In two weeks, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will take the field on the biggest stage of them all in the biggest media market of them all for perhaps his biggest game of them all.
Manning has led an attack on the record books this year, setting new NFL single-season records for scoring offense, passing touchdowns, and passing yards. He was named the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, made the Pro Bowl, was named an All-Pro, and will take home more honors as well, including his record fifth MVP award, which is just a formality at this point. He just played one of the best games of his life on Sunday in the AFC Championship game against his nemesis, the New England Patriots, completing 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no turnovers.
But none of that is the most remarkable accomplishment by Manning - in fact, it pales in comparison. Just two years ago this March 12, he was released by the Indianapolis Colts. Some now will tell you that if the Colts had kept Peyton Manning, they would have been playing in the Super Bowl in two weeks instead of the Broncos. There are a few (and thankfully only a few) that will tell you that Jim Irsay made the wrong decision releasing Peyton Manning. But the Colts wouldn't have been in the Super Bowl if they had kept Peyton. They would have been in the playoffs - just like they were this year. But the Super Bowl? It's hard to get there. Really hard. Just ask Peyton. Keeping Peyton would have meant keeping Jeff Saturday, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, and others who were released as a by-product of Manning's release and a transition to a new era. Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis? There probably wouldn't have been the money to re-sign them, and surely not them both. And Andrew Luck? He'd probably be in Washington or Jacksonville or somewhere like that.
It worked out perfectly for both parties to part ways. It wasn't easy for either of them, but the Colts have now put together back-to-back 11-5 seasons behind an incredible second-year quarterback and Peyton Manning will now be playing in the Super Bowl trying to earn his second ring. It doesn't make it easy, but it clearly has worked out perfectly. It's like being in a great relationship but watching your ex get married. You're absolutely happy for them and you're absolutely happy in your new relationship, but that still doesn't make it easy. Easier, yes, but not easy. It never will be.
What is easy to see, however, is that Jim Irsay made the right decision. Honestly, it seemed likely Manning would never play again. This wasn't the same situation as Brett Favre, a legend who went through a breakup with his longtime team because he couldn't really make up his mind. This was Peyton Manning, a legend whose mind was completely made up at coming back but whose body really wasn't cooperating.
Just two years ago, Manning missed the entire 2011 season after having multiple surgeries on his neck. He couldn't throw - like, at all. Someone once described it to me as "embarrassing" watching him throw. He was closer to calling it quits than most people realize. He had multiple surgeries, and none of it seemed to be working. Peyton's throwing was awful. He threw with his longtime friend Todd Helton, and he struggled even getting the ball to him. One more try, Peyton decided, and then if his arm couldn't come back, he wouldn't either. He'd be done. The Colts were sure he was. I was sure he was.
His comeback started by throwing to those closest to him. He'd spend time in the yard throwing with his wife, Ashley - his wife of 12 years this March. He'd spend time throwing with his father, Archie, and his brothers, Cooper and Eli. He went to work with David Cutcliffe, his offensive coordinator while at the University of Tennessee and the current head coach of Duke University, who just led the Blue Devils to a 10-4 season. Manning and Cutcliffe went back to the basics, with Peyton basically learning to throw all over again.
The Colts management didn't think Peyton would ever play again. His throwing was so awful for much of his final months in Indianapolis that it made it impossible to justify keeping him. If Manning wanted to try to keep playing, it would have to be elsewhere - the Colts didn't think he could play. But all of the sudden, his throwing began to come back. It was possible that he could come back. It was too late by then, however, as the decision to cut Manning had already been made and the Colts still had doubts. So on March 12, 2012, the Colts cut the greatest and most beloved player in their franchise's history.
Manning continued to work furiously to come back, and truthfully he has never fully came back in terms of arm strength. Doctors told him that he could play but that he would have to compensate through strengthening other areas, which Manning did. Manning finally reached a point where he was ready to put himself on the line and show himself off to teams. He lined up a lot of different workouts with different teams, and several teams were trying to sign him. Some of them - like Arizona and Tennessee - have fired their coaches since then. Others - like San Francisco and Seattle - are winning with young quarterbacks, one of whom Manning will face in the Super Bowl.
And then there was Denver. The Broncos were run by another legendary quarterback, John Elway. Elway was drafted by the Colts in 1983 but refused to play for them and owner Robert Isray. The Colts traded him to the Broncos, where he had a Hall of Fame 16-year career. He led the Broncos to 3 Super Bowls in the 1980's, but as his career was approaching an end he had still yet to win a ring. In 1997 and 1998, however, Elway closed out his Hall of Fame career with back-to-back Super Bowl rings. The allure of Elway - another legend who could understand Peyton - and the allure of how Elway's career ended were too much to ignore.
And now, entering his 36th game with the Broncos, Manning will finally get another chance at his second Super Bowl ring that he has been waiting such a long time for. He has played in four AFC Championship games, going 3-1, and will play in his third Super Bowl on February 2 (he is currently 1-1).
Indianapolis will be rooting for him. I'll be wearing my blue number 18 jersey in support, just like I was this past Sunday. I already think he's the greatest player of all-time, and the only thing the Super Bowl will do to affect that opinion is to either make it easier or harder to defend to the general public.
But regardless of the outcome, let's not miss the most incredible accomplishment in this. Two years ago, Manning was still a member of the Colts. The Colts management thought he was done. I thought he was done. There was even some doubt with Peyton as to whether he really was done. Trials make people stronger, and Manning has certainly come out of this stronger: he's much more family-oriented now, as he has two kids. He's still as classy as ever, but he truly appreciates it all more now than he used to. I remember after Manning's second AFC Championship in Indianapolis (not the first one), it looked like it was just another game to him as he stood on the podium after the game. By looking at him, you just got this feeling that all he was concerned about was the Super Bowl. Make no mistake - he's certainly one hundred percent committed to winning the Super Bowl with the same fire that he had while in Indianapolis. But on Sunday, it was clear that the joy was there, just like it was after his first AFC Championship. They both were against the rival Patriots and were both one of the best games Manning has ever played, and they both held special meaning to Peyton. First, he overcame numerous playoff losses to finally reach his first Super Bowl. Now, he overcame a serious career-threatening neck injury to get back.
In between, there was a Super Bowl loss to the New Orleans Saints. And as happy as Manning might be now and as much as he might enjoy it more, he has one goal: hoisting the Lombardi Trophy again, two days shy of seven years exactly after he first did.
This has played out as well as Jim Irsay and Peyton Manning could have imagined. "Hopefully we'll watch Peyton win immediately and that we'll continue to slowly build and find our stride," Irsay said in the press conference on March 12, 2012. He also said that day that "I want to see him come back and play great. There's no question about it. It's just here, like in 2001 when he was completely healthy and everything else and we didn't have everything to surround him. I want that opportunity for him as well, to succeed at the end of his career."
Nobody deserves this more than Peyton Manning. Nobody. I'll be rooting with all of my heart for Peyton Manning come February 2. I sincerely hope he gets to hoist the Lombardi a second time. And within a few years, Andrew Luck will get his chance to do just that as well. A win-win? Those don't happen often in the NFL. But this one was certainly one of those situations. I couldn't be any happier for Peyton - that is, except if he was still in Indianapolis. But the Colts clearly made the right decision, and I'll be just as happy when Andrew Luck gets a ring. But right now, it's Peyton's time, and he'll have the support of Indianapolis behind him.
Let's go Peyton. We truly enjoyed you being our quarterback. Thank you. Now go get that long-awaited second ring.