There was once a writer named John D. MacDonald, who became well known because, among other things, he penned the legendary 21-book Travis McGee series. You may not have read them, but I think that you’d recognize the central pieces of the plot: a shambling, aging boat bum calls himself a ‘salvage operator’. He’s a guy who’d always been fairly close to the line of the law, but he takes on lost causes for half the value of any eventual ‘recovery’. He explains to prospective clients the size of his bounty by pointing out that if they had a choice, they wouldn’t be coming to him.
I couldn’t help but think of that brilliant piece of literary Americana when the news came down on Peyton Manning. John D. MacDonald made a fortune in the stock market before he was badly bitten by the writing bug. Ask anyone who really has it - you do it not because it’s what you want, but because it’s just what you do. MacDonald looked around himself with his Stanford MBA eyes and saw the world around himself clearly. He penned it into every chapter of those rich, noir books. Cape Fear was made to film - twice - from one of MacDonald’s novels, The Executioners. Travis McGee was, for many, an iconic figure.
Enter Peyton Manning, and his 96-million-dollar contract. Like many of McGee’s clients, if Denver had a choice they might not have been playing in this game. But since they were, the stakes were very high, and John Elway played it the only way he’s ever played anything in his life, from Go Fish to the Super Bowl. He played it to win it, and win it he did. Debating the eventual outcome will be for those lesser lights with their 20/20 hindsight. Elway saw the chance for the big win, the big score, for a player whose talent can outshine the media spotlight of Tim Tebow and can rank up there close to even #7 himself. He saw a chance to make the struggling Broncos into an immediate contender. It wouldn’t be like Elway to let such a chance pass him by.
And Manning? Manning knows that he loves the coach, who wants to get back and get his SB ring; he understands the atmosphere of the franchise with its history of Super Bowls and its back-to-back Lombardi Trophies. Manning had to see the top-to-bottom commitment to winning and the shape of both the franchise and the checkbook. The fans see a chance to finally unite behind a player whose credentials no one will doubt.
Winning draws talent. Talent also draws more talent. I think that Manning has been around long enough to recognize that commitment in the team, from owner Pat Bowlen to Elway and down throughout the staff and coaches is deep and it’s real. After he left the field following Super Bowl 44, Manning was said to join head coach Jim Caldwell in his disapproval of the play of the offensive line. It wasn’t changed. Elway also went through a period of not getting the pieces he needed to win, and he understands more deeply than most executives what that’s like.
If you look at the intense, hands-on way that Elway, John Fox, and Brian Xanders are out on the road looking at who’s available, and keeping up on who enters the market as a FA is part of that (congratulations to Matt Russell on his promotion to Head of Player Personnel), you can see how deeply Elway is committed to winning another set of Lombardi Trophies. A lack of personnel is not something that he’s going to let stand in the way again, especially now that he can affect it. That has to appeal to Manning. Someone really gets the part that he needs from the front office, and that someone has been in his shoes. When Elway went all in on this venture, it was also a matter of him putting the league on notice. Denver is back in the race for the playoffs and for championships. This is how it’s going to be.
In every franchise that achieves it, winning always starts at the top. Pat Bowlen has handed the reins of the Broncos to Elway, and John only knows one way to run in that race - he’s determined to win it. He constantly looks for ways to get the best and be the best, and he goes all out when he gets the chance. They apparently still have quite a war chest - even after the Manning contract - with which to fill in some blanks. Free agents and draft picks (as well as a potential trade or two) will be sought out to upgrade the roster before the start of training camp. Elway is being Elway. He’s playing to win, and he’s leading a team of men who are good at their jobs. It’s what he’s done his whole life.
Winning always involves risk. Elway knows that, Manning knows that, and both of them can see that burning drive, that utter refusal to settle for anything less than ultimate success within each other. It’s a match that makes perfect sense. Elway knows what happened when the Broncos gave him the tools to win back in 1997 and 1998. Manning knows that Xanders and the entire personnel department is there to craft a winning team. Fox has been to the Super Bowl as a coordinator and a head coach. Elway and Manning have been there seven times, with three wins between them. John Fox, whom Manning also cited as a reason to come to Denver, wants to go back and get his ring. They all understand what it will take.
It’s also much like another set of iconic American tales. In each of its variants, an aging gunfighter walks out of the sun to prove his worth one last time. It’s John Wayne in The Shootist; Gary Cooper in High Noon; it’s Shane. The cause of right is being played by Denver, by the way. For the fans of Broncos Country, it was before Tim Tebow and it will be after Peyton Manning. But Manning is taking this one on like every QB has who was ever told that he was too old and proved people wrong. He’s also one of the few who can ever stand up to the legend of John Elway and invite it for a beer.
I’m thrilled to have Peyton on board. I recognize the gamble that’s inherent in these types of attempts, but while many have not worked out, it’s unquestionably an opportunity for the Broncos to move into the 2012 season with one of the best QBs of all time at the helm. He’s already throwing, and from all reports, he’s throwing well, too. Is he vulnerable to injury if he’s really decked? Yes. You can’t get around that, and I won’t try to. It’s also true that every QB on the field has that possibility. He’s been medically checked out, his doctors are in agreement that he’s capable, and he’s working hard to get back into game shape. Boxers have known for years how to strengthen the muscles of the neck and shoulders to reduce the effects of impacts in those areas. Manning’s rehab team knows how to do much the same things to prepare him for the upcoming season.
