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- Is Von Miller or Cam Newton the best
- athlete in Super Bowl 50?
- Ten tips to party like a pro on Super Bowl Sunday
- Feb 5:
- Carolina Panthers' Greg Olsen, Cam Newton increasingly on same page
- Panthers all-pro linebacker Luke Kuechly's interceptions are a bonus for Super Bowl 50
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- Carolina Panthers' defense intact for Super Bowl 50 vs. Denver Broncos
- Lights, cameras, action: CBS ready to televise a great show
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The stories tumble in from all directions. Those defining moments of Peyton Manning's career that provide snapshots of why there never has been an NFL quarterback quite like him.
In training camp two years ago, he worked with Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders on goal-line audibles for an hour — without throwing the ball.
When he first started his offseason throwing sessions at Duke, he yelled at good friend Todd Helton for cutting his routes short and demanded that better intramural league players be found. He once spent off days in Columbus, Ohio, throwing to rookie Anthony Gonzalez as the newcomer completed classes at Ohio State.
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Determination rages inside Manning's mind, leaving him searching for answers when others don't even see the questions.
At 39, looking to become the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl and the first as the starter for two franchises, Manning has been playing a kid's game for three decades.
He is looking for closure — at least it seems that way — in a career that will remain memorable regardless of who emerges the victor of Super Bowl 50.
Manning is not the last of the super geniuses, the quarterbacks who turned football into a science. But he was the first. For the better part of 18 years, he has been brilliant, consistent, the discipline to his craft extraordinary.
"The king of preparation," said Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian, who became close to Manning in Indianapolis. "No one ever prepared as hard or in more detail than he did and does."
Oddly, all the pieces began falling into place for a storybook ending on the worst day of his career. Seismic activity occurred Nov. 15 in Denver. Manning completed five passes and threw four interceptions, his last early in the third quarter against Kansas City. Soon after, coach Gary Kubiak benched the five-time NFL MVP, who finished the game with a 0.0 passer rating. A magnetic resonance imaging examination the next day revealed a torn plantar fascia in his left foot. It felt like a cruel end to a decorated career, a compromised Manning left to watch from the sideline, much like Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath at the end.
The six-week absence, though, served Manning well. It unburdened him from the tension after nine uneven starts, which included an interception in every game. Broncos fans booed Manning in his lowest moment. Brock Osweiler took over as the starter.
Peyton Manning in a backup role
While disappointed about his injury and about letting his teammates down, Manning trusted Kubiak's plan to get him back on the field. He began a stair-step program: rest, rehab, fieldhouse throwing sessions with practice squad receiver Jordan "Sunshine" Taylor, before suiting up as a backup for the first time since 1994 in the season finale against San Diego.
It was far from certain if he would play again as a Bronco. Osweiler, though, struggled against the Chargers, prompting Kubiak to call on Manning to pull the game out. The offense responded, the Broncos won, and Manning is on the doorstep of a movie-script exit.
"No question that this season has had some unique challenges. I have tried to stay in the moment. Even with all the different challenges, I felt I had a peace about it the whole time, not knowing how it would all work out," said Manning, who is in his fourth Super Bowl with his fourth head coach. "That has really helped me. I am not trying to get too reflective or look too far ahead."
The end is near. The signs are all around.
Manning reached out recently to his head coaches in high school, college and the NFL. Several good friends and family will attend Sunday's game, including Helton and Manning's brother Eli, who will be honored in the pregame as a former Super Bowl MVP.
"It will be special if I can be out there on the field with him," Manning said.
Even if it is not Manning's final game — "I think it's going to be the last stand for 'The Sheriff,' " said future Hall of Fame tight end and friend Tony Gonzalez — it sets up as his final game as a Bronco.
The Broncos are built around defense. The time has come for the team to make a decision at quarterback, with Osweiler a free agent. There is no room for Manning and Osweiler, given the money needed for free agents such as Von Miller, Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan.
Seven Hall of Famers have won the Super Bowl in their final game. But only one quarterback has done so: Manning's boss, general manager John Elway. It was Elway who lured Kubiak back to Denver with designs on creating a more run-heavy offense, the fuel in the Broncos only two Super Bowl championships. The scheme siphoned Manning's statistics. Two seasons ago, when the Broncos reached the Super Bowl, Manning posted a league-record 55 touchdown passes. This season, only one receiver caught a touchdown pass from him at home, Owen Daniels.
Broncos' new blueprint
In his absence, Manning, more than ever, recognized the team's blueprint. Run the ball, make a few passing plays downfield and trust the defense. The Broncos have won a league record 11 games by seven points or fewer this season.
Manning's role has been marginalized, but in this Super Bowl, at this juncture, it is not an unwelcome development. For the first time since he took over as the starting quarterback at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, Manning represents the underdog. Just like his team. It has been reflected in the Broncos' relaxed, confident nature leading into Sunday's game.
In his past 10 quarters since taking over for Osweiler, Manning has not thrown an interception.
He is a spoke in the wheel, no longer the hub. He doesn't have to be the star for the Broncos to win. He has accepted this, and with improving health appears to be peaking physically as he prepares to face a top-10 defense that devoured Arizona's 36-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer in the NFC championship game.
"This is as good as he's looked all year long," Kubiak said after Thursday's practice, the team's last full-speed workout. "You saw some big downfield throws. This is what Peyton looked like back at the start of the season."
Manning used to make quarterback play look easy. Then, after four neck surgeries, which caused him to miss the 2011 season before joining the Broncos, he lost physical skills. His arm, he admitted for the first time last week, never has been the same, affected by the nerve damage.
"My high school coach (Tony Reginelli) used to say that when I went left, it would be a lot easier if I could throw left-handed, if I was amphibious," said Manning, pausing for a laugh in a week that has featured more of his dry wit than normal. "I think he meant ambidextrous. If only I could throw left-handed, it would be a lot easier. But I have gotten to a point where I can manage it and be effective."
Brawn long ago vanished from Manning's game. He can succeed through efficiency. His mind is what matters. No turnovers is the mantra. He will be asked to diagnose the Carolina defense like a doctor reading results of an MRI exam.
Manning has said this could be his "last rodeo." Doing so seems to have uncomplicated his preparation, allowing him to enjoy the moment.
But wouldn't it be something if arguably the smartest quarterback ever provided one lasting memory for all fans to think about?
"I have said it could be, and maybe it will be (the end)," Manning said. "I get asked a lot about my legacy. For me, it's being a good teammate, having the respect of my teammates, having the respect of the coaches and players. That's important to me. I am not taking this for granted. I just love football. I always have."