If anyone can truly understand the trying position currently facing 39-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning, it’s Broncos general manager John Elway.
Once an NFL MVP and nine-time Pro Bowler, Elway successfully made the transition from difference-maker to care-taker as the Broncos won two straight Super Bowls during the twilight of his career.
Manning is attempting to do the same for what could be one of his last great chances to win a second championship ring. The Broncos take on the New England Patriots in Saturday’s AFC Championship Game.
“It is hard. And it is hard, the older you get,” Elway said, via the Denver Post. “And it is harder … all of a sudden to make that adjustment and start relying on other people, when you’ve relied on yourself for so long to be that guy who’s going to pull the trigger and be that guy in big games that has to pull it out. There is a transition to that. And it is tough.”
Manning has won a record five NFL MVPs, and he’s thrown for more yards and touchdowns than any quarterback in league history. But he also turns 40 in March, and his 2015 season—which saw him throw nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions—proved his physical skills are eroding at a pace his football genius can’t keep up with. Manning must now lean on the talented cast around him to get another chance at winning a second Super Bowl.
Elway can sympathize. During his final two seasons in Denver, Elway was provided with a defense ranked in the top two in scoring both years, while running back Terrell Davis rushed for a combined 3,758 yards and 36 touchdowns. Elway did his part, but he was just one piece in a much bigger machine.
Manning is slowly adapting to the part.
Last weekend, he helped orchestrate the game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Manning kept the drive alive with a 31-yard completion to Bennie Fowler on 3rd-and-12, and he later hit Emmanuel Sanders for a first down that put the Broncos into the red zone.
Just as importantly, Manning didn’t have a turnover. He played mostly mistake-free football, which allowed the Broncos running game and defense to control the contest. In the end, Denver forced a fumble to help set up C.J. Anderson’s go-ahead touchdown with three minutes left tin the game.
Will Manning need to make a handful of big throws to beat the Patriots on Saturday? Absolutely. Not even Elway will deny that reality.
But will he be asked to go head-to-head with Tom Brady in a quarterbacking duel? No. The Broncos can’t get to the Super Bowl that way, and both Manning and Elway know it.
Manning is Elway, just two decades later. Winning the grand prize can be done, but Manning must continue to follow the blueprint Elway drew up to end his Hall of Fame career.