blades of grass still stuck to his skin. He has just completed a comeback win over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 2, and a flood of text messages keeps pinging his phone, which has a picture of his 4-year-old twins, Marshall and Mosley, as his background. He can't resist reading a few and smirking with satisfaction. He drapes a towel over his shoulders, but the crooked pink scar on the back of his neck is still visible, evidence of the four neck surgeries he's had to repair a pinched nerve and herniated disks and to fuse his vertebrae. Because of the victory -- the 181st of his career -- Manning smiles as he limps gingerly in the direction of the showers. If this is what it feels like on a good night, only two games into his 18th year, try to imagine the bad ones.

It's hard not to wonder: How much longer can he possibly keep this up?

No one knows the answer, of course. But as the season unfolds, Manning's act of keeping fans guessing will constitute one of the most fascinating tightrope walks in the recent history of sports.

When you watch him wince and grimace after every hit, when you see his passes float and die in the wind, when he tries to roll out and his feet move like he's trudging through ankle-deep snow, the only logical conclusion to draw is that he's done. All his magic used up. No more miracle recoveries. A remarkable career reaching, sad as the truth might be, its logical end.

Then he goes out and fools you again.

It's a marvel to watch his brain calculate risk in real time, to see him think his way through problems, using some mixture of anticipation and guile to compensate for a throwing arm that's the weakest in the NFL. Through Week 2, he had a 41.0 Total QBR, 29th in the league. He was averaging just 215.5 passing yards per game with a 58.8 percent completion rate. He'd been sacked seven times. His numbers haven't been this low since his rookie year. And yet, his team is winning.

Against the Chiefs, every time the ball came out of his hand, it looked like it might float away and be intercepted. Once it was, for a pick-six, his third in a span of four regular-season games. He sulked to the sideline with his hands on his hips, barely giving a halfhearted chase as Marcus Peters galloped toward the end zone. But then the tightrope: Manning came back in the second half and threw a touchdown, ultimately beating the Chiefs for the 10th straight time. In the process, he reached 70,000 career passing yards to join only Brett Favre among NFL quarterbacks, thumbing his nose -- at least metaphorically -- at the legions insisting he was done.

"I'm not much for speeches," Manning said after coach Gary Kubiak awarded him a game ball. "But great f---ing win."

If nothing else, you have to admire the man's audacity.

AS SOON AS it began, it was clear the rain was going to be a problem.

The Broncos were locked in a tight fourth-quarter battle against the Bengals late last season, a game that would help decide home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Every throw now had the potential to decide the outcome. Trailing 30-28, Manning dropped back to pass and seemed to panic, as if he felt the rush closing in, even though no one was within 10 feet of him. He hurried a throw off his back foot, floating a wobbler in the direction of Demaryius Thomas. Bengals corner Dre Kirkpatrick swooped in, intercepted the pass and returned it for a touchdown. Manning barely gave chase. Ballgame. It was his fourth interception of the day.

That one play set the stage for the Broncos' tumultuous offseason, months marked by a shocking coaching change, a bitter contract restructuring and persistent questions inside and outside the building about Manning. Was one of the league's renowned control freaks willing to embrace a new offense designed to ease the burden on his shoulders -- and the reality that if the Broncos win a Super Bowl this season, they will do so with the future Hall of Famer being part of the team, not carrying it?

Manning still finished the year as one of the best quarterbacks in football, statistically speaking, completing 66 percent of his passes and throwing for 4,727 yards and 39 touchdowns. His 75.1 Total QBR was the third best in the NFL, trailing only Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers. But his arm strength was rapidly declining, and a strained right quad muscle the final month of the season limited his ability to step into his throws and put zip on the ball by driving hard with his lower body. After Denver's season ended -- with a stunning divisional-round playoff loss to the Colts in which Andrew Luck made all the throws Manning no longer seemed capable of -- rumors began to spread around the league that Broncos GM John Elway was not completely committed to Manning's return. Elway reportedly asked Manning to take a $10 million pay cut, promising to use the money to bolster his supporting cast. For a brief moment, some in the building wondered if Manning would finish his career elsewhere.

The Broncos and Manning settled on a $4 million cut. Then Elway set out to essentially re-create his own final years for Manning, years when he won two Super Bowls not by carrying the offense but by conducting it. Elway hired Kubiak -- his backup during his early seasons and offensive coordinator during his final ones -- to install a modernized version of the scheme that Denver ran in the late '90s. The plan was for Manning to rest more during the week and hand off more on Sunday. Everything was designed to avoid a repeat of 2014. Manning not only needed to be healthy in January but needed to be able to make all the throws in January.

