Peyton Manning: In the end, it was all worth it

Feb 7, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) hoists the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 at Levi
Feb 7, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) hoists the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 at Levi /

When John Elway signed quarterback Peyton Manning, they set out with one goal — win a Super Bowl. Now that they’ve accomplished it, we can finally say, “It was all worth it”…

One game for the rest of your life…

One game for your legacy, fair or unfair. Super Bowl 50 was more than just a Super Bowl for Peyton Manning, it was a way for him to decide how he would be remembered as an NFL legend.

We all look fondly on the career of Dan Marino, but not having a Super Bowl title has almost eliminated him from the discussion of the best to have ever done it, fair or not. Peyton Manning, though he carried his Colts teams and the 2013 Denver Broncos to three other Super Bowls, had to be carried to his one title when the postseason rolled around.

Fair or not, Manning’s legacy was very nearly as the player who couldn’t beat Tom Brady. The guy who choked in the playoffs. The guy who couldn’t play in cold weather games.

Or worse — the guy who couldn’t show up and win on the game’s biggest stage.

Manning was nothing more than a game manager for the Broncos’ 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, but he didn’t have to be. The story of the game is Von Miller and the defense, but as the ‘starting pitcher’ if you will, Manning got the victory he needed to vault himself into an echelon of professional athletes that is almost unreachable.

Two titles with two different teams. Four Super Bowl appearances with four different head coaches. The oldest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl, and the most career victories (200) between regular season and playoffs combined of any QB in league history.

Not a bad way to go out, eh?

Though Manning has been non-committal about his future as of the time of this writing, it seems as though it’s only a matter of days before we learn that one of the greatest of all-time is going to call it a career after 18 glorious seasons. It’s clear that he made the right choice in not hanging up the cleats after his many neck procedures back in 2011-2012, but he would be kidding himself if he said he didn’t just win a Super Bowl on borrowed time.

How many NFL players can claim that?

How many legends get the opportunity to go out on top? All of us Broncos fans were jealous — don’t act like you weren’t — when Ray Lewis rode off into the sunset as a world champion with the Baltimore Ravens back in the 2012 season, Peyton’s first in Denver.

Speaking of 2012, it’s easy to forget just how long ago that actually was, and how far this Broncos team has come since then…

In a matter of about two calendar months, the Denver Broncos went from an AFC West championship team led by Tim Tebow to a Super Bowl contender with Peyton Manning.

Manning signed a five-year pact with the Broncos at roughly $20 million per season. At the time, it seemed a steep price to pay for a player coming off of as many procedures as Manning, especially at his age. Five games in, it almost looked like the Broncos had made a mistake.

Then came one of the greatest comebacks I have ever seen on a Monday night in San Diego…

Manning marched the Broncos back from a 24-point deficit, the largest in NFL history on Monday Night Football, and the Broncos went on a winning streak for the ages in what appeared to be a season of destiny before the Baltimore Ravens interrupted.

Sworn to avenge the phony loss in the playoffs, the Broncos came out in 2013 looking like the best team in the history of the franchise, albeit with some issues. Von Miller was suspended to start the year, and injuries started to pile up early, including a major foot injury to Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady.

Despite the highest scoring offense in NFL history, the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning — who threw 55 touchdowns that season — were crushed by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl 48.

John Elway saw that the blueprint of a high-powered offensive attack could be bested when Seattle laid the groundwork for the age old cliche — defense wins championship.

And so, to the defense he went, adding T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib, and DeMarcus Ware to an already up-and-coming unit. If the 2013 offense and revamped defense could come together in 2014, the Broncos would surely end their post-season woes once and for all.

Not so fast.

Denver’s 2014 season ended with one of the most embarrassing home playoff losses I can remember at the hands of Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. Elway decided John Fox and the previous coaching staff weren’t good enough to get it done, and he decided to bring in Gary Kubiak to run the show.

Kubiak made one of the most critical hires of the offseason by bringing in Wade Phillips to run the Broncos’ defense, and it appeared as though 2015 would be the Broncos’ last gasp at a possible title run with Peyton Manning, who was asked to take a pay cut in the offseason.

Manning played everything cool in the offseason, but struggled to the worst start he’s seen since his rookie season in the league. He led the NFL with 17 interceptions, and left the field in a home loss against the Kansas City Chiefs to a roaring crowd full of boos.

It was an all-time low for Manning, who was essentially benched for Brock Osweiler and given the necessary time to heal physically before he even thought about returning to the field.

The regular season finale brought a very unfamiliar sight to football fans as Manning suited up, only as the backup to Brock Osweiler. Five turnovers against the San Diego Chargers were enough for Gary Kubiak to pull the plug on Brock and put Manning into the game, and he did just enough to help the Broncos seal the AFC West and lock up the top seed in the conference.

Manning played the role of facilitator for the offense while the defense did work in the playoffs, first against two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger. Then came the defending Super Bowl champs and MVP candidate Tom Brady.

After two wins as underdogs, the Broncos were underdogs in the Super Bowl against the Panthers before Carolina had even finished its rout of the Arizona Cardinals. No one thought Manning could do it. Thankfully, they forgot about the rest of the Broncos.

The Panthers were overmatched against the Denver defense, and Manning did just enough to help the Broncos to their third Super Bowl victory in franchise history, and the first in his tenure with the team.

Most thought it would come much earlier, but it was worth the wait. Manning’s story with the Denver Broncos is one that has a fairy tale ending, and that rarely happens in pro sports anymore. So many athletes don’t know when enough is enough, and they retire or leave the game far too late. Manning has the opportunity to do it just in time, or on borrowed time, but whatever the case he is proving that in the end it was worth all of the heart break.

It was worth every searing loss. It was worth all of the pain of waiting through offseasons, wondering whether or not this would be ‘the year’. It might not have been as quickly as John Elway had hoped, but the result was ultimately the exact one he had planned when he drew up “Plan A”.

For that, no one should have any regrets.