This is the end

Two years ago, Peyton Manning was the MVP. Now, he's just another fallen star.

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Two years ago, Peyton Manning had the greatest statistical season of his numerically dazzling career. You remember — he was 37 years old and two years removed from a horrible neck injury. People went into the season more worried more about his safety than his passing numbers. He threw for an NFL record 5,477 yards, threw an NFL-record 55 touchdown passes and was named The Associated Press Most Valuable Player for the fourth time. He carried his Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl, lighting up Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots for 400 passing yards and two touchdowns in the AFC title game.

This was, to repeat, just two years ago.

Time is relative. Two years to a 37-year-old quarterback is not the same as two years to a 27-year-old quarterback and it’s not the same as two years to my 14-year-old daughter and it’s not the same as two years to a newborn. This is the mistake so many of us make when looking at time. We see time like a hill gradually descending. Sure, as we get older, we will lose a little bit of our quickness, our strength, our flexibility, our hair every year. But it will be steady, progressive, and we will see the end coming.

No. Time isn’t like that. Time is more like that omnipresent movie scene where the heroes are in a raft, and they are racing uncontrollably through the rapids, and just when it feels like they have it a little bit under control, they find themselves going over gigantic falls. The freefall doesn’t add up in our heads. It doesn’t seem right. It just happens.

Two years ago, Tiger Woods won five tournaments and was the No. 1 player in the world. Now he’s 378th in the world, out with another injury, and he can’t make PGA Tour cuts. It makes no sense at all, right? How could Tiger Woods have collapsed so completely in just two years? You still hear people say all the time that Tiger will be great again; after all it was just two years ago …

Two years before Derek Jeter retired, at age 38, he hit .316, led the American League in hits, finished seventh in the MVP voting. Two years later, his slugging percentage was .313, he couldn’t get to a ground ball hit to either side and everyone (including Yankees fans) breathed a sigh of relief when he retired because it wasn’t any fun watching him play like that.

Two years before Jerry Rice retired, he caught 92 passes for more than 1,200 yards for the Oakland Raiders. The precision with which Rice ran his routes made him seem ageless. Two years later, the Raiders dumped him in a trade to Seattle — can you picture Jerry Rice in a Seahawks jersey? — and no matter how precisely he ran his routes, he could no longer get open. He caught 30 measly passes all year and then left the stage.

There have been some athletes who veered off into retirement before going over the falls. It looked for a while like Peyton Manning would be one of those athletes. There were clear signs at the end of last season that Manning was approaching the drop. In his last five games, he threw six interceptions, he missed a lot of fairly easy throws, his passes wobbled and crashed, he looked physically and emotionally spent.

Manning took some time after a dreadful playoff showing to consider his future, and there were those close to him who reportedly really thought he would step away. Why not? He’d accomplished everything. He seemed just the type to walk away, become an actor or a broadcaster or a billionaire or, heck, all three.  Why did he need to take any blindside hits?

Well, we don’t know how close he came to actually retiring. All signs suggest: Not close at all. A few days after the Super Bowl, he told the Broncos he wanted to come back. The Broncos said they were happy about it, but I’m not sure. They seemed ready to move on. They had hired new head coach Gary Kubiak with a whole new offense. They demanded Manning take a pay cut. It’s hard with legends. Everybody wants them to have the big movie ending with the rousing music and the ride off into the sunset. But you know it’s a lot more likely they will have the “All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup” ending.

The story of the Broncos this year came into focus more or less in the first week: Are they good enough to overcome Peyton Manning? That’s harsh but it’s exactly how things have played out. The Denver defense is insanely good. With DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and Malik Jackson, they might put more pressure on the quarterback than any team in the league. And you can’t run the ball against them. And they take the ball away. This is a Super Bowl defense when healthy.

Meanwhile, with running backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson and the Broncos’ long history of great offensive line play, the offense seemed set to play power football. And with all that defense and running, all Peyton Manning had to do was be a caretaker quarterback, something he should be able to do in his sleep. After all, what does a caretaker quarterback do?

1. Protect the football. For Peyton Manning? Child’s play.

2. Hit the play-action pass. So, so easy.

3. Convert third and short.

4. Lead. That’s pretty simple for a legend like Manning, right?

So, there was a sense that this could work. Everyone could see that Manning is not the same, but surely he could do those things. And the first seven games, well, Manning’s numbers were abysmal, and he often looked even worse than the numbers, and it was painful — physically painful — to see a legendary force like Manning seem so helpless. But guess what? The Broncos won all seven games. Yes, sometimes it was in spite of Manning. But that’s OK, it was working, sort of.

The last two weeks, though, it has become clear: Manning is not even good enough at his age to be that sort of caretaker quarterback. His arm is shot, of course. His legs are shot, of course. Now, he’s not even healthy, reportedly suffering a torn plantar fascia in his left foot in addition to a rib injury. But what’s harder to understand is that he now makes horrible decisions. His 17 interceptions are the most in the NFL. Of the 28 quarterbacks who have started at least seven games, only Nick Foles and Teddy Bridgewater have fewer than Manning’s nine touchdown passes. Manning has been particularly abysmal on third downs, and so the Broncos have one of the lowest third-down conversion rates in the NFL.

How can anyone make sense of Peyton Manning — a quarterbacking genius who built his entire career on being better prepared and two plays ahead strategically — now making dumb decisions over and over? I suspect it is because good decisions, like time, are relative. What is a good decision anyway? A good decision for Tom Brady isn’t necessarily a good decision for Matt Cassel. Decision-making as a quarterback requires a detailed understanding of teammates and the defense and the geometry of the field, of course, but even more it requires a sense of self.

Manning, alas, does not seem in tune with what his body can do now. Of course he doesn’t, he’s gone over the falls. When he tries to make throws that the younger version of himself might make, that no longer works. When he tries to overcompensate and make throws that suit his current arm strength, that doesn’t work either — because a quarterback with his current arm strength probably can’t be successful in the NFL. Against Kansas City on Sunday, Manning went five-for-20 with four interceptions, while playing with that torn plantar fascia and rib injury Several other passes could have been picked off, and it’s hard to imagine an NFL quarterback playing worse. The irony is that time can reduce one of the most brilliant quarterbacks in the game’s history so that he looks like a rookie who was plucked off the taxi squad at the very last second because of some sort of emergency.

The Broncos are now in a terrible position. The weather is turning, there’s no word on how much time Manning will miss, and barring some sort of unforeseen miracle, the cold and wind will only make Manning’s fall faster once he returns. Everybody on the team obviously wants him to succeed, but the more often he fails — the more often he plays like he did against Kansas City on Sunday — the less goodwill his teammates will feel toward him. Of the four things a caretaker quarterback must do, Manning proved he cannot protect the ball, hit the play-action pass or convert on third down. The last is leading. And you can’t lead once everyone has lost confidence in you.

Of course, there will be plenty of people who will insist that Manning will be great again. After all, he was the MVP just two years ago. He threw for 4,700 yards and 39 touchdowns just last year. It has only been two years. It can’t just end like that. But it does. That’s the cruelty of it.