NFL roller-coaster ride is rough on ag­ing QBs

Man­ning washed up and spark plug at 39

The Denver Post - - NFL SUNDAY - By Nicki Jhab­vala

It took all of one game for Pey­ton Man­ning, play­ing his 18th NFL sea­son, to be de­clared done by some. He was washed up. He couldn’t hack it. He couldn’t and wouldn’t adapt to coach Gary Ku­biak’s sys­tem that re­quired a more mo­bile quar­ter­back with a stronger arm and quicker feet.

It took all of a quar­ter and a half, in his first game as an NFL backup last Sun­day, for the Man­ning of old to be res­ur­rected.

Many of the same procla­ma­tions were made in 2011, when Man­ning had four neck surg­eries and missed the en­tire sea­son as a mem­ber of the Colts. He re­turned, of course. Signed with the Bron­cos. Led them to Su­per Bowl XLVIII and shat­tered mul­ti­ple pass­ing records while lead­ing the high­est-scor­ing team in NFL his­tory. In 2011, he was out but hardly done. This time around, at age 39, and af­ter a string of in­juries that has af­fected his per­for­mance over the past sea­son and a half, the ques­tion that arose bash­fully has been raised reg­u­larly and of­ten: At what age does a quar­ter­back’s de­cline be­gin, and how fast does it progress?

A quar­ter­back’s ca­reer can rarely be con­densed into an eas­ily di­gestible spread­sheet. As this sea­son has showed, as those close to Man­ning agree and as past quar­ter­backs who have played into their 30s and even 40s know well, the roller-coaster ride of the NFL stops for no one.

Not even a fu­ture Hall of Famer.

The an­nual Pro Bowl trips were fol­lowed by brief get­aways. And then they were fol­lowed by trips to Bill Po­lian’s of­fice at Colts head­quar­ters. Man­ning, of­ten with a list of more than 20 talk­ing points that ranged from how his team prac­ticed to how it trav­eled, would pop in to chat with Po­lian, the Colts’ pres­i­dent at the time.

“It was like hav­ing an ad­vance scout who was out there talk­ing to peo­ple around the league and he’d come in with all th­ese ideas, some of which we’d im­ple­ment and some of which we didn’t,” Po­lian re­called. “A lot of the guys in Buf­falo would come in and talk about var­i­ous things — their own is­sues or stuff that they felt that we needed to do as a pro­gram. And that was al­ways valu­able. But not to the ex­tent that he did.”

“We all hit that stage”

The Man­ning mo­ments for Po­lian are trea­sured and un­matched and fit­ting of a player known for his ma­ni­a­cal work ethic. Through­out his NFL ten­ure, Man­ning’s mind has of­ten ex­ceeded his phys­i­cal tal­ents. And it has this sea­son per­haps more than any other as he’s played through a va­ri­ety of in­juries.

“If you’re ask­ing if he can throw the ball as far — any quar­ter­back, not just Pey­ton — prob­a­bly not. Can he run as fast? Cer­tainly not. Al­though in Pey­ton’s case that was never an is­sue,” Po­lian said. “Can he op­er­ate a game, can he mas­ter an of­fense, can he uti­lize his play­ers prop­erly, can he ma­nip­u­late a de­fense, is there any­thing a de­fense can show him that he hasn’t seen be­fore? The an­swer to all of those, is he can do any­thing that any­one asks him to do from a men­tal stand­point.”

With or with­out in­jury, the mind-over-body phe­nom­e­non is one that pro­longed the ca­reers of many quar­ter­backs. But the phys­i­cal changes of­ten have been no­tice­able long be­fore their ca­reer ends. War­ren Moon, a Hall of Fame quar­ter­back who played 17 sea­sons be­fore re­tir­ing in 2001 at age 44, felt his body break­ing down. But there was al­ways the ad­van­tage of ex­pe­ri­ence.

“What you don’t have in phys­i­cal abil­ity, you make up for with your men­tal ca­pac­ity, and I think that’s why I had great suc­cess at an older age,” Moon said. “The game was re­ally slow for me.”

Kurt Warner, the MVP of Su­per Bowl XXXIV, re-emerged as a 37-year-old backup turned starter to lead the Car­di­nals to Su­per Bowl XLIII, in 2009. Any bit of de­cline, he said, was grad­ual and min­i­mal and ex­pected, given his age and years of nicks and bruises.

When he re­tired in 2010, at age 38 and af­ter 12 sea­sons, he did so on his terms. Had he stayed in the game longer, even­tu­ally, he knew, the body would lose out. It al­ways does, even when the mind isn’t ready to give up the fight.

“We all hit that stage where we just can’t phys­i­cally do what we used to do,” Warner said. “Some stay closer to it and some can mask it with what they can do men­tally. But I think what ev­ery­body knows is even­tu­ally it’s go­ing to win.”