I felt originally that Manning should consider retiring. If he were an average person, that advice would stand. He’s not. He’s a championship-winning quarterback, and they really are different from you and I. I’ve treated pro athletes, and in their own degree, they each had something in common with Peyton. Playing was the Holy Grail for them. They didn’t stop unless there was no other choice, and sometimes not then. In Manning’s case, that choice is still open to him, so it’s no shock that he’s taking it. Denver has obtained the benefits, as well as the risks, of that choice.
Given the unique link between Elway and Manning, I’m really not surprised that he chose Denver. It didn’t come out much in the coverage, but it was an elephant in the office throughout this process. Manning has known Elway for years through reputation, the club of quarterback in the league, and their mutual attendance at various events. There are few football executives in the NFL who can carry the kind of gravitas that a talent the size of John Elway’s can swing. When he can swing it with an open checkbook and a blank slate on offense to fill as Manning sees fit, and you add to that the remarkable and until now understated force of how players view the factor of playing under John Fox, you get another chance for Denver to fight their way into the playoffs and see what they can do from there. That’s really what it’s about. You do whatever it takes to get into the Big Dance and you take on whoever else is standing until you either lose and go home or continue to the Super Bowl. Does Manning offer Denver its best chance to achieve that? Unquestionably. Does Denver offer the same to Manning? Bet on it.
One possible downside is that whether it was Shane, High Noon or The Shootist, it’s worth noting that the hero usually ended the movie either shot up or killed. Obviously, the Broncos are hoping for a better outcome. Manning’s health is going to be watched, parsed, argued, and debated throughout the league, by its fans and the media - it’s the X factor, the unknown that will hang over this experience until the day he finally does retire. A passing expression on his face will be blown up into major news - whether it means that he might be passing the ball or just passing gas, there is nothing that he does that won’t be analyzed in excruciating detail.
The fear at the back of a lot of minds is that he won’t be able to play. The Broncos, prior to going all in on this deal, brought in one of the brightest young minds in physical training and conditioning in Luke Richesson. He brought his team, which includes the knowledge to handle injury management and correction. One of the three assistants he brought from Jacksonville is Anthony Lombardo, who has a Masters degree in rehabilitation sciences. Mike Eubanks has his degree in corrective exercise. There’s also Richesson’s top assistant Jason George, who has a Masters in Education with a double specialty in sports psychology and sports administration. This kind of in-house team goes a long way to extending the careers of players like Manning.
Every player has butterflies when they’re going to take that first big hit, and Manning is likely to be no different there, but he’s unlikely to need to talk that over with Jason George. Anthony Lombardo’s skill in rehabilitation will play its role in the drama that’s just starting to unfold, and assistant Mike Eubanks’s corrective exercises will also help support Denver’s new prize player. There’s a new hired gun in Denver. He’s got the knowledge, the skills, and the drive to bring Denver as high as the team can manage. How far that will extend remains to be seen, but I doubt that there’s a rational fan in Broncos Country who isn’t aware that Denver has better chances of winning throughout the season and into the playoffs than they had last week.
Denver had retired #18, the jersey number of Frank Tripucka, but Manning had worn it throughout his professional career. True to how he’s handled things throughout his professional life, Manning had a half-hour conversation with Frank before he agreed to wear the man’s number. He could have let the staff handle that - Tripucka had already commented publicly that he’d be glad to have his jersey unretired for this rare opportunity of the franchise’s, but that wasn’t enough for Manning. He quietly showed the kind of respect that is as much a part of the Manning legacy as his ripping into teammates on the sideline who show lapses in attention, technique, or talent. Manning wanted to talk directly to Tripucka, and at the end of their conversation, he walked away comfortable that he wasn’t causing waves or creating discord.
Denver’s receivers are going to be in the best shape of their lives. That’s partly due to the efforts of Coach Richesson and his team, but mostly due to the incessant nature of Manning’s practices. Peyton gets the receivers together outside of standard practice time and they throw and catch, cut and move on their routes until their timing is perfect and they can perform in their sleep, which the receivers are said to be dreaming of by then. Eric Decker has already offered to immediately start on the process. It’s long, and it’s arduous. Bill Walsh used to sneak his quarterback and receivers out since the NFL had rules (and still does) about how much they could practice, but the timing routes take longer than that provided to master fully. The Broncos receivers are about to get a lesson in what it really takes to win that they’ve never had or seen before. It will do the whole team good.
Of course, that was the part that Hollywood never really showed - the hours and hours of practice, drawing, aiming and firing in a single motion, with not an erg wasted, so that hitting the target was a predetermined outcome. Manning’s passing is much like that - his footwork is nearly flawless and his motion is tight, small-circle, and incredibly accurate. Now the old gun is coming back one more time, ready to show that he’s still the best.
Denver was fortunate enough to obtain him. One old gun recognizes another, and they team up together. This time, the pass is from Elway to Manning, to whom he’s passed the torch. From here on out, it’s up to Elway to give him the pieces, and to Manning and the coaches to put them in the right places and readied to win the whole rodeo. Can they do it?
Not unlike the old tales, that’s still why they play the games.