NFL roller-coaster ride is rough on aging QBs
Manning washed up and spark plug at 39
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: email@example.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