Moon over Min­nesota

Af­ter Man­ning was pulled in the third quar­ter of Den­ver’s home game against Kansas City on Nov. 15, his for­mer coach in In­di­anapo­lis, Tony Dungy, knew some­thing was amiss.

“I saw some things that I couldn’t ex­plain,” Dungy said, “and I didn’t know if it was be­cause of in­jury, and it did come out later that there were some in­jury is­sues.”

Man­ning played on a par­tially torn plan­tar fas­cia in his left foot, hin­der­ing his abil­ity to push off when he threw the ball. The throws he could pre­vi­ously com­plete of­ten were sprayed into no­man’s ter­ri­tory or, worse, into the arms of op­po­nents. In only nine games he had amassed a league-high 17 in­ter­cep­tions.

The ar­rival of Brock Osweiler was per­ceived, by many, as a de­mo­tion of Man­ning. Osweiler took over in the Kansas City game and held his job un­til the third quar­ter of last Sun­day’s reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale against San Diego, when Ku­biak turned back to Man­ning.

Al­though Man­ning’s play against San Diego quickly changed the tune of many who booed him off the field Nov. 15, he passed only nine times for 69 yards and re­mains a player com­ing off mul­ti­ple in­juries who is vis­i­bly un­able to do the things he so eas­ily could do two sea­sons ago.

“If he was 29, ev­ery­one would just say, ‘OK, let’s just give him the time that it takes to heal the in­jury, and then he’ll be back and he’ll be our quar­ter­back for the fu­ture,’ ” Moon said. “But be­cause he’s 39 years old and kind of in the twi­light of his ca­reer, ev­ery­one thinks his ca­reer is over, and that’s where I don’t think it’s fair for older play­ers.”

Af­ter two con­sec­u­tive sea­sons of 4,200 yards pass­ing, Moon suf­fered a col­lar­bone in­jury in 1996, at age 40, that forced him to miss the fi­nal eight games with Min­nesota. His start­ing job was handed to Brad John­son, and Moon was re­leased in 1997 af­ter re­fus­ing to take a pay cut.

“The pres­sure’s on you to go out there and play when prob­a­bly you shouldn’t be out there play­ing. And that some­times makes the in­jury worse,” Moon said. “So you put pres­sure on your­self, that I need to be out there on the field, be­cause if I show that I’m hurt, then they’re go­ing to start think­ing just what’s go­ing on right now, that your ca­reer is over.”

For Warner, the high ex­pec­ta­tions and re­quired de­vo­tion to the game took their toll.

“Just the prepa­ra­tion, the ex­pec­ta­tions and pres­sure and per­for­mance started to out­weigh the en­joy­ment of the game,” said Warner, who said he nearly re­tired years ear­lier when he was made a backup to Matt Leinart at Ari­zona. “I felt like I could still play and had a lot left, but just knew I couldn’t sit in that role. It would drive me crazy.”

Don’t take be­ing healthy for granted

Man­ning never dealt with a role change, un­til this sea­son. He was a backup last Sun­day for the first time since early in his ca­reer at the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee. Four­teen Pro Bowl selections, five league MVP awards, a record 5,477 yards and 55 touch­downs pass­ing in 2013 raised the bar to where it had pre­vi­ously been un­ob­tain­able.

Re­al­ity and ex­pec­ta­tion clash un­til one inevitably wins out. In­juries and age join forces un­til they inevitably de­feat smarts and ex­pe­ri­ence. For Man­ning, the fights are ones he’s never bat­tled in uni­son. But this past week, as he re­as­sumed his role as the Bron­cos’ start­ing quar­ter­back, some­thing had changed.

“Any­time some­thing is taken away from you due to health, it does,” Man­ning said. “Even though I’ve never felt like I’ve taken it for granted, be­ing healthy and be­ing able to play — when you’re not out there play­ing, it cer­tainly does re­mind you how for­tu­nate you are when you have the op­por­tu­nity to be healthy and be ready to play. That would be my mes­sage to all play­ers out there: ‘When they are healthy, be grate­ful for it and don’t take it for granted, be­cause when you’re not, it’s cer­tainly not as much fun.’ ” Nicki Jhab­vala: njhab­vala@den­ver­post.com or @Nick­iJhab­vala

“If he was 29, ev­ery­one would just say, ‘OK, let’s just give him the time that it takes to heal the in­jury, and then he’ll be back and he’ll be our quar­ter­back for the fu­ture.’ But be­cause he’s 39 years old and kind of in the twi­light of his ca­reer, ev­ery­one thinks his ca­reer is over, and that’s where I don’t think

it’s fair for older play­ers.”

Hall of Fame quar­ter­back War­ren Moon, who re­tired at age 44, on Pey­ton Man­ning

Pey­ton Man­ning, the No. 1 pick in the 1998 NFL draft, chats with then-Colts pres­i­dent Bill Po­lian in the Colts’ locker room in In­di­anapo­lis on April 18, 1998. Michael Con­roy, As­so­ci­ated Press file

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