So this is the Super Bowl at middle age: Bloated and unsightly and replete with adorable bouts of intestinal discomfort, the presumed last gasp of a gimpy quarterback-pitchman who admitted earlier this week that he’s well on his way to a hip replacement, a cranky defensive slog that felt like a throwback to the dead-ball Seventies era of the NFL and wiped the grin straight off the face of the most exciting quarterback to come along in a generation.
Long after Super Bowl 50: The Death of the Roman Numeral had ended in a 24-10 Denver Broncos victory over the Carolina Panthers, and long after Peyton Manning had somehow managed to shill for a watered-down beer that may be the only product in America he doesn’t actually endorse, the Broncos’ quarterback sat at a podium in the bowels of a stadium located a healthy 50 miles from the city it was purported to be centered in. Levi’s Stadium is everything you’d expect from a repository for professional football, all luxury boxes and bland corporate polish (this column coming to you live from the Verizon press level), and in the basement of this utterly dispassionate edifice, someone asked Manning how he felt, because that’s what television reporters do in situations like this. So Manning uttered some Nuke LaLoosh cliches, and then someone shouted the next logical question, which is whether he’d played last game as a professional football player.
The idea was to wring some emotion from a game that, at least for a television audience forced to endure both constipation and Coldplay, had been surprisingly devoid of it. Never mind that these were two first-rate defenses going head-to-head – ever since they altered the rules in the late Seventies to encourage more passing, the NFL knows full well what butters all those vegan hot-dog buns, and this was not it. In total, Manning and the Panthers’ Cam Newton completed fewer than 50 percent of their passes, and they threw a total of zero touchdown passes, which I believe is the first Super Bowl without a single touchdown toss since Trent Dilfer was a mere zygote. Maybe it was a good game, if you’re the kind of dude who gets off on complex blitz schemes and Wade Phillips redemption tales; but for the most part, this Super Bowl felt kind of like the embodiment of Manning’s physical state of being, a pale, gimpy Abe Simpson of a contest.
But anyway: Peyton Manning, being Peyton Manning, managed to answer these questions being fired at him without saying much of anything at all. He’s good at that, at playing the politics of the moment; he does Rubio-esque stump speeches better than Marco Rubio does. He knows how to play a character on television. He’s had years of practice, and he said he didn’t want to make a rash emotional decision, which is the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a quarterback who will go down as perhaps the most cerebral and logical man to ever play his position. But as you’ve probably guessed by now, that was kind of a letdown, too.
“Everybody has an analysis of that,” Manning said, asked again about retirement. “I think I’ll make a good decision, and I think I’ll be at peace with it whichever way it goes.”
And that was it; that was all we were getting for the moment. There would be no Shakespearean drama at this Super Bowl. There would be no neat little storybook ending. What was Manning’s best play of the night? It was the slant he threw on an otherwise meaningless two-point conversion that was one of his few completions of the evening. Otherwise, he did pretty much what he’s been doing for the majority of the season – at least when he wasn’t being Osweilered – which is to hand the ball off and make a few wobbly and dyspeptic throws and stay the hell out of the way of the Broncos’ defense, which will likely go down as one of the great units in NFL history.
It was the Denver defense that neutralized Newton, both as a runner and as a passer; it was the Denver defense (hell, it was one dude on the Denver defense) that made the game’s two most important plays. Malik Jackson recovered a fumble caused by the Broncos’ Von Miller in the end zone in the first quarter, leading to the Broncos’ first touchdown; and then in the fourth quarter, Miller stripped the ball from Newton again, leading to the game-clinching touchdown. Needless to say, the choice for Super Bowl MVP was pretty obvious, and it sure as hell wasn’t Manning, who threw for a total of 141 yards, which is the kind of yardage Manning used to accrue in roughly 87 seconds back when he had Marvin Harrison running fly patterns in Indianapolis.
I mean, Manning should retire, and everyone knows he should retire. I think Manning himself knows it, too; I think he just didn’t want to give us the satisfaction of a simple story, and I almost appreciate him more for that. But still, a comeback at this point would be the sort of exercise in hubris that has felled generations of athletes before him, and if Manning is truly to be recognized for his intelligence, retirement is really the only option. The game will go on without him at this point, and even if he was maybe the sixth or seventh most important factor in this championship season, the only thing that matters to his legacy is that he’s won two Super Bowls instead of one.
This is how America works, after all: We are not a nuanced people, which is how we wind up with Puppy Monkey Babies haunting our fucking dreams. Peyton Manning is a “winner” now, and Cam Newton is a pampered spoiled baby because…well, apparently because he didn’t dive headfirst into a pile of men much larger than him to chase after the football Miller stripped from him in the fourth quarter. This was everything the overzealous bandwagon of cranks and bigots riding Newton all season had been waiting for to prove their point, which is that Newton is all pomp and ego, that he isn’t “gritty” or square enough for their liking.
No doubt, we’ll be subjected to months and months of this idiotic argument, but this is the price we pay for watching the soap opera that is professional football. It breaks us down, it strips us of our dignity and it goes on forever, much like Peyton Manning’s season, and much like his expansive career, which probably (hopefully) ended last night. It was an ugly and intermittently bilious dénouement, and yet it was also oddly compelling; it was a reflection of our best and worst selves, and I am both thrilled that it is over and utterly excited for it begin all over again next fall, with or without Peyton Manning.
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