What makes a great comeback story? Is it the level of adversity? Is it the test of character and grit? Rarely do we get to witness stories that embody such virtuous elements. Peyton Manning’s 2015 season has all the right ingredients to make it the ultimate comeback story.
The Signs of Father Time
Father Time knows no boundaries. At times, we saw flashes of the old Peyton Manning. Other times we saw the effects of Father Time pulling at Peyton’s cape. Coming into the 2015 season, many had already believed that Peyton Manning was finished. Despite his early season struggles, the Broncos continued to win. After a 7-0 start, Manning’s true test of adversity began.
After dropping their first game of the season to the Colts, the bottom fell out against the Kansas City Chiefs. Manning threw four interceptions and was benched in the same game that saw him break the all-time passing yardage record. In the coming weeks, questions loomed about Manning’s health and if many wondered if he would ever see a football field again. Then, Al-Jazeera released a story insinuating that Manning had taken HGH as part of his rehab from four neck surgeries in 2011.
It seemed that Manning’s legacy was crumbling before our eyes. Brock Oswieler showed enough flashes to remain the starter heading into the last week of the season. This is where the story likely could’ve ended for Peyton. We root for great stories but often end up succumbing to the realities of life. Fate had different plans for Manning however.
Manning’s return to the field this season would’ve been enough to satisfy most comeback stories. His surprising return against the San Diego Chargers seemed to afford him a rightful conclusion to his career. For the first time in his career, Manning was a healthy backup. The Broncos offense sputtered to the tune of five turnovers. With homefield advantage dangling dangerously in the balance, Kubiak made a choice that set fate in motion.
“Sometimes you just feel as if the team is looking around for that guy,” Kubiak told media after the game. “That tremendous leadership type of stuff, that’s what I felt… My gut told me to turn it over to Peyton, let him lead this football team.”
“I saw him in the training room the whole time getting ready, and I can see it in his eyes like, ‘You know what, I can’t wait to get back on the field,'” Demarcus Ware recalled of their time rehabbing from injuries. “When he got that opportunity to get back on the field and all the crowd – the 12th man in the Broncos stadium – I can see it in his eyes like ‘he’s back.’ From that point on, I knew he was ready.”
Manning’s unlikely return sparked the Broncos to victory and ignited the start of an immaculate playoff run.
At every turn in the postseason, Manning faced doubt. Media pundits sang of his impending demise in unison. In the divisional round against the Steelers, the Broncos found themselves down late in the 4th quarter. The game saw a unique play where Manning appeared to be sacked, only to get back up and fire a pass down the field for a long completion. The play personified Manning’s roller coaster season. Like so many times before in his career, Manning led his team back. The Broncos defense would seal the win and launch Manning and co. to the AFC Championship game to face a familiar foe.
Against longtime nemesis Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game, many wondered if he could stand up to his counterpart that seemed to be defying age. For part of Manning’s career, the Patriots have been a thorn in his side. Poetically, Manning outperformed Brady that day and took his team to Super Bowl 50. Brady faced a defense that seemed much like the immovable one’s his team had when he and Manning played earlier in their careers. If he were to return to the big game for one final dance, the only team he could’ve beat would’ve been the New England Patriots.
“This victory is a great example of what this entire season has been like. It hasn’t been easy. It’s been a lot of different people stepping up. This game today was truly a team game.” said Manning after the game.
No quarterback in NFL history had won a Super Bowl with two different franchises. At the end of Super Bowl 50, Manning would become the first to do just that. A quarterback that carried his team to victory throughout his career found himself being lifted up by his team on the unlikeliest of Super Bowl runs. Manning now finishes his illustrious career with 200 total wins, the most touchdowns and yards in NFL history and 3rd most postseason wins.
Manning told SI’s Peter King the following after the win:
“I hadn’t been a backup, hadn’t really been injured. I played a long time, but I’d only seen it from one way. I know there are a couple scenarios that I haven’t been in, but I covered a lot of bases this year. Like I said, there is a real perspective to that. And it was really sort of educational for me. You know nobody loves the quarterback position more than me. Today, with the 50th Super Bowl and the league bringing back all the MVPs, I saw Phil Simms and I saw Joe Montana and Steve Young out there on the field before the game. I wanted so badly to find a way to be out there for that MVP picture out there with Eli and Tom Brady and Joe Namath. Impossible. There was no way I could do it. But nobody loves quarterbacks more than me and I think I have an even greater perspective and appreciation for the position after this year and I’ve stuck with it. You find out a lot. And it certainly ended up in a real good way today, didn’t it?”
For a player that has the most fourth quarter comebacks in NFL history, it’s only fitting his career would end with a comeback. This is the type of story that a Hollywood screenwriter drools over. They could now base it on a true story.