JOHN ELWAY IS sitting in his office, talking about the aging process for quarterbacks. Elway is perhaps the only other example of a great quarterback whose best years were his last ones. The key, Elway says, is not taking big hits and unnecessary punishment. By the end of his career, Elway would spend all week lifting weights, lying on the massage table, grinding on the treadmill, stretching -- stuff that Manning does now -- just to be able to sell out during the decisive moments, like his helicopter dive in Super Bowl XXXII against the Packers. This is partly why the Broncos throw so many short passes, why Manning releases the ball on average in a league-best 2.33 seconds. "Peyton knows he can't take those hits," Elway says. "He's not afraid to admit the fact that 'I'm not the tough guy that I used to be.'"
But there are times when being a tough guy is the only answer. With 1:55 left against the Chargers on Nov. 10, the Broncos were one first down from clinching the game. Manning faked a handoff and looked to Demaryius Thomas running a comeback. It was a slow-developing route, and Manning had rushers all around him. Nobody would have blamed him if he'd taken a sack and lived to fight another play.
But he stepped into the pass. He was hit, low and from behind. The pass was perfect, icing the game. But Manning had taken another shot to his sore ankles. The next morning, he was back in the MRI machine. The stat sheet read that he had 330 yards and four touchdowns. But really, the only thing that mattered was that he had sold out at the most critical moment. And once again, he survived. Barely.
SO FAR, THE defining moment of Manning's career has been winning Super Bowl XLI. But not for the reason you think. It wasn't because he stood in the Miami rain and held the Lombardi trophy that had eluded him. No, the defining moment was in the news conference afterward. He was asked the cliched question about whether the monkey was finally off his back, and he said: "I don't play that card. I don't play that game."
It was an epic rejection of the storyline that he had instantly become a better quarterback now that he had a ring. Manning has never judged quarterbacks -- including himself -- in the overly simplistic way that most of us do. He considered himself a better quarterback not because he had won a Super Bowl but because he had the experience of one more game under his belt, 60 minutes of added knowledge.
It's almost as if Manning knew then that he would be drawing on that knowledge now, when he finds himself again judged in simplistic ways. Those who compare him to his former self and mock his wobbly passes are missing the point. The point is that Manning is persevering because he no longer compares himself to his former self. He let go. In a very real way, he's no longer a mystery. He is as naked on each play as he was when he stood tearing up before the Colts game, spending everything he has, leaving it out there for the world to see.
THE WIND HAS long died down when Manning lines up in the shotgun. In the slot to his right is Ball. It's the third quarter against the Chiefs, the Broncos up 17-10. Manning has been slightly off tonight, but he's again starting to crack his own code. He's hit two short passes totaling 40 yards, setting up the Broncos at the Chiefs' 14-yard line on a drive that will end in the game's decisive touchdown.