Peyton Manning's Final Test: The NFL's Great Thinker at Super Bowl 50

Part throwback, part visionary, the Broncos' QB prepares for what may be his final game. How will he cap a career few can match?

Will Peyton Manning's final test come Sunday in Super Bowl 50? Credit: Justin Edmonds/Getty

Have you heard the one about the quarterback and the major surgeries? Guy goes into a doctor's office, doctor says, "You're headed for a hip replacement." Guy says, "Doc, I didn't ask you."

Not much of a punch line, I know, but now imagine it being uttered by Peyton Manning, that doughy face crinkled into a meme-worthy sourpuss, the sitcom-dad haplessness sharpening his reply the way it does in that insurance ad, the one where he's playing ping-pong against those kids in the garage and mutters, "Lucky shot."

This actually happened to Peyton Manning not long ago. (The hip thing, not the ping-pong.) He admitted as much at one of his multiple Super Bowl press conferences this week, and it wasn't intended to be a joke, because it attended a serious question about Ken Stabler and quarterbacks and potential brain damage. And yet Manning is so adept at self-deprecation at this point in his career that he turned it into a punch line anyway: New hip joint you sound so good. You can't help it with this guy; we've gotten so accustomed to hearing him utter catchphrases on our television set that everything he says, even the serious stuff, feels lifted from an episode of Modern Family.

Peyton Manning's body is in terrible shape. We know it, and he knows it, and he is beyond the point of attempting to deny it, and there's something admirable about that, the way one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history is willing to concede (and even make jokes about) the fact that he's on the verge of a post-retirement existence replete with doctor's visits and potential surgeries. He knows that if the Broncos have any chance of winning this Super Bowl over the Panthers, it will almost certainly be because of what his defense is capable of doing and less about what he's capable of doing, at least physically.

From a football standpoint, he has been stripped down to his essence, and that's what this Super Bowl ultimately means for his legacy: He is just a brain in a largely concave body at this point, his helmet perpetually darkening his vast forehead to a vaguely embarrassed shade of crimson. And if he wends his way through this game without sabotaging the Broncos' chances – if he just doesn't do anything dumb, and the defense comes through – it will cement his place as the most intelligent quarterback to ever play football.

This has always been his dominant trait, the thing that sets him apart. It's not like quarterbacks didn't study film before him – it's not like Johnny Unitas wasn't a football genius, too – but Manning elevated film study into an academic pursuit. He was the overpreparer, the one who knew more and studied more and did it more intelligently than anyone had before him. Those vocal audibles at the offensive line, the endless misdirection, the finger-pointing, the no-huddle offense, the O-ma-has tumbling from his mouth like the coded missives from a le Carré novel: This will forever be the signature of Manning's on-field presence. The way he micromanaged, the way he often drove his teammates and coaches to the brink with his insistence on precision and his historical curiosity and his overinsistence on the details of things: This will be Manning's legacy among those who played with him and coached him. He is the Mark Zuckerberg of teammates, a brilliant Type-A nerd who fundamentally shifted the league's balance of power, who enabled the trickle-down from coach to player.

"When he first started all that no-huddle stuff, it was going great, and Tom Moore [then the Colts' offensive coordinator] handed it over to him," says Phil Simms, the former Giants quarterback who will broadcast Sunday's game for CBS. "And I remember asking a veteran coach in the NFL at that time, 'Would you ever let your quarterback do this?' And he said, 'Are you crazy? I'd never put my livelihood in the hands of a quarterback.' Peyton started all that. And it took years for it to catch on. But now every coach is looking for that quarterback."

For a long time, we made fun of him for this stuff. For a long time, there was this sense – especially before he won a Super Bowl with the Colts – that Manning overthought everything, and we teased him like we used to make fun of the nerds in Eighties movies, before nerds consolidated all the power in our society. The knock on Manning was that he would never be as cool in the clutch – or as a cool in general – as Tom Brady or Joe Montana, that he would perpetually sabotage himself, that, as the NFL Network's Kurt Warner says, "he was not as good at playoff time [as Brady]." But just getting to this, his fourth Super Bowl, Warner says, kind of changes that.

Sometimes the Broncos' backup quarterback, Brock Osweiler, watches film with Manning and Manning will excavate a reference to a blitzing scheme he faced a dozen years ago; his quarterbacks coach, Greg Knapp, is constantly taking texts and phone calls from Manning. Boomer Esiason this week told the story of his old college roommate Frank Reich, who was once Manning's quarterbacks coach and recalled the way he would ask for a film breakdown of, say, a passing play the Steelers ran against the Dallas Cowboys in 1977. "You've got the easiest job in football," Esiason said to him.

"I've got the hardest job in football," Reich responded.

These are the kinds of stories that will carry down from one generation to the next once Manning is finished playing football (which may be the case as soon as Sunday evening). These are the stories people will tell in those gauzy NFL Network and 30 for 30 documentaries – regardless of the HGH issue that continues to play out in the background of his final act. This is the meaning of Peyton Manning as a quarterback, and this, again, is the argument as to why a victory at this Super Bowl would prove his coup de grâce. Because what he's done this season, in recognizing his own limitations, is cede all that power back to his coach. When his body broke down, he gave up his starting job to Osweiler; when Osweiler hit his ceiling as a young quarterback, Manning stepped back in. "This is Gary Kubiak's offense," Esiason says of the Broncos' head coach, and this, too, is part of the brilliance of Peyton Manning: He is a control freak who has subsumed his ego to the cause.

"I think if he wins this one, given the nature of how this season played out, it would mean something," Warner says. "Especially if it's his last game."

So let us presume that this is Manning's last game, regardless of the result. Let us say he walks away while he still can, before a hip replacement becomes an immediate imperative, before he takes the hit we all fear he will take, the one that may someday down the line wipe out that considerable intellect of his. Let us say that, win or lose, Peyton Manning fades out of professional football.

What happens to him next? Where is he in 10 years? The weird thing with Manning is that, given his family pedigree, anything seems possible. ("I think he'll own a team," says the NFL Network's Rich Eisen.) He is everywhere, in terms of endorsements, and yet, you could easily see him vanishing into a private life that has always been refreshingly secluded. Quick: Do you know Manning's wife's name, without looking it up? Do you know how many kids he has? The fascinating element of the commercials he does is that it always seems like he's this goofy unthreatening suburban bachelor who is a butcher-shop groupie and who goes to the movies by himself and who consumes chicken parm sandwiches alone in his kitchen while watching the local news. He has done something remarkable off the field, too, in that he has created an entirely new "Peyton Manning" character through his willingness to publicly lampoon himself. "You think I'm a square?" he says. "Fine, I'll play the square for you."

The real Peyton Manning, says Eisen, is a bit more mischievous than the Gomer Pyle he plays on television, more of a practical joker, perhaps at least a little edgier than we give him credit for. It was revealed this week that his favorite movie is Caddyshack, and that makes sense, because Manning seems cognizant of the irony of his fame. He is a control freak who charmed us with his white-bread everyman persona; he is an approachable goof who took football more seriously than perhaps any quarterback ever has. Maybe he loses the Super Bowl on Sunday in Silicon Valley, and maybe he loses badly, but maybe it doesn't matter, because the nerds have already taken over the world.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb