End of the road

Walking away is never easy for the greatest quarterbacks to ever play

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First things first: Peyton Manning could decide to come back and play next year. Well, he could. Yes, sure, I think he will retire. Yes, most signs point to retirement. He already hinted at retirement when talking with Bill Belichick after the AFC Championship Game. It is being reported that he’s told close friends he will retire.

Most of all, retirement just makes sense. Manning is obviously not the player he was. He endured a lot of drama this year including, perhaps, the first-ever calls for his benching. And, for crying out loud, he’s playing in the Super Bowl. You cannot get a better final game, right? This is the perfect finish.

But if there’s one thing we know about great quarterbacks, it is this: There IS no perfect finish. Great quarterbacks never want to retire. People talk about how great it was when John Elway retired after winning back-to-back Super Bowls. What they don’t talk about is:

1. If it was so perfect, why didn’t he retire after the first one?

2. Elway really didn’t want to retire after the second one either.

We already know Manning, like all great quarterbacks, has an aversion to retirement. Who can blame him? Who wants to walk away from the stage when the mind is still young? Manning could have (and many thought he should have) retired last year, when it was clear that his arm was diminished, when the Broncos decided to go with a different coach and offensive system, when the time seemed right.

He came back for one more Super Bowl run, and, miraculously, it happened. A few injuries. A missed extra point. He made it. Certainly, now, win or lose, he should retire, he will retire, except it’s never that easy. Not for the best quarterbacks. Take a look at the greatest quarterbacks and the last game.

* * *

Johnny Unitas

Last game: November 4, 1973

The greatest quarterback of his time — and perhaps all-time — came in to replace a struggling Dan Fouts in a 19-0 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. He completed one pass for 7 yards. He also was sacked by Kansas City’s Wilbur Young and bruised his shoulder. Unitas never played another down in the NFL. He did not agree with that turn of events.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that they brought me here to sit on the bench,” Unitas said grumpily a few weeks later. “My understanding was that they brought me here to play football.”

Unitas explained that when he asked the Chargers why they benched him, the team said: “You need a good running game to be successful. And we don’t have one.”

“No one ever said that to me before,” a flabbergasted Unitas said.

Johnny U would hold out as long as he could. Even from the bench, he would not retire until July of 1974. Then, after admitting he had arthritis in his legs and did not want to be a backup anymore, he called it quits.

“I hate to quit playing,” he said. “I’d like to play another 30 years. But your mind is willing but your body wears out.”

* * *

Joe Namath

Last game: October 10, 1977

Broadway Joe’s last game was a Monday Night Football game in the mud and wind at Soldier Field. He was wearing a Los Angeles Rams jersey, which was weird, and he was terrible, which was not weird for those later years. Namath went 16 for 40, threw four interceptions, and was pulled for the final drive. His Rams lost to the Bears.

Namath also took what he called a series of late hits from Bears players. “People get away with cheap shots and it becomes one big war out there,” he complained to reporters. He asked the NFL to review the film; there is no indication that the league ever did. Namath’s knees flamed up a day later, he was benched, and he never played in the NFL again.

“I played poorly,” Namath said, summing it up. “And we lost.”

* * *

Roger Staubach

Last game: December 30, 1979

Roger the Dodger’s last game was against the Los Angeles Rams in the 1979 playoffs. It had been an unsettling season for Staubach. He played as well as ever, leading the NFL in passer rating and throwing 27 touchdowns against only 11 interceptions. But twice he was knocked out of games with ferocious hits. Nobody talked about head injuries back then, but Staubach sensed that something potentially irreversible was happening to him. His wife and high school sweetheart Marianne begged him to see a neurologist. Later, she admitted that she could not take watching him get hit any longer.

Rams defensive coordinator Bud Carson employed a unique strategy in Staubach’s final game. Los Angeles used seven defensive backs. This was more or less unprecedented. Staubach would admit that, with his receivers double-covered, he was a bit baffled. He completed just 12 of 28 passes.

The Cowboys got the ball back in the final minutes with a chance to drive for the game-winning field goal. Nobody was more renowned than Staubach at the last-minute comeback; one of his nicknames was “Captain Comeback.” But this time, he threw three straight incomplete passes and on fourth down the pocket collapsed and, in desperation, he tossed a pass to offensive guard John Scott.

“Wouldn’t it be ironic,” Staubach said, “if the last pass of my career was completed to an offensive lineman?” It was.

Staubach hinted about his retirement the next day but said he wanted to take some time to let the loss fade before making a final decision. On March 31, he retired and when asked if the five career concussions had anything to do with it, he twitched his head in order to get laughs. Yes, concussions were a different thing then.

