"The sheriff rides off into the sunset".
A sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer is calling it a career and congratulations are in order. He redefined the role of a quarterback in the NFL and shattered every passing record along the way. He was known just as much his intangibles as he was for the measurable. His claims to fame were timing and decisiveness, and he was celebrated more for his cerebral approach to the game than his overpowering arm strength (or the lack there of). Finally, when all was said and done, he went out the way every all-time-great wants to... on top.
Since the Peyton Manning's late season return from injury - albeit after a failed Brock Osweiler replacement experiment - the media has been pushing for a fairy tail ending to a historic career. The moment sports pundits realized that the Bronco's all-time-great defense was strong enough to carry the clearly hobbled, clearly diminished quarterback - that was obviously a shell of his former self - through the AFC playoff gauntlet and to a Super Bowl championship, this is the way everyone wanted to see the guy go. Admit it... most of this final run season was painful to watch. If it wasn't the floating deep routes - formerly routine completions to Marvin Harrison - that, now, never seemed to hit their mark, or the sight of Peyton taking hit after hit behind a suspect offensive line, the 2015 season was cringe worthy to say the least. Even Peyton acknowledges that his body was failing him; he hinted at the potential need for a hip replacement whenever his career finally came to an end. For him, the question of retirement was one of if not when.
But winning makes you forget all about that, right? There's something about hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in the air with the confetti raining down on you that makes all the ugly fade. Nobody remembers the journey, they celebrate the final destination. For Peyton, Super Bowl 50 was his moment of glory and his ticket to immortality. He was untouchable. The problem with Peyton, however, was that the road to retirement was far more rocky than even he expected.
The bumps began two days after Christmas as reports surfaced that a known supplier of human growth hormones (HGH) admitted to shipping supplies of the banned substance to Peyton's home. Under normal circumstances, this would have fueled a media frenzy; potentially the greatest player of the greatest sport in this country was accused of doping. This was football's Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, or Alex Rodriguez. The problem is nobody took the report with an ounce of seriousness. The claims were dismissed more because of the name of the publication - al Jazeera - than because of the substance of the documentary.
Everything made sense. Peyton had just come off what all expected to be a career ending series of injuries to his neck. He had irreparable nerve damage that rendered his sense of touch inoperable, he suffered from dead arm, and doctors said he would be lucky to ever throw a ball again. A year later he was breaking passing records in Denver. If the tell tale sign of Barry Bond's accused steroid use was his growing hat size, nobody could challenge the crown on Sir Manning's shoulders. All signs pointed to yes; however, the media laughed off the accusations faster than they appeared. For the record, Peyton issued a "heartfelt refutation" of the allegations. Seems like that was enough. If that was all Manning would have to endure, he could have coasted into retirement with ease. Except it wasn't.
A month later, even more damning reports arose that involved a University of Tennessee cover up of an alleged sexual assault. The culprit of said assault? None other than a Mr Peyton Manning. Here, he was accused of T-Bagging an athletic trainer while receiving treatment. Haven't heard of it until then? Of course not. The class action law suit claimed the University had a history of providing athletes preferential treatment in instances where rape arose. Mr. Manning was listed as one of those athletes that the University turned its head for. Surely, had the reports hit the mainstream media wire during his time as a Volunteer - a la Jameis Winston - his NFL career could have been in question. Instead, the University settled with the trainer and wiped any residue away before any harm to Manning's squeaky clean image could be tarnished.
Twenty years later, as Peyton retires, it is not being done with the titles of cheater or sexual abuser attached to his name - its "Champion". Nobody will question his character. Peyton is one of the most widely respectable, marketable, and likable players in NFL history - but then again, so was O.J. Simpson. He is a sure fire first ballot Hall of Fame player. He won't receive the Bonds, Clemens, or McGuire treatment - nobody will protest his entry into Canton on the account of swirling steroid accusations. His accomplishments will remain unblemished - there will be no asterisk by his numbers in the record books. he won't face the barrage of media scrutiny that typically follow players with similar run-ins with controversy.
The question at hand is "why"? Typically, the hot take media shark tank jumps at the smell of blood in the water. For Bonds, the mention of steroids completely ruined his name and tarnished his accolades. The sport of baseball has an entire generation of players who's greatness is now questioned. There are writers who - to this day - refuse to vote for any players from the 90's era because of widespread steroid usage. Even worse, accusations of sexual assault are career enders. In an era where the sanctity of womanhood has been placed on a pedestal by professional sports leagues like no other time in history, reports such of these should result in far more than the hi-and-bye coverage that its received up until this point. Name any other player that could survive being labeled a steroid user and a sexual abuser in less than a two-month period. But none of that matters now. The stories have lost their sexiness. The culprit has faded out of sight.
Peyton Manning's retirement is a product of his masterful timing and calculation that made him the all-time great that he was known for being. Peyton contemplated a return to action next year, but playing next year means facing steroid accusation and a potential character assassination. He will now be able to vanish as a news story. The University of Tennessee is still fighting to keep his name out of the rubbish, as they filed papers requesting to remove his name from the multiple examples of the school creating a hostile environment for women. Manning's name was the only name that received such treatment. Instead of being faced with ridicule, today's announcement will be met with cheer and celebration. He will go on to assume some high-level office job within the league while his Papa John's restaurants make him money hand-over-fist. His aw-shucks smile and likability will be his parting shots. Today, the sheriff chose to ride off into the sunset, and his legacy will be better off for it.