You knew that already, just from watching his throws float and flutter and seeing it take him nearly the whole of the play clock to pick himself up off the turf. But here’s the lede on ESPN The Magazine’s Peyton Manning feature. Try to read it without wincing:
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.
Manning’s 39, with a career’s worth of damage to go with four neck surgeries that made it uncertain if he’d come back. He did, in pursuit of the rings that John Elway pitched to him as potential legacy-enhancers, and got about two-and-a-half good years before he started to fall apart. He had to take a $4 million pay cut just to stay with Denver this season. It’s probably his last.
The Broncos are actively trying to extend Manning’s useful life, but that plan clashes with how he enjoys his most success. Gary Kubiak has attempted to install an offense that’s heavier on the run and utilizes more play-action than Manning’s used to; Manning still prefers his no-huddle, shotgun offense. (His receivers do too.) Abandoning Kubiak’s schemes for Manning’s late in the game against the Chiefs is the only reason Denver is 2-0.
But the long-term goal here is keeping Manning healthy enough to get into and through the playoffs. That didn’t happen last year, and the Broncos are set on limiting his practice time and exposure during games to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But it’s a tricky balancing act, because Manning is still an effective quarterback and the Broncos are a better team when he’s putting his health at risk. The question is, is it more important for a team whose Super Bowl window is closing make the playoffs, or to be capable of winning if they get there? The Broncos hope there’s an answer that allows for both.