The conversation Peyton Manning needs to have with himself

Peyton Manning is 39, hurt, diminished and sidelined indefinitely. And that's a signal that he needs to have a conversation with himself that his father, Archie, had 30 years earlier.

Photo courtesy of the Denver Broncos
Photo courtesy of the Denver Broncos

(Peyton Manning photos courtesy of the Denver Broncos)

By Clark Judge

Talk of Fame Network

Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Walsh used to say it’s better to leave a year too soon than a year too late, and too bad Peyton Manning wasn’t there. Because Manning looks like a broken quarterback at the end of a career he can’t give up.

One problem: He has no choice.

If there were ever a doubt as to whether this was his last season there can be one no more. Peyton Manning … one of the greatest quarterbacks ever and a slam-dunk first-ballot Hall-of-Famer … must read the tea leaves.

It’s time to go.

I know, he’s hurt, and he’s recovering and when he comes back maybe he’ll be better … maybe he’ll be the Peyton Manning we fell in love with. Except he won’t, and we know it. And so does Manning.

The guy’s 39, for crying out loud, an age when most quarterbacks are TV analysts or driving the next fairway. Manning has been exceptional for nearly two decades, but he’s not exceptional anymore – and it’s not his last game that tells you. It’s his last 14.

That’s not an aberration. It’s a trend.

Including the 2014 playoffs, Manning over his last 14 starts has 13 touchdown passes, 23 interceptions, seven games with more than one interception, six with no TDs and a passer rating of 68.3. Worse, he just completed his first-ever Blutarsky, with a rating of zero-point-zero vs. the Chiefs.

Bad? Yes. Sad? Definitely. This is Willie Mays with the Mets, and Johnny Unitas with the Chargers, and, sorry, but I don’t want to remember Peyton Manning like that … and I won’t. But I also don’t want to see him try to recreate something that is no longer there.

That can’t happen while he’s nailed to the bench, and, fortunately for him, he’s there now and can take his time rehabilitating himself. But what happens if, say, replacement Brock Osweiler can’t cut it? Or, better yet, what happens if Osweiler can, and Manning wants to return? And who tells him he can’t?

I’ll tell you who: Peyton Manning.

“A man’s got to know his limitations,” Detective Harry Callahan said in the 1973 movie “Magnum Force,” and Manning should know his by now. The arm, the legs, the strength, the confidence … the whole package that made him one of the greatest quarterbacks ever … are diminished, and Manning has to know it.

I’m sure the heart is still there, but this is where the head must trump it. And the head should tell Manning it’s time.

And if it doesn’t? Well, then, maybe Peyton’s father can. Our Ron Borges was in the Minnesota Vikings’ training camp in Mankato, Minn., in the summer of 1985 when Peyton’s father, Archie, was a backup to Vikings’ quarterback Tommy Kramer. Borges was there to write about then-coach Bud Grant but, instead, wrote about his backup when Manning, who was suffering from a sore elbow, decided he couldn’t play anymore.

“So he went into Bud’s office,” said Borges, “and Bud said, ‘Can I count on you to be here every week?’ And Archie said, ‘I couldn’t honestly tell him that. And that’s when I knew I couldn’t play anymore.’ “

So Archie flew home to Louisiana, where he was met by his wife, Olivia, and young son and where he was interviewed on local TV. And it was there that Manning’s son said, ‘I think my Daddy is still the best quarterback.’"

It was Peyton Manning.

Peyton Manning was once the best quarterback. Heck, the guy won an NFL-record five MVP awards. But he’s not the best anymore … not by a long shot … and the conversation Archie Manning had with himself 30 years ago Peyton needs to have now.

No, I don’t expect him to up and quit in the middle of the season. But I don’t expect him to try to force himself on the field, either. When Manning threw for 340 yards and completed 72 percent of his passes vs. Green Bay earlier this month, supporters pointed to those numbers as proof that he’s not fading away.

Except that was after a bye, which means it was after two weeks off. I said then I wondered what would happen in the next month, but we didn’t have to wait that long. It happened last weekend, and no surprise there. The NFL is a cruel and unforgiving place to grow old for quarterbacks.

Archie retired at 36 when his elbow gave out. Concussions drove Steve Young out of the game at 38. The same thing happened to Kurt Warner at 38. And Joe Montana left at 38 after suffering through a career punctuated by elbow and back injuries.

It’s called age, and it happens. Tom Brady, who’s 38, says he wants to play another 10 years, and that’s great. Except he won’t. Because age … and injuries … will get him just as they have Manning.

Look, I understand how hard it is to give up a profession … and a life … you’ve known and loved for decades. I listened to John Elway who, at 38, walked away after his second Super Bowl victory and after a season where he was forced to miss four starts because of rib injuries.

He broke down as he announced his retirement, saying “this is hard,” but he did what he had to do because he knew Bill Walsh was right. And so does Peyton Manning. Only he’s a year too late.