Imagine grabbing a football with two hands while you coordinate ten other players who cannot move a second too early. If the count is wrong, it’s a penalty. Then take carefully measured steps backwards while watching your teammates run in the opposite direction. Take too many steps, and you’re too far out of the pocket. Take too few, and the linemen overrun you. Look over each receiver running his route. If you look at one for too long, then a linebacker will watch the ball right into his hands. Look at too many receivers, and another defender will hit you from behind. Then throw the ball, in a manner perfected only after countless practice reps that measure exactly where the wide receiver will be at that instant in time. Throw it too early, and the safety is taking the ball the other way. Throw it too late, and the ball goes behind the receiver, and you’re the quarterback that missed the throw. Want to get it exactly right? Timing is everything. Peyton Manning is a master of timing. His snap counts, his mechanics, and his throws were all perfected with the technical and meticulous quality of a symphony conductor. Because of timing, now is exactly the right time for Peyton Manning to retire.
Not because he has won “only” two Super Bowls. Frankly, saying “only” in any sentence referring to the Super Bowl is ridiculous. So many quarterbacks spend an entire career trying to lead their team to one Super Bowl. Peyton plated in four. Plus he just shed the label of having won fewer than his brother Eli. Surely, his critics will certainly be quick to mention Tom Brady’s four victories, but Brady also lost twice in the big game and he was an ill-timed-pass-turned-interception away from being 3-3 (which suddenly doesn’t sound as good). Besides, players don’t win Super Bowls; teams do. Although the quarterback usually has the greatest impact on his team’s success, a Super Bowl record is not the most representative marker of an individual’s career. So lay off Peyton for settling for only 2 championships (else Dan Marino and Jim Kelly have something to say about that).
Not because his statistics leave any doubt. The most prolific passer in the history of the game, Manning’s records for yards, touchdowns, and MVP awards span a career simply unmatched in ability and longevity. Another couple seasons might have put him in striking distance of 600 touchdowns or 80,000 passing yards, two milestones inconceivable at the beginning of a career. But Manning’s accomplishments have already spoken volumes about his career; he certainly doesn’t need a few more numbers to state his case for posterity.
Not because we doubt his resolve. Much was made of his path to recovery following multiple neck surgeries that ultimately ended his tenure with the Indianapolis Colts. If he had retired then, we would have said the same great things about his career, just four years earlier. But Manning still wanted to play, and began anew with the Denver Broncos. After an unquestionably demanding and extensive rehab, Manning returned to prove he could once again play at the highest level. A record setting 2013 season capped off an amazing return from injury, even at age 37. Two seasons later he dealt with plantar fasciitis that sidelined him for a few games, but returned late in the season to make just the right plays en route to ensuring a playoff #1 seed, victories over Pittsburgh and New England, and a Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers. It took more than talent for this type of comeback. For every play on the field or story in the media, there were hundreds of practice hours, dozens of reps, and all the work behind the scenes that brought Manning back to the pinnacle of football.
Today in sports, we hear about an athlete’s “prime” years: the time when one’s physical capabilities are highest and one can maximize his career potential. It’s a window that seems to get shorter and shorter, with the next generation bursting on the scene earlier than ever. Age and injuries may eventually derail (or at least slow down) most careers; given these physical limitations, conquering the mental game is the true test of competitive greatness. When it comes to the mental game, Peyton has undeniably been the best. His memory for every formation, route, pattern, and play is unbelievable. The mental game is about preparation, about focus, about timing. And Peyton has proven himself the master of timing. Manning, nearing age 40, has already dealt with injuries. No one doubts his toughness, but his body may not be able to withstand the grind and physicality of a long season. So for Peyton, this is his time. Not because he has lost the drive to excel or love for the game. He made it to the top, had to start all over, and then got back there again. And his timing, whether hitting his receiver on a crossing route or bidding farewell as a Super Bowl champion, could not be more perfect.
So why is it the perfect time? Because while every athlete gets older, not everyone achieves the mental fortitude that enables success at the highest level for such a long career: the willingness to perfect every technique, the resolve to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, and the discipline to show up day after day to practice over and over until the game exists as an extension of one’s subconscious. Peyton Manning is nowhere near the physical ability of his early career. However after 18 years, he has definitively proven that he has conquered the mental game, the last and greatest accomplishment of succeeding as a competitive athlete. He has conquered the game, and he has won. He has nothing else to prove. As Peyton said during his retirement press conference, “18 is a good number.” Now it’s clear, 18 years was the right time. Because after 18 years, no one has done it better than number 18.