* * *

Terry Bradshaw

December 10, 1983

Well, this was an interesting ending. Bradshaw had numerous complications from offseason elbow surgery and did not play in the Steelers’ first 14 games of the season. Steelers coach Chuck Noll, somewhat in desperation, watched Bradshaw practice during the week and decided to give the 35-year-old legend his first start in a year.

For Bradshaw, it was the culmination of a long road back. He wanted to play so badly, he tried everything to get his elbow healthy. Really. Everything. He tried acupuncture. He bought a $12,000 healing machine. And, my personal favorite, Bradshaw allowed a mystical myna bird named Rajah to sit on his elbow. Rajah, it was said, had magical healing powers.

In fact, Rajah’s owner, Colin Kerr, said that Rajah’s record of healing people was (get this) 2003-78-1.

Even now, I’m dying to know what the tie was.

“Maybe I will let it sit on my head so I can grow my hair back,” Bradshaw said because, you know, he’s Terry Bradshaw.

As it turns out, Bradshaw was terrific in his final game. I’m thinking Rajah counted it as a victory. Bradshaw completed 5 of 8 passes, threw two touchdown passes in the game’s first three drives and gave the Steelers a lead against the Jets they would never relinquish. That clinched a playoff spot for Pittsburgh.

But Bradshaw’s elbow was toast after those three series. He hinted at retirement for the next six months before finally announcing in July of 1984 that he was becoming a broadcaster.

* * *

Dan Fouts

December 20, 1987

Fouts was battered in his last game. The Indianapolis Colts sacked him five times and picked off three of his passes. It was the Chargers’ fifth consecutive loss, and Fouts’ offense — which had been one of the greatest in NFL history — spun in place. He threw just two touchdown passes and seven interceptions in his last five games in the NFL.

Somewhere during that Colts game, Fouts hurt his shoulder and was forced to sit out the last game of the season. He insisted, though, that he would return in 1988.

Three months later, though, he realized that his career was over.

“If you ask me in 10 years I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I still want to play,’” Fouts admitted. And he shrugged. “This body has taken as many hits as it can.”

* * *

Joe Montana

December 31, 1994

To so many, Montana never looked right in a Kansas City Chiefs uniform. But, in truth, Montana had a lot of success with the Chiefs. He carried the team to the AFC championship game a year earlier. And in this last game, a playoff game, he matched up against Miami’s Dan Marino and threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns. It wasn’t enough and a late interception at the goal line hurt, but Montana still looked good.

After the game, Montana seemed 100 percent certain that he would be back in 1995. “Oh yeah,” he said of coming back. “It’s like asking a fighter after he lost a championship bout if you’re going to fight again. Yeah, you feel bad, but I’m having fun. The game is fun.”

“If I was a betting man — and I’m not — I would bet he would be back,” Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer said.

Over the next three months, though, there was speculation that Montana might not return. Montana stayed silent, perhaps because he did not want to commit himself until he was absolutely sure.

“He will make that decision on his own,” Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson said in March. “The media won’t make it for him. I won’t make it for him. He might have already made it but he will do his own thing.”

As it turns out, Montana had made his decision by then. He said that he made his decision when he realized that he had absolutely no urge to work out. It also struck him that his children were afraid to jump on him for fear that they would hurt him. Also, he privately believed that the Chiefs were not good enough to go to the Super Bowl.

“It was almost a sigh of relief,” Montana said of the moment when he told the Chiefs he was retiring.

One irony: The Chiefs went 13-3 in 1995, the best record in football, and might, in fact, have gone to the Super Bowl with Montana at quarterback. Montana, though, would say there were no regrets.

“I’ll say it with no disclaimer,” Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster John Madden said. “This is the greatest quarterback who ever played the game.”

* * *

Jim Kelly

December 28, 1996

This was a playoff game against Jacksonville. It was a bad one. Kelly had a shovel pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Mike Simmons. “I was playing possum,” Simmons would say. Later in the game, Kelly was knocked unconscious on an attempted run and fumbled the ball, setting up Jacksonville’s game-winning field goal.

Several reporters joked that it would be ironic if Kelly did not even remember his last play. Yes, concussions were still a laugh-riot. On the bright side, according to news reports, Kelly was not fully conscious when several Buffalo fans booed him as he was carted off the field.

Barely a month later, Jim Kelly announced he was retiring. In too many minds, Kelly’s brilliant career was reduced to four lost Super Bowls and, at the end, a playoff loss.

“I don’t want to go out the way some other quarterbacks went out,” Kelly said. “I want to go out with some dignity, with respect from my peers, with respect from my teammates. I wanted to retire a Buffalo Bill.”