In 2012, Elway had sold Manning on signing with Denver by promising to do everything in his power to make him the greatest quarterback ever. Both men know Super Bowls will be the tiebreaker between Manning and Tom Brady, just as they were for Elway and Dan Marino. "I think with Peyton, obviously there is not much he can add to his legacy," Elway told reporters this offseason. "I do think that the one thing he can add is another Super Bowl championship. I think with where Peyton is, as I told him in our meeting, I said, 'You don't have to throw for another yard, and you don't need to throw for 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."

And so to enhance his legacy in the long term, Manning has to be willing to cede some of it in the short term. Early reviews from training camp were mixed, and there was a palpable fear in the organization that a few bad games -- or even a few three-and-outs -- could send the whole experiment awry. Manning and the entire offense looked off in Denver's season-opening victory over Baltimore. He threw for just 175 yards in the 19-13 win. Twice he missed an open receiver deep for a touchdown. His 4.38 yards per attempt was the fourth-lowest mark of his entire career in games in which he had at least 10 attempts. Manning warned fans not to read too much into one game, but everyone did anyway. "I think [Manning and Kubiak] will get more and more comfortable with each other and get a feel for how they call the games as the season goes on," says tight end Owen Daniels. "With Peyton, he's done his thing for so long. Now he's learning what Coach Kubiak has going on. It's really unselfish of him to learn all that stuff and want to be a part of it."

The morning of the Chiefs game, Manning joined his teammates in the lobby of their hotel for breakfast. He ordered an omelet, sat down at a table with a TV nearby and, just as he was about to dig in, saw his name flash across the ticker on the side of the screen: Coming up, Peyton's Woes. Manning shook his head in dismay.

"If one of us does have a bad game, people want to say, 'This guy is not what he used to be. He's over the hill,'" lineman Evan Mathis says. "Well, OK, but it's a pretty small sample size thus far. That's one of the true marks of a great player, the ability to focus. You have to focus through a lot of turmoil and a lot of bulls--t."

Focusing is exactly what Manning prefers to do. And on this game day, he had no desire to listen to his critics diagnose his "woes." He took his breakfast into the hallway and ate by himself.

IT'S A RARELY spoken truth about Manning, but he's always thrown passes that wobbled. Even when he was setting NFL records in a Colts uniform, and even when he was the golden child at the University of Tennessee, his passes sometimes fluttered. He saw the game like a chessboard, he read defenses like he had a computer in his brain, but even some of his best throws shimmied and quivered. The ball still hummed through the air, still tended to arrive in a receiver's hands at the perfect moment, but he rarely mirrored the crisp beauty of a Brady deep post or a Rodgers laser to the outer third of the field. For the most part, it didn't matter. He was too good for it to mean much of anything.

It's hard to argue, though, that it still doesn't matter. It's possible that the fact that he currently has no feeling in the fingertips of his right hand -- a side effect of neck surgeries and nerve damage -- is finally catching up to him. When his mechanics get sloppy, he looks like he's flinging knuckleballs in the direction of his receivers. (He completed just 25 percent of passes thrown more than 15 yards through Week 2, tied for third worst in the league.) After Manning floated a pass behind Thomas and it was intercepted by Peters and returned for a touchdown that gave Kansas City a 14-0 lead, he looked like the version of Manning the Broncos saw last year against the Bengals.

Manning's genius, though, is that he understands his strengths and his limitations better than anyone else on the field. It's a little unsettling to see a great athlete so physically diminished, but it's also inspiring to see a -- trying to be polite here -- senior quarterback surviving on little more than brainpower and a magician's sleight of hand. After a miserable start to this season, Kubiak ceded some creative control and had Manning run Denver's offense out of the shotgun. "We're trying to help him by running the football better," Kubiak says. "But we also know he's very comfortable [in the shotgun], so we're trying to find a medium between the two, and we think it will be good for our team. He took control, and we got him in that environment."

Whether it was a healthy move for the long-term prospects of the team, however, is hard to say. "I don't know why so many people seem to want to see a great player go in decline," Daniels says. "Why push that narrative? We're learning a new offense. We're definitely going to get better as the year goes along. We're going to find our identity. I think Peyton deserves way more respect than that."

Will he be able to do it a month from now? Or, better yet, can he play well deep into January? It's in his nature to believe his brain can carry him on days when his body is weary, even if he's facing the cold, the rain or Bill Belichick. But how many times can one man outfox his opponents? At some point, is it audacity, or is it lunacy?

It was hard not to cringe on Manning's behalf as he waited on the field after the Chiefs game to speak to a television reporter. As jubilant teammates jogged behind him, several of them thumped him on the shoulder pads in their excitement. He was grinning like a high school kid, but each time it happened, he winced in pain, looking every bit like a 39-year-old man with a sore neck who wished he could see the hits coming, if only so he could brace himself for such a hearty celebration.