* * *

John Elway

January 31, 1999

Many people thought Elway blew it by not walking away one year earlier, after he guided the Broncos to their first-ever Super Bowl victory. That did seem like the perfect time to walk away. But Elway announced that he wanted one more year, with — as his agent said — an “option to renew.” That Broncos team, featuring an all-time offensive line and running back supreme Terrell Davis, was so good, you could see why Elway was tempted to return.

And it worked out perfectly. The Broncos rolled through the regular season at 14-2, dominated their two playoff games and then went on to win the Super Bowl against Atlanta. Elway was fantastic against the Falcons, throwing for 336 yards, scoring a touchdown, rushing for a touchdown and winning his first Super Bowl MVP award.

Again, it seemed the perfect time to walk away.

But as soon as the game ended, Elway began to waver. He had decided to retire but the temptation to go for three Super Bowl victories in a row — something no quarterback has ever achieved — was powerful. “This does put a kink in my thinking,” he admitted to the press after the game.

In May, after the thrill of the moment had settled, he retired.

“I’ll never be able to fill the void of playing a football game,” Elway said. “But it’s time. And it’s a great way to go out.”

* * *

Steve Young

September 27, 1999

In his last game, a Monday nighter at Arizona, Young threw a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice for the 85th time. Everything seemed normal. Then, with 28 seconds left in the first half, Young was knocked out by a blitzing linebacker. He was unconscious for almost a half minute and then he woozily got up to his feet.

“I was just saying, ‘Get up, get up, get up,’” 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said.

When he got to the sideline, Young said that he was fine and wanted to play. Mariucci, though, decided to “be conservative and keep him out.” It was Young’s fourth concussion in three years.

“I just sat there, got my wits about me, and actually felt pretty good,” Young said.

Two days later, Young went to see a neurologist. He still insisted he was fine, and Mariucci would not rule him out for the next week’s game. But Mariucci did throw out the possibility of retirement. That’s the NFL for you. He might play this week, or he might retire. I think that’s what the term “questionable” means.

Over the next couple of weeks, it became clear that a neurologist had advised Young to retire. But Young refused to commit. “Certainly in Steve’s mind, there’s hope,” Mariucci said in mid-October. “Somewhere he’s reaching for some hope that, ‘Hey, I’ll be back.’”

It got to the point where even San Francisco fans — worried for Young’s long-term health — held up signs asking him to retire. Still, Young held on to hope for months and months. He did not announce his retirement until June 2000. Young announced it in the team locker room because that is where he had put his body back together again time after time in his career.

“The fire still burns,” Young said. “But not enough.”

* * *

Dan Marino

January 15, 2000

This was the ultimate heartbreaker. Marino threw an interception on his first pass, fumbled the ball and had it returned for a touchdown and was generally helpless in the Dolphins’ humiliating 62-7 loss to Jacksonville. This recap from Philadelphia columnist and wordsmith Bill Lyron is worth reprinting:

“Marino was picked twice, stripped once. He doinked one pass off the yardage stick carried by the chain gang. Bounced another off a receiver’s ankle. Shot a couple into the third row of the No Tell Motel stadium.”

At halftime, Marino and coach Jimmy Johnson agreed that it was time to pull the plug. Well, by then they were barely talking — their feud had been all the rage in Miami — but Marino sat out the second half and watched Damon Huard endure the final three sacks.

“With considerable regret,” Lyon wrote, “you find yourself wanting to whisper to him, ‘It’s time.’”

Even so, after the game Marino said of his retirement, “Don’t even ask me that. I still think I can win.” A month later, he did get an offer to be a starter in Minnesota. But he decided instead to retire.

“Boy I really struggled with this decision,” Marino would say. “I’m going to miss it.”

* * *

Brett Favre

December 20, 2010

There had been so much drama in Favre’s final years as he kept retiring and unretiring like some over-the-hill boxer. So, of course, there was drama in his last game. Favre was not supposed to play in this Monday nighter against the Chicago Bears. Two days earlier, the Minnesota Vikings had declared him out. But Favre threw on the sidelines before the game and pronounced himself good to play. He came out and played pretty well, throwing a touchdown pass to Percy Harvin to give the Vikings the lead.

Then, with 11:27 left in the first half, Chicago’s Corey Wootton worked through the line and blasted Favre. It was the first sack of Wootton’s career, and the last play of Favre’s. He suffered a concussion. Two weeks later, the Vikings played the Lions, and Favre passed a concussion test late in the week, but he did not play. The Vikings finished last in the division.

Twice before, Favre had held tearful retirement press conferences. Twice before, he had come back anyway. But two weeks after the Wootton hit, Favre’s third retirement had no tears at all.

“This year did not work out the way we would’ve hoped, but that’s football,” Favre said. “I don’t regret coming back. … It’s time. I’m OK with it.”